New stars break out of the woodwork each year in the NFL. We’ve seen it in recent years with the Kansas City Chiefs, especially in the case of Tyreek Hill and Marcus Peters, and before them, Travis Kelce.
Before they are stars, all they can call themselves are players with potential.
So, with that said, here are some Chiefs I feel could be on the verge of a breakout season:
WR Chris Conley
If Hill is the proverbial “guy we know can do it,” doesn’t that make Chris Conley the “guy we think can do it?”
With Jeremy Maclin no longer on the team, he will have to.
Entering his third year in the league, Conley has already shown flashes. Thinking of his best plays I always think back to last year’s game against the Saints with the Chiefs facing third-and-17.
Watch this play. FOX gives a couple angles.
“It’s good for [Alex Smith and I] to be able to work with each other this season,” Conley said after that game. “It’s been different because we’ve had a lot more time to work on plays like that. Sometimes when plays break down, or plays where he’s got to get the ball out quickly, placement, where he wants me, what I’m most comfortable with and what he is—when you can put those things together, it allows for plays like that.”
By that logic, the progress he made last season (44 receptions for 530 yards) should continue to this season and those flashes could become a bit more consistent.
Again, for the sake of the Chiefs receiver room as a whole, they will have to.
RB Kareem Hunt
Rookie Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt seems to be all the rage in the early days of training camp already at St. Joseph.
“The thing I’m really pumped about is,” Alex Smith told reporters this week, “I feel like (Hunt) has picked up the pass game and the protection and that’s normally what’s the hardest for young backs protecting the pass game. But as far as all that stuff, once the ball is in his hands he looks good in shorts. We’re all excited to see how he’s doing.”
That other quarterback had some nice words about Hunt as well:
“Kareem’s a great runner,” said rookie Patrick Mahomes. “A guy who can really pound the ball inside and bounce it outside, but at the same time he can catch the ball. So he’s a guy who can do a lot of things from the backfield. I think he’ll be a big asset for the team.”
And finally, on Wednesday, Travis Kelce:
“He’s coming along,” Kelce said. “He looks good back there. He’s starting to feel more comfortable with the offense, and he’s starting to play to that Eric Bieniemy-style of play.”
As I noted in this piece on under-the-radar players to watch, Hunt has also popped up on many 2017 fantasy top 100 lists, and he’s the all-time leading rusher at Toledo with 4,945 career yards.
"The vision and the balance that has, I think he's one of the most instinctive players in this entire draft class,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah added. “I think this guy is going to be an outstanding pro."
LB Justin March-Lillard
Man, it would be exciting if Justin March-Lillard could stay on the field.
2016: Made it to the regular season this time, five games of it. He recorded 22 tackles (15 solo), but never saw the field again after a somewhat mysterious hand injury (he did play one special teams play in the playoff game).
There’s a lot to like about March-Lillard, including the fact that he is capable of playing both inside linebacker positions, as my old pal B.J. Kissel noted in his pre-camp article.
I hate to be that cliché guy, but one of the quotes I heard while working as a reporter for the Chiefs was that “the best ability is availability,” and that hasn’t happened for March-Lillard thus far.
So, why are we still talking about him? This quote from defensive coordinator Bob Sutton last year helps explain it:
“Justin is a very instinctive player. He keeps himself in good position from the standpoint that he stays square and he's got a feel for the ball … He's got some of that natural feel for the ball and that's a great trait to have, particularly as an inside player. You can't tell where the ball is going all the time - whether it’s staying inside or bouncing back out. He’s always had that sense of nature since he’s been here.”
If the third season’s a(n injury-free) charm, it could be breakout time for March-Lillard.
CB Steve Nelson
If there’s one position that makes me uneasy about the upcoming season, it’s the right cornerback position, as well as the nickel and dime looks, which, as the league evolves, are becoming ever the more important.
Then I saw something on Twitter the other day that made me go, “Hm. Really?”
Steve Nelson showed promise from the slot in his second season pic.twitter.com/jBN0IEVvw6— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 24, 2017
Steve Nelson proved extremely valuable for the Chiefs last season and ranked fifth defending the slot, according to Pro Football Focus.
What the Chiefs are doing to address that position opposite Marcus Peters right now confuses me, with Phillip Gaines and Terrance Mitchell also in the mix.
But that should become more clear as training camp moves forward when the cream rises to the top. I think the Chiefs have something in Nelson, who played more than 1,000 snaps on defense last year (in addition to 117 on special teams).
“We all want interceptions, that’s the name of the game,” Nelson told Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star. “I’m ready to take on a role a step higher than last year and just make more plays.”