Since Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid arrived, we have learned that we can get clues about how the Chiefs final roster will be constructed by listening to what special teams coordinator Dave Toub says to the media during training camp.
In the NFL, making contributions on special teams is the most common way for rookies — particularly undrafted rookies — to find a spot on a team’s roster. But in the case of the Chiefs, there’s another layer to the calculation: Toub himself. Not only is he one of the most consistently successful special teams coordinators in the league, he also carries the title of assistant head coach.
It is widely believed that Toub has more say in roster decisions than most special teams coaches — perhaps even to the point of being allowed to pick a handful of players outside of his specialists (placekicker, punter and long snapper) to serve as the core of his special teams units.
Does this mean that Toub is allowed to cripple the offense or defense by using up valuable roster positions for his players? No... it doesn’t. Think of it as a difference in emphasis. On other teams, a few offensive or defensive players might make the roster because they can contribute on special teams. But on the Chiefs, a few special teams players might make the roster because they can also contribute on offense or defense.
In whatever way Toub’s influence affects roster decisions, it works. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, Toub’s units have ranked among the top three in four of his six seasons in Kansas City — and have never ranked lower than seventh.
If you’d prefer a more traditional statistic, consider this one: in the last six seasons, Toub’s units have scored 11 touchdowns on punts and kickoffs. But they have allowed... none. That’s right. Zilch.
Only one other team — the Atlanta Falcons — hasn’t allowed a special teams touchdown during those seasons. But no other team even comes close to that +11 touchdowns scored-to-allowed ratio the Chiefs possess.
So when Toub talks about players who are catching his eye... we listen.
Toub took to the podium last week — in what we believe was the first of two preseason appearances before the media — and said that tight end Blake Bell was taking all the special teams work that now-departed tight end Demetrius Harris had been doing.
”Right now, Blake Bell is playing all of Harris’ positions,” he said. “Right now, the plan is to have him be that guy. We got a lot of out Demetrius last year. He played three phases for us. I think he had the most special teams plays for a tight end in the whole league. He was setting the bar really high. We are not going to necessarily ask him to be that guy, but he’s going to be playing a lot of those same positions. He might be just a two-phase guy, but we’ll see.”
Toub did hedge his bets a little by saying that Bell might play in only two phases of special teams — but he also said that “right now, the plan is for him to be that guy.”
However, before we anoint The Belldozer as the backup tight end because Toub made that statement — which was in response to a specific question about Bell — here’s what he said when he was asked to volunteer which player was standing out to him on special teams:
“The first guy that stands out in my mind is John Lovett,” he said. “He’s a guy that’s doing well on offense — he’s catching the ball, learning stuff. He’s obviously a smart guy — he went to Princeton — he comes out and doesn’t make mistakes mentally. I think he’s got the speed, and you’re going to find out about the toughness when the preseason games come up and we see if he can tackle. That’s going to be the biggest question.”
And that is the problem. For a special teams coach, any time before the first preseason game is not a good one to make pronouncements about which players will be the best candidates for special teams duty — as Toub explained.
“It’s too early yet. We haven’t done any full-cover punts yet,” he said. “We’ll see in the games. When we get to the games, that’s so important to us — to see guys tackle and block in a live situation.”
Still... there are some judgements about special teams that are possible before any live action has taken place — which brings us to Mecole Hardman.
Once it became clear that wide receiver Tyreek Hill would be available for the 2019 season, the speedy wideout taken with the 56th pick of the draft was widely presumed to be following Hill’s career arc with the Chiefs: to be used primarily as a kick returner while he fully absorbed Reid’s offensive scheme.
But there’s just one problem with that: in training camp, Hardman has been observed dropping more than his fair share of kicks — something that Toub seemed to be acknowledging when he was asked about Hardman’s progress.
”It’s too early to say,” Toub said. “Mecole, he’s a work-in-progress. We have four preseason games that we have to see him in. We don’t know how he is going to react when the live bullets are coming down there. He’s catching the ball, been getting a lot of balls on the JUGS machine right now. He’s still getting better and better every day with his catching. He’s got to build confidence in himself — and we have to build confidence in him.”
Toub wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Hill would still sometimes be used as a punt returner, but made it pretty clear that he wants Hardman to carry most of the load.
”We are trying to develop Mecole to be that guy — to pick up a whole bunch of reps there because Tyreek is getting so much on offense. I don’t think we ever want to be in a situation where we are going to take Tyreek out. We always want to have that threat that we’re going to have Tyreek back there. I think it’s important that teams get prepared to play against Tyreek.”
But there shouldn’t be any doubts about Hardman making the team. Hill’s absence in the earlier parts of the offseason program probably worked in Hardman’s favor, as it gave him more opportunities to get reps and become comfortable not only with Reid’s offense, but also with the quarterback who is running it. However it happened, Hardman seems to be much farther along in the offense than most probably expected at this point — perhaps even in a position to challenge Demarcus Robinson as the number three wideout.
If Hardman gets more of a role in the offense, that could limit his availability to special teams. But Toub isn’t worried.
”Byron Pringle is a guy, a kick returner, that at the end of last year before he got hurt, was really coming on,” Toub told the press. “He almost made the team before he got hurt. He is a guy that we are really going to look hard at. Obviously, Demarcus Robinson is another one that we could use in there. We have a plethora of guys. We have a lot of returners. We are fortunate in that way.”
One of those returners could still be Tremon Smith — the 2018 sixth-round cornerback who was used almost exclusively (and pretty effectively) as a kick returner in his rookie season. Now moved to offense as a running back, it’s unclear exactly what the Chiefs plan to do with him.
So there is now evidence that at least six Chiefs players — Blake Bell, John Lovett, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson and Tremon Smith — could benefit from special teams consideration when the final roster is decided before on August 31. But as Toub noted, preseason games can be especially critical in determining which players — especially new players — will be most effective in special teams snaps.
Special teams snaps could end up being one of the most instructive parts of the upcoming preseason games — and it will be worth noting how they affect what Toub says in his next media appearance.