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There is always going to be pressure for certain teams and players to succeed during each NFL season. No one team is going to be perfectly set at every position on the roster. Meanwhile, certain players will have to pull more weight than others on certain teams, depending on their surrounding combatants among their position group. The Kansas City Chiefs have a few players that fall under that last sentence.
Kansas City has generated massive expectations with what they have accomplished over the course of the last four seasons. At the same time, this roster went through a meaningful amount of changes at certain positions. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is no longer going to be wearing red and gold. On the other hand, this defense is much younger overall. The thing that has remained the same? It is of course the head coach and quarterback duo of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
Neither of those two are under tremendous levels of pressure entering the 2022 season. However, there are a few Chiefs players that are in need of a standout performance this year. Which players face possible make-or-break seasons for Kansas City? Plus, will some of these names be able to land another contract with the Chiefs going forward? Let’s kick it off.
Safety Juan Thornhill
A former second-round pick out of Virginia, Juan Thornhill came into the league strong as a 2019 rookie. He produced 58 tackles, five passes defended and three interceptions that year. He slid in right next to Tyrann Mathieu and helped create an instinctive and opportunistic safety duo. Unfortunately for Thornhill, his exciting rookie showing was halted when he suffered a torn ACL in the regular season finale. That also forced him to miss the ensuing playoff run and Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers.
We have seen some players take longer to get back to form off of that injury, compared to others. Thornhill did play in all 16 games, making eight starts, once returning in 2020. Yet, he did not look very comfortable throughout the first half of the season. Thornhill simply looked hesitant on the back end of the Chiefs defense. In some moments, he missed reads and missed crucial tackles. That obviously allowed opposing offenses to hit on explosive plays.
Last season, some of the same mistakes occurred. Thornhill still played in all 17 games and made 12 starts in 2021. Nevertheless, the long track back from that injury has remained to be a thorn in the safety’s side. There were certainly instances where he made an impactful hit or break on a pass. Thornhill was still unable to find consistency, however. Thus, Steve Spagnuolo occasionally limited his playing time throughout parts of last season.
One Last Chance?
Thornhill is entering the final year of his rookie contract with Kansas City. For the first time during his Chiefs tenure, Mathieu will not be by his side. Neither will Daniel Sorensen. With names like Justin Reid, Bryan Cook, Deon Bush and Nazeeh Johnson joining the fray at safety, Thornhill is the longest tenured player at that position for the Chiefs. Possibly, he will be allowed to move around the defensive formation more often with Mathieu out of the picture.
He will have to prove that he can be relied upon as a cover man over the top. Furthermore, Thornhill may be allowed to attack downhill more often in 2022. If he can find a sense of comfortability, he may be able to stick around in Kansas City on a second contract. If not, the Chiefs may look for a new running mate alongside Reid and Cook entering 2023.
Running Back Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2020, Clyde Edwards-Helaire has struggled to gain traction within the Kansas City offense. Items like varied amounts of production, injuries and inconsistent usage have all stunted the early growth of the LSU product. He may never have been destined to be a bell cow back for Kansas City. Though, the way in which he performed during his final college season made Edwards-Helaire appear as a logical fit for the Chiefs. Perhaps, his finish in 2021, when healthy, will give him some instilled confidence entering 2022.
Edwards-Helaire faces an odd sense of pressure, different than that of the aforementioned Thornhill. Running backs are typically involved in a committee approach more now than they were just five years ago. NFL teams, the Chiefs included, will always go through their fair share of a few running backs during each campaign. But, 2022 could possibly be CEH’s last shot as the presumed RB1 on the depth chart.
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Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones joined the team via free agency. You would have to think that he receives considerable chances as a pure runner. And while he was a seventh-round pick, Isiah Pacheco gives Kansas City a new pace out of the backfield if he gets opportunities as a rookie in 2022.
Future Contract Outlook
The Chiefs will not have to make the immediate decision of giving Edwards-Helaire a second contract after this season. Plus, paying running backs is always a tricky path to fall under. Kansas City has consistently shied away from paying large amounts to the running back position during the Coach Reid era. So, this season may not truly be his last shot with the Chiefs. Edwards-Helaire can still increase some apprehension surrounding him, however, depending on how he responds in his third year this season.
Cornerback Rashad Fenton
Rashad Fenton was given a larger opportunity last season. And for the most part, he delivered as a primary man coverage cornerback. As a result, his sense of pressure comes in a bit of a different form than that of Edwards-Helaire or Thornhill. He is not entering a make-or-break season solely due to performance questions. In fact, there is pressure to see if Fenton can continue his trends and fend off in-house competition.
Fenton provides length, size and ball skills on the outside. Once in a while, he has produced from the slot as well. But with both L’Jarius Sneed and rookie Trent McDuffie together, his amount of snaps at nickel cornerback may be limited. On top of that, the Chiefs have not hesitated to bring more bodies into the cornerback spot. Guys like Lonnie Johnson Jr., rookies Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson, or even Deandre Baker bring similar play styles and body types to the fold. Fenton may still have the upper hand on some of those names. And, is his performance from last season something that the Chiefs can bank on in the long term?
Is Time Running Out?
Fenton has been able to create significant strides for himself as a former sixth-round pick. The team may feel comfortable with him during specific matchups this season. Moreover, Fenton is also entering the final year of his rookie deal. His results have been admirable. Even still, the team may not feel anxious in giving him a second contract with a possible increase in salary. That is partly why you have seen Kansas City add significantly to the secondary, overall. Fenton may not have a lot to prove. However, the Chiefs may feel just as much pressure surrounding his situation as he does, as he enters a make-or-break 2022 campaign as a potential defensive starter.
Wide Receiver Mecole Hardman
Another name, another 2019 Chiefs draft pick who is entering a make-or-break season. Mecole Hardman has obviously not lived up to the status of being a former second-round pick. There have been a mix of positives and negatives from his first three seasons. On one hand, his production in the receiving game has steadily increased, in terms of targets, receptions and receiving yards. Hardman has still battled with challenges of inefficient route breaks, catching consistently with his hands and ball security too.
As Coach Reid mentioned last season, they believe that they may have found a more suitable role for Hardman during the latter part of last season. The Chiefs made it an emphasis to get him the ball earlier on quicker touches. Or, his chances to read blocks and pick his spots increased as Kansas City entered their playoff run last year.
Hardman is never going to be the team’s WR1 on the depth chart. But for what it is worth, he has always performed admirably when Hill was out of the picture. A Hill injury in early 2019 allowed Hardman to make an early impact as a rookie. Now with the Cheetah totally gone, could the Chiefs see Mecole get fully comfortable?
This is actually the one player of the three on this list who are entering the final year of their rookie deal that I believe could stay. Once again, his performance hangs in the balance of this make-or-break season in 2022. If the same results are met, or even if he continues to produce more week to week, Hardman could firmly establish his role in the Kansas City offense. I do not think it is crazy to think that he could receive a second contract with the Chiefs. Mainly, improving enough on the little things could end up being a monumental benefit for Hardman moving forward.
Be on the lookout for more FPC Chiefs articles throughout this week. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.
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