Eight questions facing the Kansas City Chiefs as OTA workouts begin

The Chiefs open Phase 3 of their offseason program with OTAs — organized team activities — on Tuesday.

Teams are allowed 10 days of voluntary practice, and while contact isn’t allowed, teams can work in 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.

It’ll be the first chance for the Chiefs’ defensive veterans to work with new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his assistants. And for the new additions made during free agency, it’ll be a chance to get acclimated to their new teammates.

The media will get to watch practice each Thursday for the next three weeks and will talk with selected players and coaches afterward.

Here’s a look at some of the major questions the Chiefs will start to answer during OTAs.

1. How will the Chiefs respond to Steve Spagnuolo and his assistants?

This is the most pressing question facing the Chiefs in the offseason. We’ll obviously know how the Chiefs adapt to Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense in time, but this is the first chance we’ll have to see how the veterans adjust to Spagnuolo’s presence and the coaching from his new assistants.

The coaches were energetic and loud during rookie minicamp, with most of the energy coming from Spagnuolo. It was a big departure from the understated, professorial tone set by former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. The disconnect between last year’s coaching staff and the players was obvious, and head coach Andy Reid hopes to remedy that connect with the hiring of Spagnuolo — a coordinator with a reputation for connecting with his players.

In addition to hiring Spagnuolo, the Chiefs have assembled a pretty strong group of assistants on the defensive side: run game coordinator/defensive line coach Brendan Daly, linebackers coach Matt House, defensive backs coach Dave Merritt and defensive backs/cornerbacks coach Sam Madison. Daly comes to the Chiefs from the Patriots, where he would’ve been in the mix for that defensive coordinator job. He echoed Spagnuolo’s energy during rookie minicamp.

“(Daly) is an energetic dude,” third-round pick DT Khalen Saunders said during rookie minicamp. “He is very high tempo and high paced. The one thing I love about him is he makes sure that you know what he wants you to do. I don’t respond negatively or positively to any kind of coaching style, my biggest thing is I want to know exactly how you want me to do something.”

2. Where will Darron Lee fit in the linebacker group?

In true Brett Veach fashion, the Chiefs added a former first-round pick for practically pennies with the trade that sent a 2020 sixth-rounder to the New York Jets for linebacker Darron Lee last week.

The Ohio State product had his fair share of problems in New York — including a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy that cost him the final four games of the 2018 season. But a change of scenery could be just what he needs to get on track. Lee is in the mix for either the weak-side or middle linebacker job, a source told The Star. Fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens also works at either spot, and the OTAs present a chance to figure out his best fit.

Lee’s addition could also make Reggie Ragland, once the Chiefs’ projected starting WLB, the odd man out. Other linebackers to watch include Damien Wilson and Dorian O’Daniel. The Chiefs can start working with different combinations during OTAs.

3. How quickly will Mecole Hardman pick up the playbook?

Hardman has just less than four months to digest Reid’s playbook before the Chiefs open the 2019 season in Jacksonville. He already started working on it at rookie minicamp and showed an ability to learn quickly. He struggled in the first couple of practices, running imprecise routes and dropping punts, but by the final day, he looked much improved.

This time around, Hardman will be catching passes from quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The two have already been joking about playing with each other on Twitter, but it’ll be good to see that connection in real life later this week. Hardman’s development is especially important with Tyreek Hill’s future still murky.

4. Who’s in the core nucleus of the defensive line?

A hallmark of Spagnuolo’s defense is an unrelenting defensive line — see: 2016 Giants — and he’ll look to do the same thing in Kansas City.

In 2016, Spagnuolo worked with a core of Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins. That group was a big reason why the Giants’ defense moved from dead last to a top-10 unit.

Now, Spagnuolo will start forming his next core four during the Chiefs’ OTAs.

Guys likely to be in the mix include DE Frank Clark, DT Derrick Nnadi, DT Chris Jones and DE Alex Okafor. But rookie DL Khalen Saunders, DE Breeland Speaks, DT Xavier Williams and DE Emmanuel Ogbah could push for spots in that nucleus.

5. How will Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu work together?

The Chiefs got a major steal with the No. 63 overall pick, selecting Virginia safety Juan Thornhill. Sure, Tyrann Mathieu can play either safety position, but with Thornhill, the Chiefs can let Mathieu play closer to the ball and put Thornhill deep.

All of that sounds good on paper, but OTAs will be the first chance to see how the two truly work together. Mathieu has a reputation as a good locker room guy and a leader, and he’ll have an opportunity to really show that in OTAs.

6. Will Chris Jones make an appearance?

The defensive tackle reportedly wasn’t at some of the earlier voluntary workouts, and he may not be in Kansas City for part of all of OTAs. Some of the Chiefs reported to the facility on Monday, but Jones wasn’t there — at least per his Twitter account.

He posted a couple of tweets Monday morning with Alabama as the geotagged location. Jones isn’t required to be at OTAs, and plenty of players, like Eric Berry and Justin Houston, have skipped the voluntary workouts in the past.

Jones is also in line for a massive extension this summer, and he could be holding out for a deal. Chiefs GM Veach told The Star at the league owners’ meetings in March that contract conversations were ongoing with Jones’ representatives.

7. Who will be in the mix for TE2?

The Chiefs let Demetrius Harris go in free agency when he signed with the Cleveland Browns, and now there’s a vacancy at the TE2 spot behind Travis Kelce. Kelce is a versatile offensive threat, but the Chiefs are in the market for a blocking tight end.

Monday afternoon, the Chiefs signed 10-year veteran tight end John Phillips. A blocking specialist, Phillips will be in the mix for that position along with Deon Yelder, Blake Bell and David Wells. A potential dark horse to keep an eye on is rookie John Lovett, a converted Princeton quarterback.

At least half of that group will get waived or released by the first week of the regular season, but OTAs are a chance to kick off that competition.

8. What changes await Patrick Mahomes entering Year 2 as QB1?

Mahomes was a mystery to those outside of the Chiefs’ facility at this time last year. Now, everyone knows that Kansas City has something special in the reigning MVP. He’ll have more pressure this year, and he’ll be working with a few different faces. Center Mitch Morse is gone, along with wide receiver Chris Conley. Plus, Hill won’t be at OTAs and Kareem Hunt was released late last season.

Mahomes won’t be taking any defensive coordinators by surprise this year, so he’ll have to elevate his preparation, and Reid will have to get creative with his play designs. OTAs will be a chance to lay the foundation for a successful second season as a starter.

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.