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Could there be a kick returner battle brewing in Kansas City?

Arrowhead Pride’s 2020 positional previews continue with a look at the Chiefs specialists for this season.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs roster has evolved quite a bit with opt-outs, an 80-man roster and the lack of a normal preseason. With the entire team officially in camp and practicing, information has begun to trickle out as we wait for final cutdowns.

Meanwhile, we of the AP Nerd Squad continue to churn through positional previews for the 2020 season. We’re taking a look at the stars and the up-and-coming contributors — and making a sleeper pick for each group.

Today’s group is one that doesn’t get the same sort of coverage or appreciation as some of the rest, but it is incredibly important in 2020. A familiar face, a rookie replacing an all-time Chief, and some new gunners and returners enter the fray for the specialist group.

Specialists

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The specialist group tends to be a pretty settled one for the Chiefs at this point in the year, and 2020 is no different. Harrison Butker returns as Kansas City’s field goal and kickoff specialist. After moving on from Dustin Colquitt this offseason, rookie Tommy Townsend takes over punting and holding duties for the Chiefs. James Winchester returns in his sixth year as the Chiefs long snapper.

The kick and punt returner options are a little more diverse for Kansas City. Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and Darwin Thompson all got cracks at returning duties in 2019, and new addition Justice Shelton-Mosley has a chance to crack that lineup.

Players like Anthony Sherman, Rashad Fenton, Antonio Hamilton, Dan Sorensen, Armani Watts, L’Jarius Sneed and Dorian O’Daniel all should factor into the Chiefs special teams group in 2020 as well.

“The guy”

Butker has been a superstar for the Chiefs special teams unit since he was poached off of the Carolina Panthers practice squad in 2017. In that season, he set the Chiefs franchise record for field goals made and broke the NFL record for field goals made by a rookie. Butker hasn’t slowed since that season and currently ranks second in NFL history in career field goal percentage — with a minimum of 100 attempts — behind only Justin Tucker.

He’s spent most of this offseason working on his range, drilling this 77-yard attempt back in April. He understands that attempting a field goal that long is unrealistic due to situation and field position, but that improved leg strength has helped him to make some tough field goals through the Arrowhead winds in the past.

Even with a new holder, Butker is expected to continue his career arc as one of the best field goal kickers in Chiefs — and possibly NFL — history.

New kid on the block

After the Chiefs released Colquitt in late April, I gave Townsend the early nod to replace him. When they released Tyler Newsome as part of their 80-man roster cutdowns, Townsend’s spot became all but assured.

Townsend is a fantastic directional punter and consistently dropped his kicks inside the 20 while at Florida. His hang time is also excellent and gives his coverage team plenty of time to get downfield in coverage. Finally, he’s got a big leg that can uncork 80-plus yard punts, as seen above.

The only thing that might hold Townsend up from being an immediate impact punter is his release time. He tends to hold the ball a bit longer than some others, which may require some adjustment at the NFL level. If he can adjust and develop more of a “quick-kick” release, Townsend should be a special teams weapon quickly for Dave Toub.

Sleeper candidate

When the Chiefs drafted Hill and Hardman, their contributions in the return game were immediately evident. As Hill grew into a more important role in the offense, the Chiefs drafted Hardman to replace some of his impact in the return game. This offseason, they may have attempted to find a similar replacement for Hardman in Justice Shelton-Mosley.

Shelton-Mosley is a dynamic return man that was a first-team All American for Harvard in 2017. His vision for return lanes and burst help him to squeeze into gaps that Chiefs fans have become accustomed to with Hill and Hardman on return duties. After an injury sidelined Shelton-Mosely in 2018, he graduated with an economics degree from Harvard and transferred to Vanderbilt and the SEC.

Shelton-Mosley had an opportunity to work for Goldman Sachs this year, but took the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in the NFL and signed with the Chiefs on a free agent deal. While he may be a bit of a long shot to make the roster, his ability in the return game could carve out a niche and make him a staple on the Chiefs’ 53-man roster in the next few years.

Best battle

Quietly, the Chiefs returner job is becoming a bit more contested than originally thought. Mecole Hardman handled primary duties by the end of 2019 but an increased role in the offense may make him limited in his special teams responsibilities. We know that Dave Toub will pull Tyreek Hill back to return punts in crucial instances, but those are few and far between.

The returner job has surprisingly opened up a bit for Byron Pringle and Shelton-Mosley. Pringle was an excellent kick returner at the collegiate level and found himself back to return a couple of kicks for the Chiefs in 2019. However, he was limited as a punt returner at Kansas State and has never returned one for the Chiefs in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Shelton-Mosley was an excellent kick and punt returner throughout his collegiate career. During his time at Harvard, he was a three-time All-Ivy League returner and wide receiver, culminating in his All American 2017 season. His comfort level as a punt returner gives him a bit of a leg up on the competition, as it’s a difficult task to master.

Pringle is decidedly the better fit at wide receiver, as he’s currently the only receiver with “X” experience behind Sammy Watkins. Shelton-Mosley is not in that mold. However, if push comes to shove, Shelton-Mosley just might eke out a spot on the 53-man roster.

That is, if the Chiefs are ready to take Mecole Hardman off returning duties in 2020 for a greater role in the offense.

Poll

Who will be the Chiefs primary returner in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Mecole Hardman
    (1345 votes)
  • 21%
    Byron Pringle
    (572 votes)
  • 23%
    Justice Shelton-Mosley
    (628 votes)
  • 2%
    Other
    (72 votes)
2617 votes total Vote Now