Battles for jobs shaping up across KC Chiefs’ offense: some predictions ahead of OTAs

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·7 min read
Tammy Ljungblad/tljungblad@kcstar.com
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The Chiefs have some developing position-group battles on their hands ahead of next week’s organized team activities, or OTAs.

They’re scheduled to conduct 10 days of voluntary workouts — May 24-26, May 31-June 2 and June 7-10 — plus a mandatory June 14-16 minicamp ahead of training camp in July.

During what the NFL calls Phase III of teams’ respective offseason workout regimens — OTAs and minicamp — the Chiefs can conduct team-related drills (7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11) for on-field install sessions, but fully padded practices and live contact are prohibited.

That last caveat — no live contact — plays a large role in the evaluation process because members of the Chiefs’ coaching staff aren’t able to fully assess blocking and tackling: two critical parts of football. The team will be working out in shorts and helmets, but not pads.

A wide receiver may make a head-turning catch during OTAs, or a running back might burst up the middle through a gaping hole. But with defenders required to hold back until training camp, some of these plays will be a bit deceiving — things will look different in July, when everyone is buckled in and running full-speed. The time for players to really stand out and show what they can do will come later, during training camp.

Nevertheless, we’re ready to take a stab at predicting who will have an inside track to security on the team’s final 53-man roster ... and who might face an uphill climb to stick.

Today, let’s take a look at the offense (we’ll assess defense and special teams tomorrow).

QUARTERBACK (4): Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Shane Buechele, Dustin Crum

This one is pretty easy because the Chiefs are set with Mahomes as their starter. The battle will come behind Henne at the No. 3 spot, and it will depend on how many quarterbacks the Chiefs want to carry to start the season.

Last year, the team began the season with Mahomes and Henne on their game-day roster. The Chiefs then elevated Buechele from their practice squad to active roster in November after the Cardinals attempted to sign him. Buechele finished the 2021 campaign on the Chiefs’ 53-player roster.

WILDCARD: Likely none, unless the Chiefs want to go young behind Mahomes.

RUNNING BACK (7): Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ronald Jones, Derrick Gore, Isiah Pacheco, Taylor Fleet-Davis, Jerrion Ealy, Michael Burton

Edwards-Helaire, Jones and Gore projected as the top trio before the 2022 NFL Draft, and then the Chiefs added competition by using a seventh-round pick on Pacheco. Fleet-Davis, an undrafted free agent out of Maryland, is a smooth receiver, while Ealy will need to find a niche as a change-of-pace rusher or contribute as a returner on special teams.

Burton, whom the Chiefs brought back on a one-year deal during free agency, is locked in as the only fullback on the roster.

WILDCARD: Gore, who returns as a tendered exclusive-rights free agent, is a fan favorite because of his physical running style. But he will be challenged by the powerfully built 5-foot-11, 215-pound Pacheco for the third (and likely final) running back spot. And Pacheco will have his chances to supplant Gore in the pecking order.

WIDE RECEIVER (13): Mecole Hardman, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore, Corey Coleman, Josh Gordon, Daurice Fountain, Cornell Powell, Justyn Ross, Matthew Sexton, Gary Jennings, Justin Watson, Omar Bayless

Of all the position groups on the Chiefs’ roster, this one commands the most attention because Tyreek Hill now plays for the Miami Dolphins.

And it’s not just Hill. There’s been a lot of turnover in this position group. Gone from last year’s roster (along with Hill) are Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson and Marcus Kemp. Hardman returns and is joined by a host of newcomers, including Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling, Coleman, 2022 second-round pick Moore and Ross, a high-profile undrafted free-agent signing.

Gordon, Fountain and Powell, the Chiefs’ fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft, return after spending time on the Chiefs’ practice squad last season, while Sexton, Jennings, Watson and Bayless joined the Chiefs on reserve/future deals earlier this year after stints with other teams. Gordon, in particular, should benefit from a full offseason after splitting time between the active roster and practice squad last season.

Hardman, Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling project as the Chiefs’ top three. Moore should have an inside track as the fourth wideout, and then the Chiefs will need to decide what direction to go.

If the Chiefs elect to carry five or six receivers into the regular season, there will be heated competition for the final spots — and a number of challenges here bring legit NFL experience.

Of note, Hardman is entering the final year of his contract. He should be plenty motivated to put up good numbers in 2022.

WILDCARD: Ross will draw the most attention and there will be an urge in May to pencil him in as making the roster without the benefit of padded practices.

But don’t forget about Fountain. The team’s No. 5 or 6 receiver must be able to contribute as a gunner or returner on special teams (duties held by Pringle, Kemp and Gehrig Dieter in recent seasons). Fountain emerged during last year’s training camp after a successful rookie minicamp tryout and made the initial 53-player roster. He then spent time on the practice squad before being called up multiple times because of his ability to contribute on special teams.

TIGHT END (7): Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Noah Gray, Jody Fortson, Mark Vital, Jordan Franks, Matt Bushman

Kelce remains the top option among the group, and the Chiefs used a fifth-round pick on Gray in last year’s draft. Bell, a blocking specialist, returns on a one-year deal.

After those three, it gets interesting. The Chiefs elected to go with Kelce, Bell, Gray and Fortson to open the 2021 season. But Forston suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 6 and might not be ready for OTAs.

If the Chiefs are leaning toward rostering four tight ends again this year, Fortson’s health and availability in training camp will play a big role in determining where he stands among this group.

WILDCARD: Vital, a converted basketball player and member of Baylor’s 2021 national championship team, is an intriguing player. He spent time on the Chiefs’ practice squad last year, so he had time to develop and learn the system.

OFFENSIVE LINE (16): Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Andrew Wylie, Lucas Niang, Nick Allegretti, Austin Reiter, Darian Kinnard, Geron Christian, Roderick Thomas, Prince Tega Wanogho, Darryl Williams, Michael Caliendo, Christopher Glaser, Vitaliy Gurman

Let’s get one critical factor out of the way: Brown still hasn’t signed his franchise tender.

Because Brown, the team’s starting left tackle, isn’t officially under contract, he doesn’t have to attend OTAs or even the Chiefs’ mandatory three-day minicamp. The Chiefs and Brown have until July 15 to come to agreement on a long-term deal, or he would play the coming season under the franchise tag (provided he signs it).

With Brown included, four of the five starting positions along the O-line are locked in: Brown at left tackle, Thuney at left guard, Humphrey at center and Smith at right guard.

Right tackle is less certain. The veteran Wylie should hold things down into training camp while Niang recuperates from a torn patellar tendon, an injury he sustained during the regular-season finale. The Chiefs bolstered competition at this spot by using a fifth-round draft pick on Kinnard last month.

The Chiefs typically carried 9-10 offensive linemen on their active 53-man roster last season, so there will be competition across the board for backup spots.

WILDCARD: The makeup of the Chiefs’ front five truly hinges on two things: Brown’s status and Niang’s health. The Chiefs signed Christian to a one-year deal during free agency, and he provides flexibility as a swing tackle for OTAs in the event Brown isn’t around or there’s a delay in signing Brown to that long-term deal (or the franchise tag) by July 15.

As for right tackle, the Chiefs should be fine. Wylie started seven games at that spot last season, and Kinnard will have opportunities to compete.