By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots kick off the 2017 season as the overwhelming favorites to win Super Bowl LII, and they enter their season-opening matchup against the Chiefs as a nine-point favorite. They will likely come out of Thursday night with the win, but anyone just overlooking the Chiefs would be making a mistake.
Yes, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith pales in comparison to Tom Brady and probably can’t match him pass-for-pass on the field. Yes, coach Andy Reid will probably forget how clocks work in the fourth quarter. But the Chiefs are still coming into Foxboro with a deep, talented team that could give the Pats some unexpected issues – especially on defense.
Most fans are already aware of some of the Chiefs’ defensive firepower, like edge rusher Justin Houston and All-Pro safety Eric Berry. There’s not much to say about those guys that hasn’t already been said. They are pretty good. You’re probably also sick of hearing about how electric Tyreek Hill is in the return game and how Travis Kelce is Baby Gronk.
That’s why there should be a sharper focus on the more unheralded names on the Chiefs roster, the players whose names you could hear on the TV broadcast then (understandably) say “Who?”. Here are three names for you to know, if only so they don’t sneak up on you when they make a play against the Pats.
Chris Jones, Defensive Tackle
The Patriots already have to deal with Houston rushing Brady off the edge. But with Tamba Hali out for the game as he begins the season on the PUP list, Jones will likely see even more snaps than he did as a rookie. Don’t let this kid’s nondescript name fool you; he’s damn good.
And no, he’s not same Chris Jones as the ex-Patriots defensive lineman, who committed a game-losing penalty on a field goal against the Jets in 2013 then blocked a Jets kick to win the game a year later. This kid is much better.
Pro Football Focus handed Jones a very good 84.4 overall grade last season, including 82.6 as a pass rusher. He ranked eighth on PFF’s list of the top interior defenders in terms of “pass rush productivity”. Needless to say, the inside of the Patriots’ offensive line will have their hands full in containing Jones.
Pressure up the middle can cause problems for any quarterback, but it’s something that the Chiefs will absolutely need if they have any hopes of slowing Brady down. The Texans showed in last season’s AFC Divisional Playoff that inside pressure can still cause problems for Brady and the offense; if the Chiefs can replicate that, Jones will likely be in the middle of it.
Kareem Hunt, Running Back
Fantasy football GMs are aware of Hunt’s name, as the rookie rocketed up draft boards during the preseason after the Chiefs’ Spencer Ware went down with a season-ending knee injury. But those who do not partake in fantasy (yes, they exist) may have never heard of the kid. Drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft – just one pick after the Pats drafted tackle Antonio Garcia – the 22-year-old Hunt has a chance to make his presence felt in his NFL debut.
At 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds, Hunt has a strong frame and has surprising agility for a back with his bulk. He can also be serviceable as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. The Patriots have some uncertainty at linebacker and have little to go by with Hunt in terms of game film, so the rookie has a chance to surprise people under the bright lights in Foxboro.
That said, Hunt could show weakness if he tries to run between the tackles and isn’t known for breaking off big runs, so the Pats defense should be able to contain him. But Reid recently described Hunt as the Chiefs’ “featured back”, so expect his name to be called a lot – that is, if you’re not already rooting for it for the sake of your fantasy team.
Ramik Wilson, Linebacker
The Chiefs have a premier outside linebacker in Houston, but they also still have one of the league’s best inside guys in four-time Pro Bowler Derrick Johnson. It’s the guy next to Johnson, however, who could make more noise than you’re expecting: watch out for Ramik Wilson.
The third-year linebacker is expected to start next to Johnson on the inside against the Patriots, and he will certainly take the field in passing situations. He won’t be a factor as a pass rusher, but he could make an impact in coverage; he earned a strong 82.7 coverage grade from PFF last season. His 83.0 overall grade was even better than Johnson’s 79.1.
If Rob Gronkowski has some trouble or if Brady struggles to feed the ball over the middle of the field to the running backs, it could be Wilson who’s wreaking havoc in those areas. And if it’s Johnson making the plays, it could be because Wilson is clogging lanes and opening things up for him. Don’t be shocked if you hear this name on the TV broadcast in the wake of a big play.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.