KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City Chiefs football is finally back after a long offseason wait following the first AFC Championship Game in Arrowhead Stadium history.
The Chiefs hope to finish the season in Miami but will need some role players to shine over the coming weeks and help in that endeavor.
Here are some players and things to keep an eye on when Kansas City opens the preseason Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals:
THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
1. Defensive attitude
The Chiefs have rebuilt their defense in the image of new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his staff. A lack of discipline, poor technique and a stale scheme kept Kansas City from bringing the Lamar Hunt Trophy home last season.
Spagnuolo and his defensive staff have spent months trying to infuse the roster with a new attitude. Now, the rubber meets the road.
Will the Chiefs’ defenders be relentless and take the correct angles to gang tackle? Will they force turnovers? How fast do they play when they are attacking the offense?
The defense has shown in camp they aren't satisfied with playing second fiddle to a prolific offense, but watch to see if that carries over against an opposing team.
2. Run defense
The Chiefs’ run defense has been a problem for the organization since 2014. If Derrick Johnson wasn't healthy on the field back then, it became a problem quickly.
Run defense is about controlling the line of scrimmage. Defensive linemen need to occupy their blockers or shoot the gaps to blow up the play before it starts.
Linebackers need to the defensive line to occupy blockers, so they can freely flow to the ball carrier. With simplified gap responsibilities, the Chiefs’ front seven should be able to play faster.
This is a huge weekend for the cornerback position. The expected addition of Morris Claiborne puts Charvarius Ward and D’Montre Wade on notice. They were given all offseason and two weeks of camp to earn the starting role.
Now is the time when they need to prove they can provide solid depth and reassure the Chiefs there’s no need to keep shopping for additional reinforcements.
4. Running backs
This may not seem like a big need to some, but the injury to Damien Williams showed how far the drop off is between the top running back and the rest of the committee. Carlos Hyde will need to turn it on over the next three games, because he hasn't exactly set the backfield on fire at training camp.
Darwin Thompson has shown flashes of promise for down the road, but he likely isn't ready for a feature role at this time. Darrel Williams also has improved, but being the feature back is something remains a work in progress.
Pass protection and special teams ability will be key for those three backups.
5. Special teams
Special teams usually determines who will stick at the bottom of the roster. The first 47 are the starters at each spot and their potential backups along with the three specialists. Thus, special teams use provides the best indication of who might land the remaining spots, Nos. 48 through 53 on the roster.
For example, last year the leading special teams snaps in the preseason belonged to Tremon Smith (44) and Ben Niemann (42), who both made the roster. Once again, snaps will be a strong indicator of who snags the developmental spots at those final roles.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. FS Juan Thornhill
Thornhill is a ball-hawking safety with impressive range. He can track the football and its projected trajectory very quickly, and has shown good anticipation skills coupled with the necessary discipline not to bite on pump fakes or guess incorrectly on route combinations.
The Chiefs may have lost out on the Earl Thomas sweepstakes, but they are potentially set at the free safety position for the next decade, if Thornhill stays healthy and can translate the skill he’s shown in practice during games.
2. WR Mecole Hardman Jr.
Hardman is starting look very comfortable and confident in the offense with only two weeks in the books. He has the ability to separate against corners on crossing routes, vertical routes and in the fire drill.
Hardman will show an upgrade over the previous No. 17, Chris Conley, in terms of speed.
3. RB Darwin Thompson
Thompson has shown flashes throughout camp with his burst, smooth ability to jump cut and explore, as well as his overall balance after contact.
Saturday is an opportunity for Thompson to show he can do this on a steady pace.
4. CB Mark Fields
The undrafted free agent has been competitive in camp and plays bigger than his size. He is an aggressive corner who uses correct technique to get himself in a good position.
This game is a big opportunity for Fields to prove to the coaching staff that it is coming together for him mentality against an unknown opponent.
5. WR Rashard Davis
Davis is one of the fastest receivers in the group not named Tyreek Hill or Hardman. He is electric with the football in his hands, both in the open field after a catch and as a returner.
He likely has Byron Pringle, Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter in front of him on the depth chart, but a strong performance could help him gain some higher reps with the second or even first team.
The potential certainly is there, so he just needs to take full advantage of his opportunities this weekend.
6. TE John Lovett
Lovett will likely see a lot of time on special teams and some reps at tight end with the second and third teams. He is currently a developmental prospect, but his ability to shine with each block, catch and special teams rep could force the Chiefs’ hand with a spot on the 53-man roster.
When the football is in his hands, he runs like Mike Alsott. He shows power and bounces around like a pinball, but keeps his balance.
This is a big opportunity for players on the fringe to make a statement and show the coaches they deserve more time and attention moving forward in camp.
Some of them will begin force their way onto the team or show enough to earn a practice squad spot with strong performances against the Bengals.
Nick Jacobs can be found on Twitter: @Jacobs71 . You can also download the weekly 4th and 1 podcast on Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify and Stitcher.