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Rosterology: Draft fills out Chiefs depth chart

At first glance, the 2014 draft appears to have very little impact on the starting lineup when the Chiefs line up in September. Yet this year’s draft certainly shakes up the depth chart, and may provide answers to the problem of a lack of experience on special teams.

While some first-round draft picks are asked to step up as starters immediately, Dee Ford will initially fill a backup roll, providing depth at outside linebacker and add to the Chiefs pass rush, which suffered at the end of last season when injuries slowed down Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Ford is also a pick for the future, with Houston in the final year of his rookie contract and Hali, who turns 31 in November, carrying a salary cap number of almost $12 million in 2015.

The other rookie making a mark on the depth chart is De’Anthony Thomas, who is expected to contribute on special teams as well as on offense in a role similar to that carved out by Dexter McCluster, who signed a free-agent contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Throughout the 2014 offseason, “Rosterology” on ChiefsSpin.com projects what the Chiefs roster would look like if the season started right now. During the offseason, this provides an opportunity to follow the building of the team throughout the offseason as players win spots on the team, sleepers play their way to starting positions and seeming locks fade down the stretch.

Here’s a best guess and the unofficial depth chart as it stands now. Players marked with an asterisk (*) are considered 90 percent likely or better to make the 53-man roster. Players without an asterisk are on the bubble, meaning they would currently make the team but are not guaranteed a roster spot. Spots marked “OPEN” indicated there is no one currently under contract to likely fill that spot on the depth chart.

OFFENSE

WR Donnie Avery* A.J. Jenkins Weston Dressler
LT Eric Fisher* J’Marcus Webb
LG Jeff Allen* Jeff Linkenbach
C Rodney Hudson* Eric Kush*
RG Rishaw Johnson Rokevious Watkins
RT Donald Stephenson*
TE Anthony Fasano* Travis Kelce* Richard Gordon
WR Dwayne Bowe* Junior Hemingway Kyle Williams
QB Alex Smith* Chase Daniel* Aaron Murray*
RB Jamaal Charles* Knile Davis* De’Anthony Thomas*
FB Anthony Sherman

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Projected practice squad: G Zach Fulton, T Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
Unsigned free agents:
 None
On the bubble: QB Tyler Bray, TE Sean McGrath, RB Cyrus Gray, G Otis Hudson
Other returnees from last year:  WR Frankie Hammond Jr., WR Fred Williams, TE Demetrius Harris, C Chandler Burden, G Ricky Henry, T Colin Kelly
Free agent signings: RB Joe McKnight, T R.J. Dill, WR Jerrell Jackson, FB Jordan Campbell, G/T Jeff Linkenbach
Undrafted free agents: FB James Baker, RB Charcandrick West, WR Darryl Surgent, WR Albert Wilson, G Ben Gottschalk

Many questions and possibilities revolve around this year’s draft picks on offense. None are expected to push for starting positions, and there is no guarantee that all will make the opening day roster.

The mystery around fourth-round pick  De’Anthony Thomas is what slot on the roster will he occupy. A running back at Oregon, Thomas fits the mold of the Dexter McCluster-type player. Right now, it’s feasible to project Thomas taking the third running back position, serving as an emergency running back while also playing in the slot and in specific packages designed to create mismatches. If he instead takes a roster position at wide receiver to free up a slot for a more traditional running back, it will likely push Canadian Football League import Weston Dressler on to the roster bubble.

It’s a virtual lock that Aaron Murray will be on the Chiefs roster in 2014. The question is whether he will be on the 53-man roster or on injured reserve. Murray suffered a torn ACL in November 2013. While general manager John Dorsey says Murray is “90 percent” and projects him to be ready by training camp, it’s a lot to ask for a rookie quarterback to be ready to play in the NFL less than a year after a serious knee injury. Placing Murray on injured reserve would not impact his playing time in 2014, and would also allow the Chiefs more time to evaluate 2013 undrafted free agent Tyler Bray. But if the team’s verdict on Bray is in and they are ready to move on without him, there is no reason not to give Murray the third quarterback spot.

Sixth-round offensive line selections Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif add to the growing number of candidates competing for jobs in training camp. Neither are guaranteed to make the roster, and Duvernay-Tardif is a likely candidate for the practice squad. The risk in attempting to sign either player to the practice squad on final roster cuts to the 53-man roster is players first have to clear waivers before the Chiefs can sign them to the eight-man practice squad.

“Rosterology” currently projects nine offensive lineman, and that is still a bit heavy. The Chiefs carried 10 offensive linemen at the end of 2013, and could do the same if necessary.  If the Chiefs keep both Fulton and Duvernay-Tardif on the 53-man roster, it could likely come at the expense of Watkins and backup defensive lineman or linebacker.

DEFENSE

LDE Vance Walker* Allen Bailey Mike Catapano
NT Dontari Poe* Jaye Howard
RDE Mike DeVito* OPEN
LOLB Justin Houston* Frank Zombo*
LILB Joe Mays* Nico Johnson*
RILB Derrick Johnson* James-Michael Johnson
ROLB Tamba Hali* Dee Ford* Dezman Moses
LCB Brandon Flowers* Marcus Cooper* Phillip Gaines*
RCB Sean Smith* Chris Owens
SS Eric Berry* OPEN
FS Husain Abdullah* Sanders Commings*

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Projected practice squad: CB David Van Dyke, S David Sorensen
Unsigned free agents: None
On the bubble: CB Ron Parker, DT Jermelle Cudjo, DT Kyle Love, S Malcom Bronson
Other returnees from last year: CB Vernon Kearney,
Free agent signings: DT Chas Alecxih, DT Risean Broussard, DE Dominique Hamilton, LB Alonzo Highsmith, LB/DE Josh Martin, S Jerron McMillian, CB Kevin Rutland, CB Demarcus Van Dyke
Undrafted free agents: DT Kona Schwenke, LB Ben Johnson

First-round pick Ford fills a distinct need at backup outside linebacker and pass rusher. The addition of Ford may boost the chances of Dezman Moses making the squad. Moses complements Ford, excelling more in the open field while Ford specializes in rushing the passer. Moses is also a contributor on special teams.

The shuffling of players on the defensive line pits Jaye Howard against free agent signee Jermelle Cudjo, who was released last week by the St. Louis Rams. If the Chiefs carry seven defensive linemen similar to what they did last year, Howard and Cudjo could be competing with returning free agent Kyle Love for two backup positions on the line.

The drafting of Gaines makes the competition for cornerback much tighter. Unless free agent Chris Owens disappoints or the Chiefs choose to carry 10 defensive backs, it will very difficult for another cornerback to crack the roster. That could put veteran Ron Parker squarely on the bubble if he stays at cornerback. As noted by ChiefsSpin.com‘s Desmond Bailey, Parker shined in a limited role in 2013. It’s also noteworthy that Parker is a converted safety and has strong physical tools. With an open safety position, could Parker make the squad as a swing player who could be a fourth safety as needed? Based on his play last year, it’s very difficult to leave Parker off the roster.

Hussain Abdullah is entering the offseason penciled in as the starter at free safety, and it seems increasingly likely Abdullah and Sanders Commings will be the top on the depth chart at that position This could still be a position to watch during late free agency and June 1 salary cap cuts. The are three other safeties signed so far: returning practice squad safety Malcolm Bronson, third-year free agent Jerron McMillian and undrafted rookie free agent David Sorenson. Bronson and McMillian seem most likely to battle for the fourth safety spot, unless the Chiefs keep six cornerbacks including Parker and Owens. Sorensen is a good target for the practice squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P Dustin Colquitt*
K Ryan Succup*
LS Thomas Gafford*
PR De’Anthony Thomas Weston Dressler
KR Knile Davis* De’Anthony Thomas

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Undrafted free agents: K Cairo Santos

The draft selection of Thomas addressed what may have been the team’s most glaring depth-chart weakness. Aside from Dressler’s experience in the CFL, the Chiefs had virtually no one on the roster with punt return experience.  While Thomas only returned 16 punts at Oregon, he does have a 73-yard touchdown return and a gaudy 17.1 return average, prompting teams to kick away from him. His kickoff return numbers are just as good, with four returns for touchdowns and a 25.8 average. Thomas could very well win both the punt return and kick return jobs if he shines in training camp. Regardless, the Chiefs now have the depth at returner they need without needing to hit the free agent wire.

Special teams remains the best opportunity for Dressler to make the team, although the practice squad is a possibility as well. The difficult for the Chiefs will be finding playing time for two players such as Thomas and Dressler, who are both undersized and have similar skill set.