In the preseason, the Chiefs openly talked about their roster strength. In the fourth year of the Andy Reid and John Dorsey regime, the team would shape a depth chart that could withstand the rigors of an NFL season.
The process will be put to the test this week as the injury bug is beginning to bite the defense.
Two Chiefs who have started every game, inside linebacker Justin March-Lillard and defensive tackle Allen Bailey, are out because of injuries. March-Lillard had surgery earlier this week for a broken bone in his hand, and Bailey is set to have surgery next week to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
With Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints coming to Arrowhead Stadium for a noon game Sunday, the Chiefs will be tested by one of the NFL’s top offensive teams while undergoing a bit of personnel shuffling.
The Chiefs haven’t announced the new starters but inside linebacker Derrick Johnson trusts the process enough to believe the unit won’t miss a beat.
“Andy Reid and John Dorsey have done a good job building the depth of this team,” Johnson said. “It’s a long season. Things happen, and you have to be able to respond. I think we’ll respond.”
The linebacker options include two former starters for other teams and another with experience in the Chiefs’ system.
The Chiefs claimed Sam Barrington off waivers a week before the season. He started seven games for the Packers last season and has appeared in two games for the Chiefs on special teams.
Sio Moore was signed two weeks ago after being released by the Colts. Moore was inactive last weekend and has been working at outside linebacker, but he played inside for the Colts and was leading them in tackles before he was released.
The familiar choice is Ramik Wilson, a second-year pro who was elevated from the practice squad this week. Wilson was a fourth-round pick from Georgia in 2015 and appeared in 11 games, including two starts, last season.
“Ramik is the most familiar guy because he’s been here,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “The other guys are kind of learning on the road. Sam’s been here a little longer than Sio, but Sio has more actual game experience, playing inside and outside.”
Moore has appeared in 42 games, starting 26, spending his first two years with the Raiders. Barrington has played in 24 games, including eight starts with the Packers.
The inside linebacker will line up next to Johnson in the Chiefs base defense, and Johnson will shift to the middle in subpackages.
Against the Raiders, March-Lillard was in on a season-low 18 plays. He is tied with outside linebacker Frank Zombo for second on the team with 22 total tackles this season, and had recorded one tackle for a loss. March-Lillard nearly came up with his first interception but couldn’t hold on to Derek Carr’s underthrown attempt Sunday.
Bailey’s replacement is more obvious. Chris Jones, the Chiefs’ top 2016 draft pick, figures to step in. Jones was drafted in the second round out of Mississippi State.
“He’s a huge part of our defense, a veteran guy,” Jones said of Bailey. “It’s a tough loss.”
But Jones has said he’s ready to make his first NFL start.
Another position of uncertainty is cornerback. Phillip Gaines, who tore his ACL last season, sat out the loss at Pittsburgh in the fourth week because of an injured knee. He played against the Raiders but logged 12 snaps before departing the game in the second quarter.
Gaines didn’t practice Wednesday. Steven Nelson got the start in the last two games, and rookie D.J. White got 37 snaps against the Raiders.
“Those guys,” Sutton said, “just have to step up and roll.”