It’s well documented that the Kansas City Chiefs have one of the best special teams coaches in the league in Dave Toub, and they consider special teams an equally important third phase of the game. That emphasis starts now, in training camp, where jobs are won and lost due to effort and execution on special teams units.
It represents a significant opportunity for all young NFL players trying to make a roster, but the Chiefs also have substantial snaps to replace due to the loss of a couple of core-four players this offseason. As we wrap up the position group recaps, we can’t ignore Uncle Dave’s third of the team.
1. Who replaces the nearly 1,500 snaps up for grabs?
Gone is Demetrius Harris, the top special teams player in terms of snaps played in 2018. Frank Zombo, Terrance Smith and Eric Murray are no longer in Kansas City, and Marcus Kemp might be the odd man out in a crowded group of receivers.
2. Who are the returners?
The incumbent at punt returner is Tyreek Hill, and at kick returner, it’s Tremon Smith. Both were very good, so why fix something that isn’t broken? Well, there’s a good chance the Chiefs have done just that with Mecole Hardman. With Hill back in a starring role on the offense, it’s much more likely that Hardman becomes an impact returner and has more of a complementary role on offense. It will be interesting to see if Darwin Thompson or Cody Thompson gets a shot at winning a return job in camp.
3. Who are the best kick coverage guys?
Charvarius Ward and Marcus Kemp were among the leaders in special teams tackles in 2018. Linebackers Dorian O’Daniel and Ben Niemann and “The Sausage,” Anthony Sherman, will have a chance to continue to make an impact this season. Who else will emerge as gunners and sound tacklers on the kick and punt coverage teams?
4. Who are the key blockers?
Sherman is among the most valuable role players on the Chiefs because of his ability and effort on the return teams. But this is an area where they might really miss Demetrius Harris (penalties aside). Look at the tight end competition to see who stands out in St. Joseph. Between John Lovett, Deon Yelder, Blake Bell and the others, one of those guys might just end up leading the Chiefs in special teams snaps this season.
5. Which is more important; not making mistakes or making big plays?
The “Voice of the Chiefs,” Mitch Holthus, discussed it on the Chiefs Podcast Network. In six years, the Chiefs have 11 return touchdowns (four kickoff, seven punt) and have given up zero. Both sides of that stat are remarkable on their own, but the combination points to complete dominance on special teams in the Andy Reid era. This is the difference between winning and losing multiple games each season.
With the Chiefs offense this season, it might be that preventing the game-changing play by the opponent’s returners is more important. When the Chiefs offense wasn’t so explosive, they relied upon big-play returns to be competitive. With the best offense in the league, it might be more important to prevent plays that could take momentum away from Patrick Mahomes and company. Luckily, with Toub and the talent on this roster, Chiefs fans won’t have to choose.
From the upside down
According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs 2018 special teams units were No. 2 in DVOA, a measure of overall efficiency, but they could actually be significantly better this season. The In 2018, the Chiefs had only one return touchdown, and they committed 18 penalties on special teams, which was middle of the pack among NFL teams. They also had a punt blocked for a touchdown against the Colts. As the roster evolves and the Chiefs build more depth, more talent and more speed will be featured on special teams. This team could be the most balanced and explosive in the NFL.