KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Chiefs closed training camp Thursday, but the evaluation process continues the rest of preseason before the team sets the final 53-man roster.
Up first is Sunday’s exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers, followed by a week of practice. The Chiefs then host the Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 23 before the first roster cuts from 90 to 75 on Aug. 26.
The Chiefs close out the preseason against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 28, and then trim the roster from 75 to 53 on Aug. 30. The Chiefs can establish the practice squad on Aug. 31.
Meanwhile, there are numerous takeaways from the past 17 days of training camp practices – 20 when including the rookies, quarterbacks and select injured players, all of whom reported in advance of the veterans.
Here are positions and areas that stood out from training camp.
CORNERBACK IS FLUID
Left cornerback Marcus Cooper and right cornerback Ron Parker remain atop the depth, but the Chiefs worked Sean Smith, last year’s starter on the right side, into the rotation the final week of training camp.
The three took turns working with the first-team defense during 11-on-11 drills, but the Chiefs wouldn’t commit to if/when Smith would return to the starting lineup.
“I’m not going to say a mandate of when he’s coming back,” defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas said. “But when we open it up the first game, we’ll have our starters in.”
Of course, the regular season is less than a month away. And the Chiefs should have both cornerback positions settled before the first game.
A better indication of the direction the Chiefs are leaning between Cooper, Parker and Smith will likely occur on Aug. 23.
The third preseason game is widely viewed around the NFL as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
Cornerback Chris Owens is locked in at the nickel position.
The Chiefs would like to identify five cornerbacks for the active roster and will give DeMarcus Van Dyke and rookie Phillip Gaines a hard look. Vernon Kearney could also make a push.
The Chiefs are set with strong safety Eric Berry, provided his heel isn’t a long-term condition, and free safety Husain Abdullah.
Second-year pro Malcolm Bronson is a solid backup to Abdullah, and Bronson’s versatility offers an options at the nickel spot in the event of a Chris Owens injury. Bronson, who notched a 51-yard pick-6 in the preseason opener, is a more than capable fill for the injured Sanders Commings, who is currently recovering from ankle surgery and a fractured fibula.
The battle as Berry’s primary backup comes down to rookie Daniel Sorensen, Jerron McMillian and Jonathon Amaya, whom the Chiefs signed after Steve Gregory’s retirement. Sorensen started the preseason opener in place of Berry and has worked mostly with the first-team defense with Berry missing the final days of training camp.
TIGHT END IS A STRENGTH
The Chiefs struggled through injuries in 2013 at a position essential to coach Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense.
Travis Kelce landed on injured reserve following microfracture knee surgery and starter Anthony Fasano missed six total games (four to an ankle injury, two to concussion).
Both players are healthy and the Chiefs have an emerging Demetrius Harris to toss in the mix. Richard Gordon also showed consistency throughout the offseason workouts and training camp. Adam Schiltz replaced Sean McGrath, who retired from football the first week of training camp.
The potential at tight end has quarterback Alex Smith singing the praises.
“It’s definitely a position of strength,” Smith said. “Guys with a lot of different attributes and ability down there. Those guys are doing a good job, a really, really good job. We’re doing a lot of things with them, they have to know the run game and pass game protection. They have a lot on their plates, but they’re handling it well.”
The starting offensive line appears set with rookie Zach Fulton manning the right guard position barring a change before the regular season.
The first of two sixth-round pick joins a unit featuring left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Jeff Allen, center Rodney Hudson and right tackle Donald Stephenson.
Where the battles become interesting are at the backup position and the still unidentified swing tackle. The Chiefs closed training camp with 15 offensive linemen, and rotated players throughout team-related drills.
“It’s a matter of kind of mixing and matching,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “You want to see all your guys play and evaluate everybody. So there’s going to be a continual rotation at all those positions.”
Jeff Linkenbach, whom the Chiefs signed as a free agent in March, isn’t a given for a roster spot. The fifth-year pro is second on the depth chart at left guard, but will have to stave off the challenge from rookie Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.
Rishaw Johnson, who entered the offseason as the favorite at right guard, is second behind Fulton. Johnson is also being pushed by third-year pro Ricky Henry.
The swing tackle battle is between Ryan Harris, J’Marcus Webb, Ryan McKee and Otis Hudson. The team could also consider Linkenbach, who saw time at right tackle during training camp.
The picture at quarterback remains the same from when the Chiefs entered training camp with no real answer in sight outside of Alex Smith being the clear starter.
The Chiefs have a major decision on the horizon when it comes to Chase Daniel, last season’s primary backup, second-year pro Tyler Bray and rookie Aaron Murray, the team’s fifth-round pick.
Daniel offers the experience, albeit with a healthy contract, Bray brings tremendous upside and the strongest arm, while Murray was a draft pick.
To keep three or four? That is the question.
Dwayne Bowe is the clear No. 1 wide receiver and Donnie Avery the No. 2, and then it’s everybody else.
The good news for the Chiefs surrounds the depth at the position, an important aspect in light of Bowe’s one-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Avery and Junior Hemingway, the leading candidate for the slot position, are the likely starters when the Chiefs kick off the regular season against the Tennessee Titans.
A.J. Jenkins is a virtual lock to make the final 53-man roster, but the Chiefs are sure to give a hard look at Kyle Williams, rookie Albert Wilson and Frankie Hammond, all of whom enjoyed a strong training camp.
The Chiefs have lined up the wide receivers at various positions throughout training camp. And that’s not a surprise given what the scheme calls for.
“Basically in this offense,” assistant head coach/wide receiver coach David Culley said. “You kind of fit them and put them in the situation where you use their skills the best.”
The Chiefs finished training camp with 13 wide receivers on the roster, and Bowe’s one-game suspension could affect how many wide receivers the team keeps on the initial 53-man roster.
The Chiefs started the 2013 regular season with six on the active roster and on the practice squad. The team finished the season with five on the active roster and three on the practice squad.
DEEP LINEBACKER CORPS
The Chiefs already boast arguably one of the league’s top starting linebackers corps, a group that includes three Pro Bowl selections in Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson, and veteran Joe Mays.
Now toss in first-round pick Dee Ford, Josh Martin, Frank Zombo, the emerging James-Michael Johnson, Josh Mauga (groin), Nico Johnson, Alonzo Highsmith and Devan Walker, and the Chiefs have options to consider.
“You can’t have enough good players,” linebackers coach Gary Gibbs said of the team’s depth. “They’ll play. They’ll get their snaps.”
Hali, Houston, Ford and Martin have worked in the team’s version of a “NASCAR package,” a speed-rush sub package the players call the “dog front.”
The Chiefs are set at running back with Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, and then it’s tricky at the No. 3 spot.
Rookie De’Anthony Thomas is currently third on the depth chart, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be listed as a running back by the start of the regular season.
What the team decides to do with Thomas, who can also play wide receiver, will affect last year’s No. 3 Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight and rookie Charcandrick West.
McKnight’s chances may be hurt given he started training camp on the physically unable to perform list following a knee scope. He missed the preseason opener after returning to practice before the game, but hasn’t missed time since.
Gray turned in a strong performance against the Bengals, leading the team in rushing with 55 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. West’s chances of cracking the roster appear slim.
The Chiefs are set at fullback with Anthony Sherman.
MAINSTAYS ON DEFENSIVE LINE
Defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive ends Allen Bailey and Mike DeVito were the usual suspects with the first-team defense throughout training camp before DeVito’s hand injury.
Jaye Howard started the preseason opener in DeVito’s place and manned the right defensive end spot during the final week of training camp.
The Chiefs started and finished the 2013 season with seven defensive linemen on the roster. Poe, Bailey, DeVito and Howard appear as virtual locks.
The battle for the final three, provided the Chiefs go the same route as last season, will boil down between Vance Walker, Mike Catapano, Kyle Love, Jermelle Cudjo, Kona Schwenke, Dominique Hamilton and Jarius Campbell.
Catapano missed nine total practices dealing with a virus, while Schwenke missed the final week of training camp with a shoulder injury. Both did not play in the preseason opener with their respective ailments.
ROOKIES PRIMED TO CONTRIBUTE
First-round pick outside linebacker Dee Ford, fourth-round pick running back De’Anthony Thomas and sixth-round pick guard Zach Fulton are primed for immediate contributions.
Thomas brings explosion on special teams as evidenced by an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. And it was a virtual daily occurrence to see Thomas embarrass defenders in training camp with his speed on the edge.
Ford carries immediate value as a backup to Tamba Hali and he can play both sides of the line, giving extra value on the left side where Justin Houston calls home. The Chiefs also experimented with having Ford on the field at the same time with Hali and Houston.
Barring a collapse before the start of the regular season, the right guard position is Fulton’s to lose.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs have hopes for third-round pick cornerback Phillip Gaines. But he’ll likely fill a complementary role in nickel or dime packages.
Sixth-round pick Laurent Duvernay-Tardif came on late in training camp and could stick on the 53-man roster or be a prime candidate for the practice squad.
The jury remains out on what the Chiefs will do with fifth-round pick quarterback Aaron Murray.
Of course, there are undrafted rookies set to make a push for a roster spot, namely wide receiver Albert Wilson and strong safety Daniel Sorensen. The latter started the preseason opener in place of the injured Eric Berry (right heel) and ran with the first-team defense while Berry rested.
The other undrafted rookie making a push is covered next.
The kicker battle between incumbent starter Ryan Succop and rookie Cairo Santos will go to the wire.
The Chiefs have alternated kicking days for Succop, who missed four days of practice with a groin injury, and Santos in arguably the most heated battle of training camp.
How heated? Try neck-and-neck.
“I love watching the competition,” coach Andy Reid said, “But they’re so close every day, it’s crazy. They’re both right there.”
Santos clearly has the bigger leg, booming kicks during training camp from 50-plus yards with sometimes 10 yards to spare after crossing the uprights.
And the Chiefs appear comfortable going with a rookie if Santos takes care of business.
“If he wins the job,” special teams coordinator Dave Toub said, “we feel good. That’s what this is all about, this is what training camp is about, preseason, minicamp, we’re going to find out who the best guy is and go with him.”
Of course, economics could play a role if Succop and Santos finish tied when it’s time for the Chiefs to make the final decision.
The knock on Succop is his contract, which calls for a $1.95 base salary in 2014 compared to Santos’ $420,000 base salary.
OFFENSIVE PLAY OF TRAINING CAMP
The one play that made virtually every fan stand and offer a resounding cheer came on Day Four.
Wide receiver Frankie Hammond came open across the field from the left side and fielded a short pass in stride from quarterback Chase Daniel at the opposing 40-yard line during 11-on-11 drills. The second-year wide receiver had at least two defenders directly in front of him after making the reception.
He made one cut to shake a cornerback to turn up the field. Hammond then changed direction and cut across the grain between pursuing linebackers and the safeties before turning on the jets to put his 4.44 speed on display.
Hammond found daylight after he turned the edge and streaked down the left sideline, leaving defensive backs in his wake before crossing the end zone.
DEFENSIVE PLAY OF TRAINING CAMP
Day 13 of practice brought another episode of Texas on Texas crime.
Fellow Longhorns alumni, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Jamaal Charles, had a violent collision during the Pro Bowl.
A repeat occurred during 11-on-11 goal line work with the first-team offense squaring off against the first-team defense.
Quarterback Alex Smith threw a shovel pass to Charles inside the 5-yard line and it appeared a hole was present for Charles to walk into the end zone.
That opening closed in a hurry when Johnson streaked from his left inside linebacker position and delivered a bone-crushing hit on Charles that leveled him on the spot.
The hit drew immediate “Ohhs” and “Ahhhs” from the fans, while the defenders whooped it up, rushing to Johnson and offering congratulatory high fives and butt pats.
Meanwhile, Charles momentarily lay on the ground before slowly getting to his feet.
“They’ve got this Texas thing,” coach Andy Reid said. “You’ve got to look at the positive: Jamaal got up and his head was good and everything else so I’m good with it. That is going to happen out here.”
BEST QUOTE OF TRAINING CAMP
The Chiefs’ head coach isn’t known for being the best quote machine, but Reid’s sense of humor – when he shows that side to the media – is arguably one of the league’s best.
Such a moment occurred on Day 13 when Reid addressed a question on third-year guard Ricky Henry, who saw time with the first-team offensive line during 11-on-11 drills.
“He looks like Larry the Cable Guy and plays like Larry the Cable Guy,” Reid said. “He’s kind of a dirt bag type guy, he gets in there and he’s rough and tough and scrappy and all of that so that’s how he’s playing right now.”
Reid’s comparison prompted the celebrity comedian to tweet:
BEST QUOTE OF TRAINING CAMP, TAKE II
Inside linebacker Joe Mays, who dealt with a sore knee during training camp, offered this gem on Day Five of training camp, the day before the team took its first day off.
“Bubble bath,” Mays said on how he planned to spend the break. “Bubble bath sounds nice.”
The response drew laughter from the assembled media, and then Mays got serious.
“But I think I’m just going to try and relax,” he said, “get off my feet, definitely hit the cold tub and try to spend as much time with my family as I can.”
THE POWER OF THE NFL
The Chiefs closed training camp by hosting special guests from the 1st Infantry Division, aka The Big Red One, at Fort Riley, Kan., the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and airmen from Rosecrans Air National Guard Base in St. Joseph, Mo.
Arguably no other sport brings a taste of home for soldiers in a deployed environment like the NFL.
Maj. Ivy Williams of the 1st Infantry Division captured that sentiment after soaking in the final day of training camp.
“We call baseball America’s pastime for its richness and history,” Williams said. “We call basketball America’s game because it’s one of the few sports that originated in America. But football is America’s legacy, and we get that.”