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How the Chiefs’ receiving corps is evolving from the ‘Legion of Zoom’

Opposing defenses have challenged Kansas City’s speedy pass catchers to become possession receivers. Are they rising to the occasion?

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of the Kansas City Chiefs’ adjustments on offense this season. Facing two or more high safeties at a league-leading rate, an offense famous for its explosive plays has been impelled to prioritize patience and accept intermediate gains.

As the face of the franchise, quarterback Patrick Mahomes has become the de facto face of the tumultuous transition period of the Chiefs’ offense. Before Kansas City’s Week 10 shellacking of the Las Vegas Raiders, national football analysts had speculated about Mahomes almost daily — questioning everything from his mechanics to his decision-making and poise in the pocket.

However, in reality, every position group on Kansas City’s offense was learning how to adjust to the soft coverages they were consistently facing week-to-week. The offensive line practiced gap blocking schemes to capitalize on the light boxes surrendered by two-high safety shells. The running backs were working on reading those blocks and barreling downhill — a departure from the RPO-centric attack with which they had carved up defenses in the past.

But no group has been more emblematic of Kansas City’s evolving offense than the receiving corps. Dubbed the “Legion of Zoom” by Arrowhead Pride’s own Tom Childs and Brad Symcox, the Chiefs’ receiving corps has been known to take the top off a defense.

The unit is headlined by the unanimous fastest player in the NFL, Tyreek Hill, who flashes his signature peace sign after burning defenders on long touchdown receptions. Hill has done that quite often over his six-year career. Since he entered the NFL in 2016, Hill has led the league in touchdowns of 40-plus yards (21) and 50-plus yards (13). As pointed out by Peter Schrager on Wednesday’s episode of Good Morning Football, through 84 career games, Hill ranks second in 25-plus-yard receptions in NFL history.

Yet, this season, we’ve seen far less of the peace sign — and not just because of the NFL’s taunting rules. As opposing defenses have honed in on disrupting tight end Travis Kelce at the line of scrimmage, they have been able to drop an extra defender deep into coverage to blanket the over routes with which Hill has repeatedly terrorized secondaries in past seasons. Resultantly, Hill has been utilized uncharacteristically as a possession receiver. Through Week 10, he only has eight catches of 20-plus yards.

The unexpected transition to working underneath routes has undoubtedly been strange for Hill. Still, wide receivers coach Joe Bleymaier contends that his development in that area has become a key to keeping the offense on track.

“For Tyreek [Hill], he’s made so many plays going down the field, and he loves doing that,” acknowledged Bleymaier. “We still ask him to do that, but at times...the 12-yard ins or coming back facing the quarterback, back-to-the-defense sort of routes that are open there for him, [those are] what we need from him.”

Hill has taken that coaching to heart, and it has helped propel the Chiefs to victory when the team has needed it the most. Overshadowed by his dominant performances against the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles — which both saw him nearly eclipse 200 yards receiving — Hill’s highest reception total of the season (12) came in Kansas City’s ugly victory over the New York Giants. While his longest reception of the night went for 15 yards, Hill’s gritty performance in Week 8 arguably has been his most important contribution to Kansas City’s season thus far. He repeatedly bailed out the Chiefs’ stagnant offense — converting four third-down conversions, one of which was a six-yard touchdown reception.

While Hill’s performance was atypical of how he has been deployed over his career, it is hardly an anomaly this season. Through Week 10, Hill leads all NFL pass catchers with 19 third-down conversions. His yards per target (7.7) and reception (11.4) are the lowest they have been since his rookie season, but his receptions per game (7.5) are a career-high.

Undoubtedly, the big-play receiver is anxiously awaiting his next game-breaking touchdown, but Bleymaier likes to remind him that he’s always wanted to be a well-rounded player.

“He’s always asking to run different routes — and more types of routes and more variety,” asserted Bleymaier. “I just remind him, ‘You were asking for these routes back in the day when you were just running down the field.’ It’s more, mentally, just the role in the offense, how to get going, [and] what we need from you. If the teams are giving us completions short, [then] catch, get what you can, get back up, do it again, and that’s what we’ll do down the field as opposed to just running past them.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Hill, Mecole Hardman fully expected to expand his route tree rather dramatically this season. Through his first two seasons in the NFL, the Chiefs had featured the speedy receiver primarily on gadget plays and deep balls. However, with the departure of Sammy Watkins this offseason, Hardman had an opportunity to become a legitimate number two receiver in Kansas City’s offense.

Statistically, Hardman is quietly on pace for his most productive season as a professional. He is two receptions away from surpassing his single-season high, and his percentage of catches and drops is much improved. Hardman was one of the few bright spots in Kansas City’s disheartening loss to the Buffalo Bills earlier this season, hauling in nine receptions for 76 yards in the game.

Yet, like Hill, Hardman’s yards per target (7.1) and reception (10) are down considerably from previous seasons. And with fewer possibilities in the deep passing game, at times, Hardman gets lost in the mix of the offense. Kansas City’s unexpected focus on the short-to-intermediate passing game has resulted in its pass catchers competing for more of the same targets than usual. While Kelce has been a staple over the middle of the field for years, Hill now occupies that space, too.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the Chiefs’ primary pass catchers, Hardman also must compete with a group of bigger-bodied receivers who profile favorably in the intermediate passing game. In Week 10, Hardman (5’10”, 180 lbs) was fifth in wide receiver snaps behind Hill and three other receivers: Byron Pringle (6’1”, 201 lbs), Josh Gordon (6’3”, 238 lbs) and Demarcus Robinson (6’1”, 202 lbs). The Chiefs acquired Gordon in Week 4 to try at the X-receiver spot abandoned by Watkins.

In a season critical to Hardman’s future with the franchise, these unexpected circumstances may be hindering his development. Over halfway through the season, he has yet to become a consistent playmaker.

“We’re just trying to find that balance,” assured Bleymaier. “We want the ball in his [Hardman’s] hands. I mean — all the different facets of being an NFL receiver — we want to utilize with him. It’s just finding the right spot with everybody else, and kind of [with] what we’re seeing.”

This season, that seems to be the prevailing mantra of Kansas City’s offense: Take what the defense gives you. Yielding to the idea has forced the Chiefs’ talented group of receivers into unexpected roles, which have showcased the versatility of some and muddled the evaluations of others. However, embracing those roles is the best way to get the group back to doing what they love: ripping off long touchdowns in the blink of an eye.