Most of the time, if you’re selected in the middle or late rounds of the NFL Draft, you are expected to make an impact on special teams before you ever get a chance on offense or defense.
With the Kansas City Chiefs, even if you’re first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, special teams coordinator Dave Toub will get you into his phase of the game.
“I just picture him playing [punt protector] on the punt team, where he can get a direct snap and take off. We’re also going to find out if he can tackle too,” Toub said with a chuckle. “We’ve talked a couple times virtually, he said he’s never done it before, but he’s looking forward to it.”
If you’ve followed the Chiefs for any amount of time since Toub was hired alongside head coach Andy Reid in 2013, you know how seriously they take his unit. Every draft pick is evaluated as a special teams player — and if two possible draft picks are equal otherwise, the team will go with who has the higher special teams grade.
Their second-round selection of linebacker Willie Gay Jr. probably didn’t come down to splitting hairs like that — but Toub did put a high special teams grade on him in the pre-draft process. That translates to a big role for the superbly athletic rookie.
“Willie Gay is going to find out that he’s going to be a four-phase starter right off the bat, we’re going to pencil him in as that guy.”
The rookies will be good, malleable prospects for Toub — but not every new Chiefs player will be new to NFL special teams. In March, Kansas City agreed to a deal with free agent cornerback and former New York Giant Antonio Hamilton. He may not have an impressive resume at his defensive position — but he has been nothing short of great on special teams in his career.
“Antonio, he’s a special guy,” Toub began. “He’s a guy that obviously can play gunner. Those are valuable players, and he’s a productive gunner. We’re penciling him in to be a four-phase starter for us right now. We haven’t even had a meeting yet, we will Thursday, and he’ll find out about that.”
Hamilton knows now.
“He’s going to hit the ground running for us,” Toub continued. “He’s a guy that can come in and make plays, you’ve seen him do it with the Giants, and I think we’re really fortunate to have him.”
Toub’s unit will always naturally have turnover as the bottom of the roster changes frequently each offseason — but he sounded comfortable with the continuity the group possesses going into 2020.
“The good thing is, we got a lot of guys coming back. We had a young group last year, and this is now going to be a lot of those guys’ second or third year now. I think we’re going to be okay in those areas.”
One special teams phenom from 2019 was rookie wide receiver and returner Mecole Hardman. In his second season, it’s possible that his further involvement in the offense will diminish his role on Toub’s unit.
“I’m not sure about Hardman, I don’t want to lose him,” Toub stated. “He just scratched the surface as a returner. He hasn’t reached his potential yet, he could be even better, and I think he knows that. Hopefully, we can keep him in those roles. It’s important to get the ball in guys’ hands that can make plays and he’s one of them.”
With the mix of the old and the new, Toub is using another important special teamer from 2019 as an example for new players to follow.
“Our first day we’re going to watch [wide receiver Byron] Pringle,” Toub revealed. “We’re going to watch his good plays and his bad plays from the whole entire season. When you do that, you find the pluses and minuses but it also teaches the young players what we’re looking for... What’s bad effort, what’s good effort. What happens if you miss a tackle, sometimes you can turn it into a positive play. Basically, how we are philosophy wise, and what we expect.”
When it comes to the logistics of this unprecedented NFL offseason, Toub is hopeful that practices and preseason games aren’t impacted too much. He knows how vital it is to his group — and embraces the potential impact it will have early in the season.
“It may be during the year that we end up getting our solid, solid group together,” Toub admitted. “You’re not going to get nearly as many reps to evaluate these guys. Usually we come into camp and I have an idea, ‘okay this guy can do this, this guy can do that.’ We’re not going to know any of that... Hopefully we have preseason games. Those are going to be critical, it’s the only time we have live tackling and live blocking.”
If there’s one coach that fans should have confidence in to get the special teams all on the same page during an unparalleled offseason, it’s Uncle Dave.