NEW ORLEANS — Andy Reid has a roster almost fully stocked with players new to him in a game environment. Everything is that fresh to Reid as he makes his debut as Chiefs head coach in tonight’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints.
But Reid didn’t hesitate when asked which players he was eager to see in the Superdome against the Saints: the Chiefs’ eight draft picks and particularly the four who are challenging for playing time.
“I think they’re getting better,” Reid said this week. “Every day they’re a little bit leg-weary and this is a new pace for them, but they’re getting better. They’re pushing through it. I’m curious to see how they do when the lights go on.
“The rookies have got a ton of plays in. It’s just a matter of making sure they’re figuring it all out and they’re comfortable with it and all of a sudden the speed of their game goes up.”
The Chiefs have immediate expectations for their top four picks: first-round tackle Eric Fisher, third-round tight end Travis Kelce, third-round running back Knile Davis and fourth-round inside linebacker Nico Johnson. Fisher is already starting at right tackle and the Chiefs remain hopeful that Johnson can win a spot as a regular by the time the regular season begins Sept. 8 against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla.
Kelce and Davis won’t be starters, but the Chiefs expect them to help bring some life to what the last couple of seasons has been a sluggish offensive team.
Among the other four draft picks, sixth-round center Eric Kush and sixth-round fullback Braden Wilson are backups. The others, fifth-round defensive back Sanders Commings and seventh-round linebacker Mike Catapano, are injured and will not play against the Saints.
Here is a look at the top four draft picks and how they’re progressing:
Eric Fisher — The No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, Fisher looked lost when training camp started. He frequently appeared confused about whom to block when the defense blitzed and was often beaten in one-on-one pass rush and protection drills. Fisher acknowledged struggling with the transition from college at Central Michigan.
“Obviously it’s been a long grind,” he said. “Going against these guys like Justin (Houston) and Tamba (Hali) every day, it’s definitely a competition. I’m still adjusting a little bit. I’m doing my best and making the most of it.”
Fisher has shown some progress, but his position pops up as a problem spot if he has trouble against the Saints. On the other hand, if he handles himself well, the Chiefs can be confident he will be ready when the regular-season begins.
“He’ll be excited,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “Emotions will be running high. After he gets that first initial hit out of the way, he’ll settle down and he’ll do a nice job.”
Travis Kelce — Kelce was a star in the offseason practices. He lined up in a variety of spots and showed the ability to beat coverage down the field to make long catches.
Nothing has changed in that regard during training camp, but the return of injured tight end Tony Moeaki has cut into Kelce’s playing time. Still, the Chiefs are getting the ball to Kelce and are using enough multi-tight-end formations that there should be enough snaps for Kelce, Moeaki and Anthony Fasano.
The challenge for Kelce will be to improve as a blocker. His playing time would only increase if he does.
Knile Davis — A notorious fumbler in college at Arkansas, Davis hasn’t lost one at training camp. Instead, he’s been impressive when the Chiefs have handed him the ball.
Davis’ problems have come when the ball is in the air. He’s dropped numerous passes, at times relinquishing big gains in the process. He will have trouble getting a lot of playing time if that continues, given how Reid likes his quarterback to throw to the running back.
“When I first got here, I was dropping a lot of them,” Davis said. “I’m still dropping some but not as many as I was. It’s a work in progress. I’m getting more comfortable.”
The Chiefs think a big and fast player such as Davis could make a great kickoff returner, and he may get one or more chances against New Orleans. But he dropped many chances in practice, so he appears to be a long way from winning the job.
“His big thing is focus,” special-teams coordinator Dave Toub said. “He’s never really done it in college. We’re trying to utilize his talents as big guy that can run fast. We’re really thinking we can develop him as a kick returner.”
Nico Johnson — The Chiefs have given Johnson some snaps, but the starting lineup at the position is occupied by veteran free agent Akeem Jordan. Johnson has made several big tackles against the run, and if that continues, he probably will beat out Jordan by the time the regular season begins.
“(Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs) asked me that question the other day: Do I feel like I’m a better player than when I got (to training camp)?” Johnson said. “I do. I still make mistakes here and there. But I’m trying to be as consistent as I possibly can.”
Johnson comes out of the game on passing downs, so he will essentially be a run defender. But he needs to show he can cover passes when the Saints throw on running downs.
“He’s like a lot of our guys,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s got to keep getting better and better and better. I think everybody’s been pleased with what he’s done. He just needs a lot of reps.”