When it comes to the "next man up" philosophy that's often thrown around any time there's an injury to a starter, which normally results in a young player being thrown into a new role, the question at that moment becomes whether or not that young player is ready to contribute.
Are they adequately prepared?
While the conversation may begin at that moment, the work put in and the process that was followed to be ready for it began months before that player's name was ever called.
The Chiefs saw this play out recently with running back Kareem Hunt, who stepped in as the starter last year after then-starter Spencer Ware went down with a season-ending injury late in the preseason.
Hunt went on to lead the league in rushing—becoming just the sixth rookie in NFL history to accomplish that feat.
When the moment came and his name was called, Hunt was ready because of how he prepared himself leading up to that moment, and also how his coaches pushed him—both mentally and physically. He took advantage of the reps he was given after beginning low on the depth chart—as is the case for most rookies, which meant limited reps, limited snaps.
So, even though the Chiefs were missing multiple starters on the defensive side of the football Friday night against the Atlanta Falcons, the reps the younger players were getting out there are invaluable—even if we don't see that value pay off until later down the road.
The Chiefs didn't have veteran safety Eric Berry, both starting inside linebackers in Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens, or their most-tenured defensive linemen in Allen Bailey, but they did get a ton of work from their rookies and second-year players.
"We were short a few guys, but it was a great experience for some of these young guys," Chiefs' coach Andy Reid explained after the game. "They got in there and they battled. I like the energy they brought. We overcame a couple of things in there and made some plays.
"It will all payback down the road."
In the second half of the game, the Chiefs' defense—led by mostly rookies and other young players—allowed just 47 total yards on 18 plays, an average of just 2.61 yards per play. They were flying around and making plays.
The Chiefs' 2018 draft class, which is comprised of six players, racked up 156 total snaps on the night.
In addition, undrafted rookie linebacker Ben Niemann, who had another standout performance after leading the team in tackles last week against the Houston Texans, played more snaps than any other inside linebacker on the roster Friday night.
Niemann finished the game with four tackles and often found himself around the ball, but what he'll be remembered for most was his interception returned for a touchdown late in the game that essentially sealed the win.
"I just dropped to my coverage and I was matching three, and the running back kind of just sat over the middle," Niemann explained. "I started to break down to it and I saw the quarterbacks' eyes going there and it just kind of gave me a gift. I was fortunate enough to catch it and then I just started running."
With a little more than nine minutes remaining in the game, Niemann took the interception and ran 26 yards for the touchdown, which gave the Chiefs a 28-14 lead after quarterback Matt McGloin followed up the play by hitting receiver Byron Pringle in the back of the end zone for a successful two-point conversion.
"It's definitely special," Niemann added. "Just being in this moment is a childhood dream. To be able to score a touchdown in the preseason or the regular season, it's definitely special."
Niemann, whose father is currently the defensive coordinator at Rutgers and whose brother is currently playing at the University of Iowa, grew up around football and knows that's helped him pick up the Chiefs' defense quickly.
"I feel like I have a football mind, and that helps me on the field," Niemann added. "I just try to do my job, be in my gap and play off the defensive linemen in front of me."
Another young player who had an opportunity Friday night was starting right guard and second-year player Andrew Wylie, who was the next man up after starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif couldn't play in the game because he's still in the concussion protocol.
"I made a few mental mistakes, but I just try to go out there and play fast and play physical," Wylie, who signed with the Chiefs late last season after bouncing around three different practice squads during the year, said after the game of his performance. "It was loud out there, playing on the road and using some silent cadence."
After playing right guard in the first half, Wylie moved out to left tackle to begin the second half—hoping to show some versatility needed to make the 53-man roster.
"When I moved out to left tackle, I had to switch up my sets a little bit because I didn't work at that much this week," he added. "But I kept it together pretty well. I'm pretty hyped when I go out there."
"He handled himself really well," said left guard Cam Erving of Wylie. "He's an aggressive player and there's going to be mistakes, but if you just go out there and kick somebody's butt then things will fall into place for you."
With the Chiefs' defense missing both Berry and Daniel Sorensen, who will be out some time after undergoing knee surgery due to an injury suffered late in practice one day at training camp, there was an opportunity for second-year safety Leon McQuay to get some run with the first-team defense.
"He just got back," Reid said of McQuay, who missed some time recently with a hamstring injury. "He only had a couple of days of practice and we threw him out there. He's a gifted player and that was very valuable time for him. He just needs to play. He needs the reps. He missed the one naked coming out to his side and then he came back and made a big play.
"Again, it's just a matter of getting out there and doing it."
McQuay tied for the most snaps played Friday night among defensive players with 37.
One of the young players who didn't see the field last week against the Texans but was out there against the Falcons was third-round pick Derrick Nnadi, who was still working his way back from an elbow injury last week that sidelined him for a good portion of camp.
Photos from the Chiefs vs. Falcons preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Nnadi finished the game with three tackles and a sack—the first for the Chiefs' defense this preseason.
"I like Nnadi and the job he did in the middle," Reid noted. "And again, he's someone that not everyone is going to see (in the middle of the trenches), but it was good to get him in there and playing. I thought he handled it well, and that'll help us."
"We've got guys who can come off the bench and compete," defensive lineman Chris Jones added of Nnadi and the other young guys. "Anyone who is out there I feel comfortable with because I trust in our coaches to bring the best guys in to compete."
During a conference call on Saturday afternoon, Reid also mentioned several of the other rookies as guys he thought played well after he had a chance to go back and watch the tape—specifically naming Breeland Speaks, Dorian O' Daniel, Darrel Williams, Andrew Wylie, Tremon Smith, Armani Watts and Arrion Springs.
"I thought Speaks continued to play strong," Reid noted of Speaks, who had two quarterback hurries in the game, per Pro Football Focus. "He's just a big, powerful guy. He got that collapse on the pocket, which is so important because even though you're not hitting the quarterback, he's feeling that pressure."
With veteran cornerback Steve Nelson going down early in the game with a concussion, there was an opportunity for Smith and Springs, who also split time between cornerback and safety, to step in and grab some key reps.
"[Tremon] Smith had a couple of nice plays at cornerback," Reid added. "Now, there were a couple that he'd like to have back, but there were a couple of big plays down the stretch that he made that I thought were good."
So, while a lot of fans really want to see the guys they know and those who are projected starters for the defense once the regular season is here, which is important, these reps will pay off down the road for the young guys because their name will undoubtedly get called at some point during the season, and they need to be ready.