After a full preseason and training camp, the Kansas City Chiefs are left with decisions to make regarding their final 53-man roster, cutting down from 80 players ahead of Tuesday's deadline.
Here's how I expect the roster to shake out as the team makes the leap down to 53.
Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
This is among the easiest groups to decide. Patrick Mahomes, the NFL MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP, continues his trajectory as he tracks to become the greatest quarterback in the history of football. Following him is Chad Henne, who was the hero late in the AFC Divisional Round game against the Cleveland Browns, making two massive plays late to ice the game and get to the AFC Championship Game. The veteran will continue to be a solid emergency option for the Chiefs, but he shouldn't be counted on to make the miraculous happen again. Shane Buechele flashed some real talent in the preseason, but I would expect the Chiefs to rightfully try to get him on the practice squad instead of awarding him an active roster spot.
Running backs (4)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon, fullback Michael Burton
There will be some controversy here because Darwin Thompson and Derrick Gore genuinely looked solid in this preseason. Both of them deserve better than this and hopefully can be on the Chiefs practice squad, but it wouldn't make sense to keep more than three running backs. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a great talent who will take the clear majority of the running back snaps and touches, Darrel Williams is a solid power back who has served this team well for three years and Jerick McKinnon brings a veteran presence and could be an impactful pass-catching option for the team.
Lastly, there's Burton, who comes in as Anthony Sherman's replacement after the Pro Bowl fullback played for the team for eight seasons and announced his retirement in March. Burton hasn't seen much of the field in the preseason, playing just 22 total snaps, but that is to be expected with a fullback in Andy Reid's system. Burton has done well in his limited time on the field, so I don't think the Chiefs will feel the loss of Sherman too much.
Wide receivers (6)
Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, Marcus Kemp, Daurice Fountain
This is where I will try to temper my personal preference a bit, as I would probably prefer to have rookie fifth-round pick Cornell Powell here rather than Marcus Kemp, Blake Bell, a fullback or an extra defender. Powell brings potential as a young, talented wideout, but it has become clear that all of those pieces are going to be on this team.
Also hurting Powell's case, it seems impossible to keep Daurice Fountain off this roster. Fountain has been an absolute stud in this preseason. He has led the team in targets, receptions and yards in the preseason with 16 targets, 10 receptions and 118 yards. With the way Fountain has played, he has to make this roster.
Marcus Kemp is pretty much guaranteed to make the active roster due to his special teams prowess and impressive receiving work against the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason finale. The Chiefs are almost certainly going to enter the season with Hill, Hardman, Pringle and Robinson as their top four wide receivers, so I would assume that completes the wide receiver room.
Tight ends (4)
Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Jody Fortson, Noah Gray
Obviously, we begin with Travis Kelce, the best tight end in the league and one of the most dangerous receiving weapons in all of football. Kelce is coming off of a record-breaking season with 1,776 yards and 14 touchdowns over the course of the regular season and postseason. He is a sure thing to dominate once again and continue his path to becoming one of the greatest tight ends in the history of the game.
Behind him, there are three different players all vying for the second spot and all seeming worthy of it. Blake Bell, who is more of a blocking tight end, returns to Kansas City after a year in Dallas, and he will likely have a role as the blocking-focused tight end. Jody Fortson, the receiver-to-tight-end convert should likely make the team after three impressive training camps in a row. Fortson has clearly improved his all-around game, no longer just being a pass-catcher. He has had highlights as a blocker and as a special teamer, earning praise from special teams coach Dave Toub in the process. The fourth player is Noah Gray, the rookie fifth-round pick out of Duke who could be a great receiving threat in the years to come. Gray showed it a little bit in the last game against the Vikings with a nice 23-yard catch down the seam. This is a fun tight end room that could do some damage and brings the goods in each area needed.
Offensive linemen (9)
Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Lucas Niang, Mike Remmers, Nick Allegretti, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Andrew Wylie
The Chiefs will finally lock in their revamped offensive line after cutdowns, and it should look similar for years to come. The additions of veteran Pro Bowlers/All-Pros Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney will shore up the left side of the offensive line and the string of rookies in Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Lucas Niang taking the other three spots bring the Chiefs a potentially dominant offensive line room that they haven't seen potentially since the legendary offensive lines of the early 2000s.
However, the thing that ruined the Chiefs' offensive line in the Super Bowl last season wasn't the talent on the starting offensive line, it was injuries to multiple starters, which forced multiple backups into the lineup. Thankfully, the depth of the offensive line also looks to be much improved.
The big debates for the offensive line will probably have to do with if Austin Blythe makes the roster, considering Nick Allegretti's ability to play center, and Andrew Wylie, the projected backup right tackle, against players like Prince Tega Wanogho, who has looked good at left tackle and can move Remmers back to right tackle, which may be a preferable place for him. I don't think the Chiefs will do this, but I would prefer Wanogho on the roster to Wylie. Wanogho seems to be a strong candidate to get to the practice squad and stick it out in Kansas City. Veteran Kyle Long can start the year on the PUP list, not taking up an active roster spot.
Edge defenders (6)
Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Mike Danna, Alex Okafor, Tim Ward, Joshua Kaindoh
There is a massive storyline at play here with Chris Jones moving to the edge and looking really good in the process after being the second-best interior defender in the NFL for two-to-three years now. With the way Jones looks on the edge, this could be a move that really boosts his career forward and maybe even increases his sack total.
On the other side of him will be Frank Clark, who still has plenty of room for improvement. Clark has shown what he's capable of in the 2019-20 postseason, but consistent production has not quite been there. Perhaps year three of the Frank Clark experiment can be the one where his talent blossoms into consistent, dominant production off the edge.
Mike Danna is coming off a solid rookie year after a tremendous college career. Danna played a bit under 400 snaps last season, so he definitely has a role as a good rotational edge defender. After Danna, the main rotational end likely to get snaps will be Alex Okafor, who hasn't been especially productive in his last two years with the Chiefs but is still a nice veteran presence who can flash some good ability at times. Finishing off the roster would be Tim Ward, who has had a nice preseason with a team-high three sacks, and Joshua Kaindoh, the rookie fourth-round pick, who has also had a nice preseason, with six pressures (tied for the team-most with Tershawn Wharton). This is a solid group here with high potential and good depth on the bench.
Interior defenders (4)
Derrick Nnadi, Jarren Reed, Tershawn Wharton, Khalen Saunders
With the move to the edge for Chris Jones, there needed to be a new pass-rush specialist to take his place on the interior, and that replacement comes with free-agent signing in Jarren Reed. Reed came from Seattle, where he put up good volume pass rush stats with the Seahawks, though the efficiency numbers were a bit less impressive. The hope will be that Reed can bring that efficiency up and keep the volume about the same with a potential better pass rush group for him to play with. Derrick Nnadi remains a stud in the run defense side of things as the Chiefs' highest-graded run defender from Pro Football Focus in 2020. While he won't bring much in the pass rush, Nnadi is one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in football and he still brings value there.
If anyone on the defense could supplant a starter on this team, I think it would be Tershawn Wharton. Wharton had some really impressive performances last season, even putting up some games with Chris Jones-esque production, and this preseason, he has been completely dominant as the Chiefs' second-highest graded defender behind Jones. Wharton has certainly shown that he could be a big-time player for this defense for years to come if he continues his trajectory.
Finally, there's Khalen Saunders, who had plenty of hype around him among Chiefs fans but lost it with a limited workload last season after an injury. There's still plenty of hope for Saunders, as he has talent and potential that is evident.
Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay Jr., Nick Bolton, Ben Niemann, Dorian O'Daniel
Anthony Hitchens remains the top linebacker on the Chiefs, entering his fourth season and the second season of the high-cap-hit part of his contract. Hitchens has continued to improve each season that he's been with the Chiefs, though his production hasn't fully matched his contract. As a result, the Chiefs have drafted linebackers in the second round in each of the last two seasons and they are both exciting prospects for the team. Willie Gay Jr. showed quite often last season that he is an athletic specimen who can make stunning plays for a linebacker, and he ought to be the best linebacker on this team for years to come. Nick Bolton comes in as a likely backup, similarly to Gay last year, being a second-round rookie. However, Bolton has shown he has a nose for the football and he does a great job getting into the backfield and stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage. Gay and Bolton both deserve to get decent playing time this year, with Gay hopefully being a starter.
Ben Niemann, who was the second linebacker on the depth chart last year, now stands at either third or fourth, alongside Bolton, with Gay taking the supposed starter role alongside Hitchens. Niemann's positive value definitely stands on the special teams, however, as he has been the Chiefs' best special teamer over the last three years in PFF grading. Dorian O'Daniel, another player who is definitely here more as a special teamer than as a defender, belongs in Kansas City for that reason.
L'Jarius Sneed, Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, Deandre Baker, Rashad Fenton, BoPete Keyes
L'Jarius Sneed is entering his second season after a sensational rookie year where he was arguably the best rookie defensive back in the NFL, and he has continued that in this preseason as well. Sneed could end this season as a top-10 cornerback with what he's shown for the Chiefs so far. Following Sneed, there is a three-player race for the final two starting cornerback spots with Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward and Deandre Baker. I think all three are on a similar production level, being okay number two or good number three cornerback options. I think all three of these players should and will get consistent playing time.
Next, Rashad Fenton should also make it as the fifth option and is another great tackler in the cornerback room, like Ward and Baker, and could even be an adequate third cornerback option. The last player here is BoPete Keyes, who is probably a toss-up to make the roster, but I believe he should. He has the potential to be a solid player and I think it is for the best to have six cornerbacks, similarly to having six wide receivers, since the Chiefs should be playing three cornerbacks on the field at almost all times.
Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill, Daniel Sorensen and Armani Watts
Tyrann Mathieu is the heart and soul of this defense and the captain of the group. Mathieu also continues to be productive, with seven interceptions last year, a career-high for him and the most in the NFL among safeties. Mathieu will play all over the field, from the slot to the box to free safety, and he will do well in all those areas.
The main spot of debate here is who will be the second starting safety between Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorensen. Thornhill is clearly the player with a higher potential, showing that with his incredible performance in the AFC Championship Game against the Bills and with his interception in the preseason against the Cardinals, but it feels like Sorensen will be the one who gets more snaps than Thornhill until Thornhill earns it or Sorensen loses it.
The fourth option is Armani Watts, who enters his fourth season with the team. Watts has become less of a defensive asset and more of a special teams asset, with 245 career defensive snaps and 800 career special teams snaps, and he is doing well in that role. I think Watts will and should continue to stay with the team for a while and be productive over that time.
Special Teams (3)
Harrison Butker, Tommy Townsend and James Winchester
This is pretty straightforward. The Chiefs have one kicker, one punter and one long snapper on this roster and all three are going to make it. Butker has his hiccups on extra points, which is odd, but he has still been one of the best kickers in football since his arrival. Townsend did a great job as the replacement for Dustin Colquitt after the two-time Pro Bowler was released by the team after 15 years in Kansas City. Last season, Townsend was PFF's eighth-highest graded punter and had the fifth-longest hangtime among punters. Winchester has been the Chiefs' long snapper since 2015, so that position has been a lock for him for a while now and, as long as he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll be a Chief for life.