KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The long days of summer came to a close for general manager Brett Veach and his personnel staff this weekend as the Chiefs trimmed their roster to 53 players for the opening kicking off Thursday against the Houston Texans.
Now the Super Bowl title defense truly begins in earnest.
“It’s always a bittersweet time of year,” Veach said of Saturday’s roster cuts. “On one end, we’re certainly excited about kickoff on Thursday night, and on the other end you have to go through a weekend of making some tough roster decisions and calls with players that we certainly appreciate the hard work that they put in.”
Breeland Speaks “behind the eight ball”
The Chiefs raised eyebrows on Saturday with the release of defensive end Breeland Speaks, the club’s second-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. Speaks entered camp coming off a season-ending ACL injury last summer but couldn’t overcome the competition of free agent Taco Charlton, fifth-round draft pick Mike Danna and 2019 midseason addition Demone Harris.
Speaks arrived in Kansas City in 2018 with the club playing a 3-4 defense under former coordinator Bob Sutton. Following that rookie season, things began slipping away for the edge rusher.
“We all know that he came in a little out of shape the next year, and then he had the injury,” Veach said. “I think when you get behind the eight-ball in professional football it’s tough, then when you get behind the eight-ball on a roster with a deep defensive line it’s even tougher.”
A trimmed-down Speaks arrived for camp this season and competed for a spot. It wasn’t enough, however, at what Veach describes as likely the team’s deepest position group.
“It was just one of those scenarios for him where having the year off, having to go through a lengthy rehab process and going out there competing against a deep defensive line was a tough ask,” Veach said. “He competed his tail off and I’m sure he’ll learn a lot from this experience here and it will help him in the future.”
Standing pat at cornerback
While defensive line is one of the Chiefs’ deepest and most experience position groups, cornerback is arguably at the other end of the spectrum, especially with Bashaud Breeland serving a four-game suspension starting the season.
But while the Chiefs have made a move for training-camp additions such as Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne the past two season, Veach didn’t see the need to scour for reinforcements quite yet.
“We obviously always keep open dialogue and we’re always looking to improve our roster, and that was probably something on our mind early on in camp,” Veach said. “And as camp progressed and these guys really start to make some big movements in regard to their development, we became encouraged.”
The Chiefs list Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton and Antonio Hamilton as starters on their unofficial depth chart with rookies L’Jarius Sneed and BoPete Keyes backing them up.
Veach views Ward as an established corner, and the coaching staff is pleased with the growth and maturation they have seen in young players such as Fenton and Sneed. Hamilton has also impressed the club with his versatility since his offseason arrival.
“These guys have gotten better and better every week, and knowing the scheme and being in the Zoom meetings all offseason and knowing what our coaches are asking them, that’s going to be hard to replicate in a short amount of time.,” Veach said.
He didn’t shut the door, however, on looking at the free-agent market for experienced depth.
“We’ll continue to monitor that situation but I think we’re happy with the competition and the talent right now,” he said.
Undrafted rookies cracking roster
Three undrafted rookies earned spots on the club’s initial 53-player roster. Punter Tommy Townsend was a foregone conclusion, but defensive lineman Tershawn Wharton and offensive lineman Yasir Durant were more surprising.
Wharton, at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, impressed Chiefs’ scouts at the East-West Shrine Game in January, and continued standing out upon arrival in Kansas City.
“He was really twitch, athletic, worked his tail off,” Veach said “Then the next question is, ‘All right, wait until we put the pads on,’ and he kind of carried that over and was able to make plays. Then it was, all right, let’s see how he does against better competition. He’s doing this against the threes, let’s put him up there versus the twos and the ones.
“The kid just found a way to make plays and continue to get better and just answer the bell at each step.”
Wharton played defensive end at Division II Missouri S&T, but the Chiefs list him as a backup defensive tackle on their unofficial depth chart. He played both inside and outside positions during training camp.
“The next question will be, OK, can he can do it in a real game now against a team that is schematically doing things to put these guys in unfavorable positions,” Veach said. “That will be the next challenge.”
In Durant, a 6-foot-6, 331-pound offensive lineman from Missouri, Veach sees plenty of both versatility and upside. Durant played primarily tackle for the Tigers, but he’s played at guard as well during training camp.
“Still a long way to go with him in regards to just knowing exactly the ins and outs of all the checks and different adjustments our offensive line makes throughout the course of the game,” Veach said. “But he’s come a long way as well and he continues to grow and develop.”
Wharton and Durant are among a rookie class of eight making this year’s opening-week roster for the Chiefs.
“So far these young guys have done a great job of working through what’s been a really unique offseason in handling that adversity and responding and earning spots on a talented roster” Veach said.
Lack of deadline deals
Veach owns a well-deserved reputation as a wheeler-and-dealer, unafraid to make bold moves to bolster his squad in the trade market. In each of his first three seasons as general manager, Veach made cut-down deadline deals in picking up players such as Charvarius Ward, Martinas Rankin, Cameron Erving and Jordan Lucas.
Warning: It’s been 372 days since the last trade by Veach that wasn’t during the NFL Draft.
This time around, however, the COVID-19 pandemic dampened trade interest around the league.
“The first two offseasons, I would say by two or three days before the cut-down day, I think I’ve heard from 10 to 12 to 14 teams,” Veach said. “As of yesterday at cut-down day, I heard from one team.”
The lack of preseason games, offseason workouts and COVID-19 protocols impacting player movement made Veach and his compatriots wary of making deals for unknown quantities.
“It’s hard when you haven’t had these guys (on tape), and there’s still that aspect of still getting to know some of your young guys because you haven’t had them for the OTAs or the rookie camps,” Veach said, “Just getting to a point where you feel confident in your roster and where you are, it’s a big unknown to potentially make a deal or a trade for someone that you haven’t seen in over a year or you’re just basing it off of college tape.”
It’s all about special teams
Veach has said it many times and it’s worth repeating: players who win the battle for the final roster spots do it on special teams.
Case in point this year: Darwin Thompson and receiver Marcus Kemp.
Thompson entered with the upper hand over free agent addition DeAndre Washington due to his experience with the Chiefs as a rookie.
“Having been here a year, having gone through a Super Bowl run for us, being a contributor for us on special teams, he got some stiff competition from DeAndre but he was able to answer the call and hold on to that position,” Veach said. “That was a close battle but give Darwin a lot of credit for coming into work every day and staying focused on the task at hand.”
Kemp appeared a lock to make the roster a season ago before a torn ACL in a preseason game at Pittsburgh ended his campaign. The club declined to offer Kemp a contract tender in the offseason, making him a free agent. But the 25-year-old Kemp continued his rebab on his own, and returned to club in early August.
“He was one of our better special teams performers before he got hurt,” Veach said. “He came back – credit to the kid – the kid worked his tail off.”
Kemp acclimated to practice quickly and rapidly got up to speed. Byron Pringle secured the No. 5 receiver spot with his special teams play, but Veach and his staff vacillated on whether to keep a sixth receiver or add depth at another position.
In the end, it came down to one thing.
“We always talk about those tail-end roster spots to get on this team and to fill out those depth-level positions you’ve got to play on teams, and he’s a guy that does that really well.”