Rosterology: Where Position Battles Stand Eight Practices Into Chiefs’ Training Camp

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s nearly the midpoint of the Chiefs’ training camp with eight practices down, and when the club returns to work on Saturday they will have just four more workout sessions before heading to Chicago next Saturday for their preseason opener.

And with left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and freshly signed free-agent defensive Carlos Dunlap both now in St. Joseph, it’s a good time to stack up the Chiefs roster to see who has compiled a compelling resume to make the 53-player roster on Aug. 30.

So far the battles at wide receiver, running back and cornerback have been as competitive as expected, and a plethora of players, rookies and veterans alike, have impressed during the camp. In fact, it’s hard to identify any player who has looked overmatched or out of place in this camp, which is a testament to general manager Brett Veach and his personnel staff for rounding out a competitive 90-player roster.

Who has made their case thus far and who still has work to do? Here’s my stab based on what I’ve seen in St. Joseph during the past 13 days.

QUARTERBACKS (2)
On the roster: Patrick Mahomes and Chad Henne
In the mix: Shane Buechele
Camp competition: Dustin Crum

There’s no doubt Henne is the backup behind Mahomes, and while Buechele and Crum have shared third-string duties during camp, Buechele remains the favorite here. Exposing Buechele to waivers in a bid to sign him to the practice squad is a moderate risk after the Chiefs elevated him to the active roster last season amid interest from other clubs. The attension in Buechele arose, however, after quarterback injuries around the league, so the interest from other teams should be lower at this point in the calendar. Crum has shown progress but still needs polish.

RUNNING BACKS (5)
On the roster:
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ronald Jones, Jerick McKinnon, Isiah Pacheco and FB Michael Burton
In the mix: Derrick Gore
Camp competition: Tayon Fleet-Davis

Many questions remain unanswered about the running group, including the number of backs the Chiefs will keep and the order of the depth chart but one fact has become abundantly clear through the first eight practices of camp: Edwards-Helaire is the primary back, and while others will contribute this isn’t a running-back-by-committee. The position of Jones in the rotation seems to change on a daily basis but they may be less a reflection on Jones and more about seeing how McKinnon, Pacheco and Gore fit into the rotation and work with the ones. Pacheco seems ticketed for a spot on the 53 barring any issues arising in the preseason. The Chiefs will carry a fullback, so Burton isn’t going anywhere. If this group stays healthy through the preseason and other teams lose starting running backs, Veach may receive calls inquiring about Jones, who has a dead salary cap hit of $250,000 and $1.25 million in salary due in 2022.

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

The first four receivers are locked in but the fifth and sixth spots are hotly contested and far from settled. Watson has built the most compelling case, putting consistent behavior on tape all the way back to OTAs. He’s also an experienced special teams player, as is Fountain. On the outside looking in, Coleman has been very impressive at times during camp. His bid would be bolstered by winning the punt return job, but that bid has been undermined by some drops this week. Gordon hasn’t yet shown the explosiveness that defined his career earlier. Powell has demonstrated growth as a pass catcher and route runner since his rookie season but consistency remains elusive. Ealy possesses tantalizing speed and elusiveness but is making the transition from college running back to full-time NFL receiver and needs more time to season.

TIGHT ENDS (4)
On the roster: Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Jody Fortson and Noah Gray
In the mix: Jordan Franks
Camp competition: Matt Bushman

The question is how many tight ends to keep but four seems to be the right number. Kelce and Bell are roster locks, and Fortson has shown every indication of picking up right where he left off — on the verge of a breakout season — before an Achilles tear derailed his 2021 campaign. Both Franks and Bushman have impressed but Franks might be one of the more overlooked gems in camp. He’s made plenty of tough catches but this is a tough group to crack. He’s definitely worth keeping around on the practice squad.

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 Roderick Johnson and T Darian Kinnard
In the mix: T Geron Christian, G/C Mike Caliendo, G/C Vitaliy Gurman, T Prince Tega Wanogho
Camp competition: OT Evin Ksiezarczyk and OT David Steinmetz
Physically unable to perform list: T Lucas Niang

With Brown back in the fold, the starting lineup that finished the 2021 season is fully intact. Wylie seems to have nailed down the starting right tackle job for now. Johnson primarily filled while Brown was out and appers the front-runner for the swing tackle position but there’s a long way to go, and Christian has plenty of experience as well. Kinnard remains a project but is a likely candidate for the roster. Caliendo and Gurman are the most impressive of the undrafted free agents and have gotten looks with the second-team offense. Wanogho practiced for the first time on Thursday after starting camp on the PUP list so it’s difficult to see where he fits in at this point. Niang hasn’t returned to practice yet from his patella injury and could start the season on the PUP list, which would keep him out the first six weeks of the season.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
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 and DE Joshua Kaindoh
In the mix: DE Malik Herring, DT Taylor Stallworth and DT/DE Austin Edwards
Camp competition: DE Shalique Calhoun, DE Kehinde Oginni Hassan and DE Azur Kamara

This is one of the more difficult positions on the squad to forecast with Dunlap just arriving and new defensive line coach Joe Cullen still evaluating his group. The first eight names appear locks but the ninth and potentially 10th spots remain highly competitive. The likelihood of the Chiefs keeping only four defensive tackles is high with players such as Danna rotating inside and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo discussing the option of Dunlap playing inside as well. Stallworth has a small guarantee ($300,000), which is slightly less than the dead cap figure for Kaindoh (roughly $375,000). Nothing is settled here, however, and it’s still easy to picture the Chiefs keeping 10 defensive linemen with either five or six edge players.

LINEBACKERS (6)
On the roster: WLB Willie Gay, MLB Nick Bolton, SLB Eljah Lee, OLB/MLB Leo Chenal, OLB Jermaine Carter and MLB Darius Harris
In the mix: OLB Jack Cochrane and OLB Mike Rose

The Chiefs seem certain to keep five linebackers, including Carter, whose $1.77 million contract for 2022 is fully guaranteed. He expects to be a four-phase special teams player for coordinator Dave Toub. While Carter was the backup behind Shaq Thompson in calling the plays for the defense in Carolina last season, he doesn’t have extensive experience in the Mike position. The Chiefs view Chenal as a future backup for Bolton in the middle, but it’s Harris that may lineup as the most logical backup for Bolton in 2022. Lee is viewed as the team’s best candidate as a coverage linebacker on the strong side in passing situations while Chenal will be the downhill thumper in running situations and as an occasional blitzer.

CORNERBACKS (5)
On the roster: L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, Rashad Fenton (PUP), Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson
In the mix: Nazeeh Johnson, Chris Lammons, Lonnie Johnson, Dicaprio Bootle and Deandre Baker
Camp competition: Brandin Dandridge

The cornerback group is deep in competition if short on experience. Sneed, McDuffie and Fenton (when he returns from the PUP list) will be the starters. Williams is ahead of schedule in his development but still a developmental player making the jump from Division II Fayetteville State and playing just nine games the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Watson and fellow rookie Nazeeh Johnson have also had solid camps but still have room to grow. Veteran Lonnie Johnson, acquired via trade from Houston, has appeared lower on the depth chart but that could change in the second half of camp, especially after some rookies get some preseason action and either improve their odds or show the need for more seasoning. Lammons will make his roster case based on special teams. Bootle continues having a strong camp, especially as a slot corner. Don’t count out the former first-round pick Baker, either.

SAFETIES (4)
On the roster: Justin Reid, Juan Thornhill, Bryan Cook and Deon Bush
In the mix: Zayne Anderson and Devon Key
Camp competition: Nasir Greer

The top four seem safe best, especially Reid, Thornhill and Cook. Bush is an experienced special teams player and expected to be a four-phase player for Toub, especially considering the departures of Armani Watts and Dan Sorensen in the offseason. If the Chiefs can afford to keep five safeties, Anderson likely gets the nod.

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

No competition here, barring injury this is the crew again for 2022. Expect Pacheco to enter the preseason as the No. 1 kick returner, and a good performance would secure the job for him. Moore should get a shot at returning punts unless the Chiefs keep Hardman in that role. McDuffie is also a sleeper as a punt returner.