Over the weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2019 season finally kicked off with their 38-17 victory against against the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason opener.
There are talking points galore — but one of the most intriguing storylines is the battle for the wide receiver position. Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins are the top two wideouts on the team. Demarcus Robinson is safely embedded into a rotation — at the very least — in the third wide receiver position.
But after that, though, the wide receiver room is crowded.
The Chiefs have a variety of wideouts — with varying skills — all competing for the last three or four spots on the roster. These guys are competing not only for a job, but also for playing time in the regular season. Right now — given the heavy rotation both in camp and even in the preseason game — it’s hard to get a grip on how it will all shake out.
So down in the AP Laboratory this week, we’re looking at the receivers competing for these final few spots — breaking down how they are successful, what they are being asked to do and where they still need to improve.
We’ll focus on the receivers that are in strong contention to make the the team: Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Marcus Kemp and Cody Thompson.
WR camp/preseason battle is one of the best on the Chiefs team right, so gotta take a look at how they looked last night— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Hardma has the juice, it's not Tyreek Hill level, but it's just a tier below. Love the decision to plant and go up field. pic.twitter.com/zzjhQlAdYL
Outside of Hill, Hardman brings the best trump card on the team: pure speed to simply outrun not just players but angles.
This play is blocked well — and the Bengals are late to react to the motion — but two Bengals still have the angle to stop Hardman for a modest gain. They simply can’t.
Hardman doesn’t have Hill’s change-of-direction ability, but his speed is almost to the same level. The ability to see the lane open up, put his foot in the ground and cut upfield was good to see; Hardman didn’t get many chances like this in college.
Hardman is still developing his releases off the LoS and excels when off the LoS or in a stack. His speed will force DBs to start to transition early but he has to have the footwork or hands to take advantage and not allow them back into the play.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
CB is borderline too physical* pic.twitter.com/0S0YrsCMOu
As a pure receiver, Hardman still has work to do — but with Hill back, he has time to develop. When being schemed into free releases off the line of scrimmage, he is often able to generate some separation from the defenders. The issue is when he has to beat a defender off the line of scrimmage; his footwork, route stems and hand fighting are all still developing.
Best use: Right now, Hardman is an extremely dangerous weapon who can place stress on the defense horizontally and vertically. His rare speed creates a vertical threat on any given play — and once he has the ball, his ability as a runner makes him effective on screens and sweeps. When aligned as a wide receiver, he is going to be limited in the route tree he’s asked to run and where he can align on the field — but Andy Reid has shown the ability to scheme players with similar skillsets into favorable looks.
Another favorite contender for WR4 (assuming DRob is 3) is Byron Pringle. He doesn't have the same gamebreaking speed but plenty to run by CBs. Where he shines is his hand fighting and leveraging his route stem— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Stutter release into the arm chop gives him an easy step, + tracking pic.twitter.com/xMdxTPRbIV
Pringle is another dynamic young wide receiver that is pushing for the leftover reps. Like Hardman, Pringle is best at taking the top off the defense and providing a vertical threat. His speed is clearly a level below Hardman’s, but he still consistently generates separation with his route running and his ability to leverage cornerbacks. Pringle does an excellent job varying his releases off the line of scrimmage and is very adept at using his hands to build speed.
Again, Pringle's ability to leverage a DB, reduce his surface area, and win with his hands is great. He has the entire back-corner of the EZ but the ball is underthrown. Wanna see him adjust, stack the CB on his back better, then attack the ball rather than try the vet push off pic.twitter.com/G69CaP5REK— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Pringle’s biggest downside has always been his hands — and sometimes that carries over to the catch point. He has a tendency to drop some passes. He also prefers to track and run under the ball rather than attacking it at its highest point. Until he has a higher comfort level highpointing the football — and stacking or boxing-out cornerbacks — he will be limiting himself as a receiving threat.
Best use: Pringle is most effective running vertical routes and threatening defenses deep. His releases off the line of scrimmage and route running ability allow him to work from a variety of alignments — and on hard breaking routes like digs and comebacks. Unfortunately for Pringle, he’s on a team with speedy players like Hill and Hardman; there will be situations that favor their pure speed over his route running prowess. If he can improve his ability at the catch point or get some consistency with his hands, he will be able to play across multiple receiver positions — and won’t be limited to being only a deep threat.
The conflicting part is the final WR likely isn't seeing many snaps for their receiving ability but rather the extra stuff. It's easy to see why a coaching staff would like Kemp even if he hasn't developed a ton as a receiver.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Good job working across the D to seal off the LB pic.twitter.com/Nngx3g5Owg
Through the last couple of seasons, Kemp has been a special teams player and has been developing as a wide receiver. Every year, he flashes a little bit as a wideout — and is consistently praised as a special teams player — but it appears he is not going to put it together as a consistent receiving threat.
Where Kemp really shines on offense is doing little things: blocking or producing yards after catch when there isn’t much available. His knowledge of the playbook is an unknown — but given his longer tenure with the team, it’s reasonable to think he has a better grasp than newer players do.
Best use: When considering the final one or two roster spots at wide receiver, it’s common to focus more on how a player can help the team outside their receiving ability — and among these receivers, Kemp provides the most value as a special teams player. But at this point, his knowledge in the system makes him an attractive backup across all wide receiver positions. If he can be trusted to play any of the three wide receiver positions — and be a top special teams performer — it’s going to be hard to knock him off the roster.
The final WR spot could very well come down to Cody Thompson vs Marcus Kemp. Thompson's routes are phenomenal, he breaks down CBs consistently and shows solid hands. Receiving upside between him and Kemp slants towards Thompson pretty strongly pic.twitter.com/Jd0bB5RZZN— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 11, 2019
Kemp’s most direct competion will likely come from Cody Thompson. He comes from a strong special teams background in college — and against the Bengals, seemed to be getting the most looks in the third-string offense.
Thompson is an excellent route runner with a great combination of size and change-of-direction ability. Thompson’s ability to set up defensive backs on in-breaking routes and double moves is extremely impressive for a guy coming out of Toledo. As a pure receiver, his upside — if not his current ability — should push him on to the roster over some other players. But when considering these sixth and seventh wide receiver positions, it’s harder to predict.
Best use: As a receiver, Thompson fills a niche the Chiefs don’t quite have outside of their top guys. His size, his releases off the line of scrimmage and his ability at the catch point make him an attractive X, possession or slot receiver. On a team filled with speed and deep threat options, Thompson provides an attractive change of pace. The biggest thing holding him back will be proving he’s worth keeping over proven special teams players.
The Kansas City Chiefs have come along way since 2014, when they completed an entire regular season without a single touchdown reception by a wide receiver. Obviously the quarterback played a huge part in that statistic. Still, it’s hard to imagine a wide receiver group with these four players competing for its final roster spots being shut out that way.
Even with just one game available to judge — a preseason game at that — all four of these players have provided some signs they would be able to help the team this season.
Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle appear the most ready to help the team in an offensive role. Even if they do it in different ways, both are dynamic receivers who specialize in threatening defenses vertically; Hardman’s speed and Pringle’s route running make them threats on any given snap.
Cody Thompson and Marcus Kemp may be battling it out for the final roster spot — but in the end, it may have less to do with their receiving ability than it does in other ways they can help the team. Thompson’s ability to fulfill a Sammy Watkins-like role could be valued as insurance against an injury to Watkins — but what Kemp lacks in development as a receiver is more than balanced by his special teams play and his usefulness as a blocker.
What do you think?