Rosterology: Bubble Battles to Watch as Chiefs Host Packers in Preseason Finale

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thursday’s meeting between the Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers marks the last chance for rookies and veterans battling for roster spots to make their final impressions, and there’s no shortage of positions to watch where performance or injuries could swing a decision or two for general manager Brett Veach and his staff.

The latest roster projection for Chiefs Digest projects seven spots on the initial 53-player roster that remain undecided or in competition heading into the final preseason game. NFL teams have until 3 p.m central time Tuesday to reduce their roster from 80 to 53 players.

While no starting jobs remain in serious competition, several backup roles remain open, including at receiver, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and cornerback. Special teams will also be critical for determining the final roles on the roster as many of the final seven spots up for grades will be starters on that unit.

Here’s my current projection for the 53-player roster based on training camp practices, the team’s first preseason game and discussions with team sources.

QUARTERBACKS (2)
On the roster: Patrick Mahomes and Chad Henne
Practice squad candidate: Shane Buechele
In the mix: Dustin Crum

The only possible surprise would be if the Chiefs feel the need to protect Buechele from waivers but that seems unlikely. Bueche should be safe to return to the practice squad as the No. 3 quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS (4)
On the roster:
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Isiah Pacheco and FB Michael Burton
Practice squad candidate: Tayon Fleet-Davis
In the mix: Ronald Jones
Injured reserve: Derrick Gore

Gore’s fractured thumb thins the crowded backfield a bit but doesn’t really sort out the question of whether the Chiefs can afford to keep a fifth running back. Jones has all the credentials as a member of the backfield — he’s 25, posted more than 1,000 scrimmage yards in two of his four seasons and owns a Super Bowl ring — but the depth chart tells a different story. Edwards-Helaire is the clear-cut No. 1 while McKinnon, Pacheco and Burton have clear roles. Where does that leave Jones? Unless the Chiefs find a trade partner between now and Tuesday or another injury occurs, Jones might be on the wrong side of the roster bubble.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
On the roster:
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman, Skyy Moore, Justin Watson and Daurice Fountain
Practice squad candidates: Cornell Powell, Jerrion Ealy and Aaron Parker
In the mix: Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman

What started camp as the top four has eventually become the top five. Watson has differentiated himself as the fifth member of the group through both his play on offense and special teams, where coordinator Dave Toub has him as one of the team’s top gunners. It’s a deep group competing for the sixth spot — and that’s assuming the Chiefs keep six receivers. Fountain appears to have the edge based on offensive snap counts and special teams. Gordon, Coleman and Powell have all had good moments at times but inconsistency has been the issue. Ealy and Parker are strong practice squad candidates as well.

TIGHT ENDS (4)
On the roster:
Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Jody Fortson and Noah Gray
Practice squad candidates: Jordan Franks and Matt Bushman

Bell’s injury complicates the issues at tight end but shouldn’t change the numbers for the initial 53-player roster. Bell most likely heads to injured reserve after making the squad so he can be designated to return later in the season. That could open up a roster spot at another crowded position — the Chiefs have a number crunch at running back and linebacker. Or Veach could continue searching for another tight end in the mold of Bell, a big body who can block as well as catch the occasional pass. That doesn’t exactly describe Fortson or Gray. The Chiefs have more work to do at this position with Bell out for an extended period of time.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
On the roster:
LT Orlando Brown Jr., LG Joe Thuney, C Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith and RT Andrew Wylie, G/C Nick Allegretti, C/G Austin Reiter, T Geron Christian and T Prince Tega Wanogho
Practice squad candidates: G/C Vitaliy Gurman, G/C Mike Caliendo and T Darian Kinnard
In the mix: T Roderick Johnson
Physically unable to perform list: T Lucas Niang

Nothing will change the top six linemen for sure but everything remains in flux after that. The Chiefs will likely keep nine or 10 offensive linemen to start the season depending on how other position groups shake out. The challenge is that no one appears to have separated themselves at this point. Christian has valuable NFL experience and is the best equipped as a swing tackle. Wanogho started camp on the PUP list and has steadily climbed the depth chart — he will likely play left tackle with the No. 2 line Thursday night, a good indication of his position on the depth chart. The fifth-round pick Kinnard remains an enigma — he’s been buried on the third-team offensive line and hasn’t shown the progress yet to move up the chart. Gurman and Caliendo have had better camps and made their case for the roster. Reiter is another interesting case — at age 30 his opportunities to be a starter are dwindling, and with injuries popping up on the interior around the league, Veach may receive calls about his availability.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)
On the roster:
DE Frank Clark, DT Chris Jones, DT Derrick Nnadi, DE Mike Danna, DE George Karlaftis, DE Carlos Dunlap, DT Tershawn Wharton, DT Khalen Saunders, DT Danny Shelton and DE Malik Herring
Practice squad candidates: DE Joshua Kaindoh, DE Kehinde Oginni Hassan and DE Azur Kamara
In the mix: DT Taylor Stallworth and DT Matt Dickerson

Dunlap’s inflamed Achilles tendon and the late arrival of Shelton don’t appear issues with their roster candidacy, so the first nine names on the list appear fairly safe. The debate remains over the fifth edge rusher position with both Herring and Kaindoh mainstays on the No. 2 defensive line. Herring seems to fit well with defensive line coach Joe Cullen’s scheme but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if the club sticks with Kaindoh, a fourth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. If the Chiefs need to make a procedural roster move, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Chiefs cut a veteran such as Shelton or Reiter who isn’t subject to waivers with an arrangement to re-sign them after the reduction to 53 players.

LINEBACKERS (5)
On the roster: WLB Willie Gay, MLB Nick Bolton, SLB Eljah Lee, OLB/MLB Leo Chenal and MLB/OLB Darius Harris
Practice squad candidate: OLB/MLB Jack Cochrane
In the mix: OLB Jermaine Carter and OLB Mike Rose

This is perhaps the most difficult position group on the roster to handicap. Bolton, Gay and Chenal are locks but after that, it’s a difficult competition to judge. Harris is the most experienced backup at the MIKE linebacker role behind Bolton, although Chenal has taken more and more reps there as well. Lee can play both outside positions and is the team’s most experienced SAM linebacker. Carter is another versatile linebacker who can play inside or out and has a $1.7 million guaranteed contract thanks to his special team’s prowess. If the Chiefs keep a sixth linebacker, Carter should stay. It all likely comes down to the sixth linebacker, sixth wide receiver or sixth cornerback.

CORNERBACKS (6)
On the roster: L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton, Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Chris Lammons
Practice squad candidates: Nazeeh Johnson and Dicaprio Bootle

Fenton’s groin injury shouldn’t complicate this roster group much but it may reinforce the need for a sixth cornerback. Lammons has the inside track for the final spot as a favorite of special team coordinator Dave Toub but Johnson and Bootle also have strong resumes. Johnson has had a very good camp for a seventh-round selection and has consistently been a second-team defender. Bootle can play multiple roles and has valuable experience as a slot corner. Both should stick on the practice squad assuming they clear waivers.

SAFETIES (4)
On the roster: Justin Reid, Juan Thornhill, Bryan Cook and Deon Bush
Practice squad candidates: Zayne Anderson and Devon Key

Anderson earned a promotion to the active roster last season but the additions of Cook and Bush make that a more difficult challenge this year. Cook is an upgrade as the team’s No. 3 safety and should deliver plenty of speed and hit power. Bush is a special teams leader who has impressed the team with his defensive acumen. There’s certainly a possibility Anderson earns a spot on the 53 ahead as the 10th defensive back but it’s hard to see him displacing Lammons for now.

SPECIALISTS (3)
On the roster: K Harrison Butker, P Tommy Townsend and LS James Winchester

Butker’s sore ankle didn’t appear to be an issue when he drilled a field goal from 74 yards during pregame warmups against Washington. No competition here and no lack of confidence in this reliable trio.