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Getting more clues about the Chiefs’ final roster from special teams

After what we saw against the Bengals on Saturday — and what Dave Toub said on Tuesday — we might be able to see things a little more clearly

Less than a week ago, we examined a training camp press appearance with Kansas City Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub, looking for clues about Chiefs players who might be on the preseason roster bubble.

We believe that Toub can often provide such clues because we think his identification of players that are crucial in special teams roles play an important part in the team’s roster decisions. While special teams considerations play a role in determining the roster for any NFL team, Toub’s stature as one of the most successful special teams coaches in the league — and his status as assistant head coach to Andy Reid — may make these factors even more important in the Chiefs organization.

From Toub’s comments last week, we identified six Chiefs player who could get an extra boost for the final roster because of their special teams contributions:

  • Tight end Blake Bell
  • Tight end/H-back John Lovett
  • Wide receiver Mecole Hardman
  • Wide receiver Byron Pringle
  • Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson
  • Cornerback Running back Tremon Smith

Saturday night’s 38-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason opener at Arrowhead Stadium provided additional clues that some of these players might indeed get that consideration.

Smith returned the first kickoff of the game — suggesting that for the moment, he continues to be near the top of the list of kick returners. Smith also returned a punt in the second quarter.

Hardman — despite concerns that he was having trouble fielding punts in camp — was lined up as the returner for the first two Bengals punts. As with Smith, this might mean Hardman is at the top of the list of punt returners.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Speaking to the media at training camp in St. Joseph on Tuesday, Toub was asked if Hardman had been improving his ability to field punts.

”No question,” Toub replied. “He comes out early — five minutes before everybody — and starts catching. We’ve been doing that, and it’s added on about 100 balls a week for him. It’s made a difference. It’s all about confidence as a punt returner. He’s gaining more confidence, and we’re gaining more confidence in him. He didn’t get one in the game — they kicked away from him and the ball was out of bounds — but hopefully this week, we’ll get something in his hands.”

Toub made it clear that catching balls from the JUGS machine — while it is improving Hardman’s confidence — isn’t the same as doing it in a game setting.

”The game is everything,” he said. “You can make every catch out here, and then get in the game and be a little bit scared about the coverage. Then all of a sudden you’re putting it on the ground or taking off too early. You want to see a guy transfer over [from practice to a game setting]. That’s why we want to get him some catches.”

The importance of getting game experience catching kicks couldn’t have been demonstrated more clearly than it was in Saturday night’s game. The Bengals muffed three punt catches in the contest. Two of them were recovered by the Chiefs, and both led to Kansas City touchdowns.

That leads us to Lovett — whom Toub said last week was “the first guy that stands out in my mind” on special teams. In the first of the two muffed punts the Chiefs recovered, it was Lovett who first got a hand on the loose ball. Fellow tight end Deon Yelder was the one who emerged from the pile with it, but Lovett emerged only with his right arm dangling from a shoulder injury — and we don’t yet know how serious it is.

Lovett didn’t practice on Tuesday, and was observed wearing a sling on the practice field. That’s not good news. It “doesn’t sound like he is returning any time soon,” said Arrowhead Pride’s in-house injury expert Aaron Borgmann. Reid said after the game on Saturday that Lovett’s right shoulder was separated on the play, and that team trainers were able to put it back in. Now, however, it now looks like a more serious injury — especially since the Chiefs signed tight end Manasseh Garner on Monday night.

So while Lovett has been getting love — and snaps — from Dave Toub on special teams, it’s not going to do him much good if he ends up on injured reserve before September.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Yelder — according to Toub — had a big game on Saturday.

”He’s coming around,” said Toub of the second-year tight end. “All those guys — there’s a lot of competition over there for that position. They’re all working hard. Yelder had the most reps on special teams. He had 15. I think the average was seven per guy. He did a good job. He rose to the challenge; he got better in that game.”

Does that mean that Yelder is moving ahead of tight end Blake Bell — whom Toub described last week as the player who would take over all of Demterius Harris’ snaps on special teams?

Probably not.

Bell had just four special teams snaps on Saturday, but that was probably because he was considered one of the front-line players — all of whom saw little action after the first quarter. Yelder accumulated those snaps because he played throughout the game with the rest of the reserve players. Still... demonstrating the ability to make special teams plays will help him when the final cutdown comes.

Cincinnati Benglas v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Toub was also asked about the kick returns of wide receiver Rashard Davis in Saturday’s game.

”We gave him a couple in the game — a kick return and a punt return. The punt return really stands out in my mind, because it was a short kick and he’s got the coverage coming down on him in a hurry. He was still able to focus and make a good catch — and save us like 15 yards there. No fair catch. It was impressive what he did there.”

This is a great example of how coaches view things differently than fans do. Neither of Davis’ punt returns were noteworthy on first glance; the punt return to which Toub is referring was only good for two yards. But Toub noticed that rather than let the ball fall short to roll downfield and be downed by the punting team, Davis stepped up to make a tough catch in traffic — without flinching.

Davis — a product of James Madison University — is trying to make an NFL team for the third time, having previously been on the practice squads of the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders. Toub thinks he could do it — but maybe not with the Chiefs.

”He can play gunner,” Toub explained. “That’s where we’re working him. We’re working him on the edge in punt return; he’s obviously a returner in both phases. He could be what we call a ‘fast five’ on kickoff. He’s got opportunities. He’s a good player. He’d be a starting punt returner on a lot of teams. Probably not this one, but on other teams, he probably could be.”

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Toub also spoke of the effort he got from wide receiver Byron Pringle in his 50-yard kickoff return on Saturday.

”His kickoff return in the game — that was impressive,” Toub said. “He hit that thing hard. He was hungry. He wanted to get a touchdown, and he almost popped it. But he’s coming on. For me — as a special teams player — he’s right where he needs to be.”

Last week, Toub wasn’t asked about one of his core special teams players in 2018: wide receiver Marcus Kemp. But he was asked on Tuesday — and based on Toub said, Kemp might be transitioning to offense.

”He was a high-level player for us last year,” Toub said. “He was a starting gunner and made plays all year long. I feel really good about him going forward. I think where he’s really stepped up now is on offense. He’s starting to make a lot more plays on offense — and that’s a good thing, because the offensive coaches feel comfortable about him. He’s in a good place. They feel comfortable, and I feel comfortable. He keeps doing well.”

With so many good wide receivers on the Chiefs roster, this might be the wrong year for Kemp to try and break through to the offense. But with Toub standing in his corner, anything might be possible.

So how does all this affect the list we started last week? Based on what we saw against the Bengals — and what Toub said on Tuesday — here are what I see as the Chiefs players who might get a bump for the final roster based on special teams contributions:

  • Wide receiver Marcus Kemp
  • Cornerback Running back Tremon Smith
  • Tight end Blake Bell
  • Wide receiver Byron Pringle
  • Tight end Deon Yelder
  • Wide receiver Rashard Davis

Kemp makes the list because he should have been there already. Lovett falls off because right now, it seems likely he’ll be unable to play. I’ve taken Hardman off because he is likely to make the team strictly as a wide receiver; the same goes for Robinson. Davis and Yelder have worked their way on to the list.

Let’s see what happens this Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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