It’s been talked about ad nauseam: the Kansas City Chiefs are returning 20 out of 22 starters from their Super Bowl-winning roster for the title defense in the 2020 season. Bringing so many starters and even a good chunk of role players back should set the Chiefs up for one of the better rosters in the NFL.
Over the next few weeks, the AP Nerd Squad is going to be breaking down the Chiefs roster position by position as we head into training camp. We’re going to work from the top of the depth chart down to the bottom, briefing how we think the position group is set up.
I’m sure most people are like me and ready for some actual football news, so let’s jump right into the wide receivers as we prepare for the Chiefs to start training camp later this week.
The Chiefs wide receiver room returns Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Gehrig Dieter and Jody Fortson (practice squad), while adding Kalija Lipscomb, Aleva Hifo, Maurice Ffrench, Cody White, Andre Baccellia, and Justice Shelton-Mosely.
The Chiefs won’t keep all of these players — and some may even be gone before camp begins, as they potentially limit the roster to 80 men. The Chiefs will likely keep around six on the active roster with another one or two on the practice squad.
The smart money right now would be on the same top six that ended the year on the roster — Hill, Watkins, Robinson, Hardman, Pringle and Dieter. Hopefully, a few younger players push the bottom guy for a job.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Hill is the top guy in the wide receiver room. Whether you want to define him as the leader, the most talented, the most important player at the position or all of the above, he fits the definition for the Chiefs.
Lotta WR rankings out lately with Tyreek Hill anywhere between 1st and 5th. Maybe you can make a case for any ranking but he's easily the most dangerous WR in the NFL.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 21, 2020
Not many WRs can beat the jam this quickly - and it's over anytime he does - & run a vertical from the 20 pic.twitter.com/ae73JBOZl2
Hill’s game-breaking speed fits perfectly with Andy Reid’s offense and Patrick Mahomes’ ability to be the GOAT. Defenses are forced to change their structure based purely on the fact that Hill exists on the field and then he still finds a way to be the best deep threat in the NFL each and every season. The best part about Hill’s game is that he has improved in every other area of playing wide receiver to become a complete player. His route running on intermediate routes has grown to be good and his ball-tracking ability matches that of receivers who are much bigger and taller.
Most analysts — myself included — thought Hill was going to be in for a significant year in 2019, but he had his least-productive year since his rookie campaign on a per-target basis after an early-season injury. This upcoming season, the “cheetah” is going to be on a mission to prove that he’s not simply a great deep threat, but one of the best receivers in the NFL. Barring another injury, he should do just that with a monster season.
New kid on the block
The Chiefs have some younger wide receivers they have brought in and even one that has a chance to go from an undrafted free agent to competent NFL player in Lipscomb. That is just unlikely to happen this current season. The Chiefs’ receiver room will likely be dominated by returning players, so let’s instead take a peek at the newest returning player, Hardman.
Some of the stuff the Chiefs started doing off their 3x1, Y-Iso looks that teams sold out on started getting good looks.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 14, 2020
Bracket on Hill running what looks like an Over initially (and on Kelce backside) leaves no one deep and Hardman 1on1. Works through the traffic & gets deep pic.twitter.com/8JdWTyoEKU
As a rookie in 2019, Hardman’s usage was extremely limited as he worked in as the fourth receiver on the Chiefs. Hardman was essentially used a linear, deep threat or a gadget player for the Chiefs, and he was able to find quite a bit of success early in the season. Hardman was one of the most productive wide receivers on a per-route and per-target basis last year, and he should be looking to expand upon that raw production.
Eyes will be on the growth of Hardman in 2020 — if he’s running a more diverse route tree from a wider array of alignments. Right now, his limitations cap how often the Chiefs can put him on the field. He has one more year to develop and show he can be a true No. 2 to replace Watkins — who has the job quite easily right now — or the Chiefs will have to spend money or draft capital on the position again.
It should not come as a surprise to AP Laboratory listeners that I’m going with Byron Pringle as the sleeper for the Chiefs’ receiver room. At this point, it’s unlikely he gets major offensive snaps in Kansas City, which is disappointing. Any time he has, he’s performed well.
Chiefs fans may want some good news this week, so let's talk Byron Pringle. Stepping into Watkins' role on short notice, he saw the 2nd most snaps at WR and looked the best— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 8, 2019
Wheel stop, runs CB off the #1's hip
Head down, shoulders square upfield
Push thru contact, snap hips off pic.twitter.com/QY88tBP9Dc
Pringle is a high-quality route runner with good size and speed, and it shows when he’s on the field. For a backup receiver, he’s uniquely effective at all three levels of the field but really shines underneath and in intermediate areas. His route running allows him to operate as a possession receiver that still has the speed to get over the top.
With the Chiefs bringing back Demarcus Robinson, it seems unlikely Pringle sees an uptick in snaps, but his roster spot should be safe. He’s a high-quality special teams player and arguably the second-best “X” receiver on the team behind Watkins. If something is holding him back mentally, this could be a season things finally click and he’s a more significant part of the offense. The worst-case scenario is he fills the same insurance role he did in 2019.
Hardman should be looking to uproot Robinson as the third receiver on the Chiefs’ roster. Based purely on talent or production, it may seem like he already has, but the Chiefs still opted to play Robinson quite a bit more than Hardman last season.
2x2 and the Chargers ran the Buzz adjustment across form Hill in the slot again.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 29, 2020
DS also tops the Over route leaving the CB iso'd 1on1. Robinson with a nice Corner-Post into the open field. Mahomes' eyes get the DS to follow the over, which is still a hard cover for a S/LB. pic.twitter.com/nPudDQDW3P
Robinson puts together some of the prettiest wide receiver reps for the Chiefs. He can run exceptional routes, flashing quick feet and change-of-direction ability and is one of the best broken-play threats on the team. His issue is a lack of consistency with not only his hands but also his route spacing and timing. Despite the lack of reliability, he was able to keep Hardman at bay for the third receiver position all season, and the Chiefs made sure to bring him back for 2020.
If Hardman wants to replace Robinson’s snaps on a more frequent basis, he’s going to have to come a long way in a few areas. First and foremost, he will have to figure out how to beat press coverage at a higher rate. With Hill getting so many slot reps, someone else has to play outside, and that’s been Robinson much of the time. Secondly, Hardman will have to change his route tree entirely from a purely linear one and incorporate more horizontal and back-breaking routes.
The final big hurdle is replacing Robinson’s extra effort. Whether that is on broken plays or as a blocker, Robinson frequently was able to show up on effort plays, and Hardman has shown some issues of not finishing out reps dating back to last year’s camp.
The third wide receiver position should be a true battle based upon schematic fit.
Who starts the season as the Chiefs’ No. 3 WR?
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