It isn’t easy to cut down a roster to 53 players when there are as many as 90 talented individuals in a training camp (at one point). It makes it even more difficult when there are zero preseason games played.
The Kansas City Chiefs need to get from the 80 players they have now to 53 by September 5, and they’re relying solely on what they see on the practice field. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub probably has the most influence on who gets cut because of how important it is that fringe roster players contribute in the third phase of the game.
“[Preseason] is the only time that we really went live and saws someone block or tackle live,” Toub pointed out. “Now, we have to make decisions off of practice. We meet every night as a staff and we go over each guy and evaluate each guy and put grades on them. All we’re doing is looking at practice and that’s all we can do.”
One of the most important positions in any phase of special teams is the gunner spot on the punt team. A good gunner can be the difference between a punt being downed inside the 10-yard line and a touchback. That has become vital in the modern NFL, where offenses seemingly have every advantage.
Especially with a young punter like rookie Tommy Townsend, it’s important to have gunners that can be relied on to beat their defender off of the line of scrimmage, get downfield fast and position themselves to successfully prevent a punt from going into the end zone.
Toub already has a good idea of what that position will look like for the Chiefs in 2020.
“The gunner position is looking pretty good,” Toub announced. “We have some good, solid depth there. We brought (cornerback) Antonio Hamilton in from the Giants, who probably was the Giants’ number one gunner last year. When you put the tape on, he made a lot of plays for them and we’re happy to add him to the mix. Right now, I’d probably say Antonio is in the lead with (wide receiver) [Byron] Pringle. Obviously, Pringle was our gunner last year all year.”
There should be no surprise that Hamilton — who finished 2019 with an 80.2 PFF special teams grade and zero special teams penalties — will be a big contributor. Pringle’s experience gives him a leg up as well, but there are still good candidates besides the two leaders.
“We have a number of guys behind them,” Toub began. “(Wide receiver) [Marcus] Kemp was a starting gunner [in 2018] for us and he’s looking really good this offseason coming off of his knee injury. Other guys can play it, (wide receiver) [Demarcus] Robinson can play it, (cornerback) [Rashad] Fenton can play it, there’s a number of guys that can play gunner for us and some of these young guys look good too. The (rookie cornerback) [L’Jarius] Sneads of the world, and (rookie cornerback) BoPete Keyes, they’re all contributors and they’re all going to help us this year.”
Toub knows what to look for in a good special teams player. He has been known as one of the best special teams coordinators in the NFL for a long time now and has put game-changing units on the field.
When asked about what he wants to see from a special teams contributor, he had a few examples immediately come to mind.
“What we’re looking for is guys like (wide receivers) Pringle, Kemp, [Gehrig] Dieter,” Toub answered with a chuckle. “We are so fortunate, our receiver corps is really, really good on special teams. All the way down the line from Demarcus on down. I love (wide receiver) Mecole [Hardman], I love all those guys. The only guy we really don’t use is (wide receiver) [Sammy Watkins]. Besides that, everybody has a role on special teams and every one of them brings something to the table.”
It seems like Toub is favoring the experienced special teams players, which is not abnormal in a regular offseason. However, it may be even more significant this year with the lack of live-action plays they’ll see before Week 1.
“You see what’s going on in practice and you see good things,” Toub admitted. “But when it’s live bullets, you’re just not going to know until you get in there and play. I know there’s going to be a period of learning that’s going to go on in the first few games for these young players. You can’t match the speed you’re going to get, and all you can do is talk about it every day.
“It’s hard to mimic that in practice. A lot of these guys are going to have to learn on the run, and I think we’re in a good position right now, we’re getting good practice in, plenty of time to work on things, we just hope that if they do make a mistake, it’s not a huge one. But everybody will make a mistake, and we just move on and don’t make the same mistake twice.”
The special teams unit faces more turnover than the rest of the roster. 2019 contributors like safety Jordan Lucas, tight end Blake Bell, and linebacker Darron Lee all had total special-teams snaps within the top nine on the team.
With new names to plug in, Toub is warning that it may not be all put together in the opening weeks of the 2020 season — but if anyone can be trusted to get it straightened out, it’s Uncle Dave.