It's that time of year again, folks. Football is back. Well, sort of. The Kansas City Chiefs open their preseason schedule at home Thursday night against the Houston Texans. Although the games don't actually matter in terms of wins or losses, there is still plenty of insight to be gleaned in how this team will be formed. Here are five things to watch for Thursday night.
1. How does starting QB Patrick Mahomes look?
All eyes in Kansas City have been on Mahomes since the strong-armed passer was selected tenth overall by the Chiefs in the 2017 NFL Draft. Thursday marks the first time he'll take the field knowing he has a full NFL season ahead of him as the starter.
"I was curious to see him play last year and he did a nice job," said head coach Andy Reid. "It is a different role for him, but I expect him to just go play, right? Go do your thing. Working with the [first team], there's a little bit more to it then if you're a backup and know you're not playing, but that's expected."
Mahomes has been throwing interceptions in camp, and depending on which side of the fence you belong on with the young QB, the picks either don't matter at all or they're the only thing that matter. Chiefs fans have been spoiled because former Chiefs QB Alex Smith rarely turned the ball over. Get used to seeing interceptions, because they will happen more this season than in any of Smith's campaigns in a Chiefs uniform.
The good news? You'll also see throws that Smith wouldn't dream of making. Like this beauty. It's going to be a season of drastic change at the quarterback position. Buckle up, and get ready for a fun ride.
2. How do the corners hold up? And where do they line up?
Steve Nelson and Kendall Fuller were listed as the two starting corners on the Chiefs first depth chart. Free agent signee David Amerson is listed third in the rotation, but will see playing time based on the amount of nickel the Chiefs play.
The question is, who slides into the slot?
Nelson has played in the slot for much of his professional career, but Fuller was rated as PFF's second highest graded slot CB in 2017. My guess is that Fuller handles the slot duties while Nelson and Amerson play on the outside. This group is good enough to win with, but only if they have a consistent pass rush. Which leads us to our next point…
3. Can Justin Houston and Dee Ford stay healthy? And if not, who steps up?
Everyone knows Justin Houston is a monster if he's healthy. That's a big if. In the past five seasons, he has only played one full season. When he's right, there is hardly a better all-around player on defense. He is a stud against the pass, and is equally skilled at setting the edge. The Chiefs can't afford for him to miss major time.
OLB Dee Ford is another question mark for the team. There have been flashes of major pass-rushing talent. But he too has struggled with injury problems, and has been, at best, inconsistent versus the run, and at worst, abysmal. He's also in a contract year and needs to play well if he wants to get paid. If the two can stay healthy, the Chiefs can once again have a fearsome pass rush.
If not, they will need to rely on some new-ish faces to affect the passer. Second year OLB Tanoh Kpassagnon is a physical freak, who had an impressive regular season finale in Denver last season. Rookie Breeland Speaks figures to provide some physicality in both the run game and pass game if he acclimates. A wild card is loquacious DE Chris Jones, who is making bold proclamations about his pass-rushing prowess.
4. How does the backfield split carries?
The Chiefs have a pretty loaded backfield. They boast the NFL's leading rusher from last season in Kareem Hunt, who will get the lions' share of carries. Spencer Ware comes back from a gruesome MCL and PCL injury, and figures to be a terrific addition to the team. Like Hunt, Ware is a tough, physical runner who isn't one to shy from contact. He is also effective catching the ball out of the backfield.
With the 1-2 punch likely set, who is competing for the next couple of spots? Fan-favorite Charcandrick West has been an incumbent in Kansas City, and is a slippery runner who also possesses receiving ability. He's been banged up in camp though, and costs more than some of the other options on the team. Damien Williams appeared as the #3 RB on the depth chart as West recovers from a concussion. This will be a battle to watch not only through this game, but the entire preseason.
5. How do the receivers look?
The pairing of Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins is enticing for sure. But there are other compelling figure in the Chiefs' receiving corps. Chris Conley was emerging as a reliable chain-mover before he suffered an Achilles injury last season. Demarcus Robinson has yet to shine for the Chiefs in the regular season, but the chemistry between him and Mahomes is real.
KC spent a fourth round pick on Jehu Chesson last year, and it will be interesting to see if he can turn into more than a special teams player. Gehrig Dieter and Marcus Kemp will need to make some big plays if they want to make the team, although both have shown chemistry with Mahomes in last year's preseason games. They'll need to make some plays for backup QB's Chad Henne, Matt McGloin and Chase Litton.