Most players that the Kansas City Chiefs signed to reserve/future deals after the 2020 season are inexperienced — or haven’t done much during their limited NFL experience. But there is one exception — and what he has done in his short NFL career shows that he has the ability to contribute to the Chiefs’ high-powered passing attack.
The player is 24-year old wide receiver Antonio Callaway. After his promising college career was cut short due to off-the-field issues, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. That year, he was third on the team in targets (79) and receiving yards (586) — and led the team with five touchdown receptions.
In 2019, suspensions once again became a major problem for him — and it led to him playing in only nine games over the last two seasons with the Browns and Miami Dolphins.
Now that he’s in Kansas City, he’s caught enough of general manager Brett Veach’s attention to be mentioned in a pre-draft press conference as an “exciting” player.
He’ll have to earn his roster spot over a packed group of young wide receivers — but if he can rekindle his 2018 performance, there is a role for him in Kansas City offense. Let’s look at that season to see how how he could fit into the mix.
Callaway fits the typical mold of a Z-receiver. At the 2018 NFL scouting combine, he ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at 5-feet-11 and 200 pounds. His speed is his most valuable asset — and he used it to make himself a dangerous deep-ball threat in 2018.
Looking into Antonio Callaway's 2018 season to see what he can bring to the #Chiefs offense if he makes it to Week 1— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 10, 2021
The most obvious thing is a deep-ball threat. He uses that 4.41 40 time, but also good releases off the line, great closing speed and ball-tracking ability pic.twitter.com/KiSwJXch6g
He showed quick feet in his releases from the line of scrimmage, allowing him to separate and not be disrupted too much by press coverage. That’s when his speed really kicks in: he continually shifts gears until he has completely blown past the defender. He also had good instincts when the ball was in the air; he tracked deep passes well and used impressive closing speed to finish through the ball — even if he didn’t always complete the catch.
Nearly 25% of his 2018 targets came on passes that were at least 20 yards down the field. He was Cleveland’s best big-play receiver — and as his rookie season continued, he improved his ability to bring in those passes.
Callaway had a drop problem in the first half of his rookie season, dropping tough targets but also easy, open passes.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 10, 2021
In the back half of the year, he appeared to correct it. All 6 of his drops (per PFF) in 2018 came in the first nine weeks of the season pic.twitter.com/0G7l53pVxW
At the beginning of 2018, Callaway struggled with drops — whether they were contested or not. Per Pro Football Focus, he had six drops in his first nine games, but then didn’t have a single one in the remaining seven games. In that second half of the year, he had impressively tough catches both over the middle of the field and on the sideline.
Putting together that speed and receiving ability helped him become a legitimate threat to score on any deep pass — but with his good route-running and strength to get through physical coverage, he was also able to win in the intermediate areas of the field.
Callaway really seemed to put it all together for the last game of his rookie season: Week 17 vs. the Ravens— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 10, 2021
He showed great releases off the line, strength to get through physical coverage, and a great catch on the sideline highlighted here: pic.twitter.com/VKyO26vS7I
This was especially true in his last game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens, in which Callaway appeared to really put it all together. His box score — four catches, 79 yards and a touchdown — reflected one of his best games of the year, showing off all the things I’ve mentioned.
While Callaway is a quick, athletic player, he hasn’t had a lot of success picking up yards after the catch on quick throws to the flat. He isn’t as shifty in the open field as he is fast. Cleveland forced the ball to him on screen passes and other short throws — but on those reps, he never seemed to break through for big plays.
If he is a part of the Chiefs offense in 2021, he will likely be a situational deep threat who can overwhelm a defensive secondary that will already worried about the speed of wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. He could be the kind of player who doesn’t see a lot of targets — but makes the absolute most of the ones he gets.
Chances of making the active roster
Callaway appears to be fighting for the fifth or sixth spot in the Chiefs’ receiving corps — and to get either one, he’ll have to really impress the coaches. The Chiefs usually require special teams ability from their reserve receivers — but Callway has very limited NFL special-teams experience; he has really only been a returner in that phase of the game.
Fortunately, the receivers ahead of him are experienced, important special-teams players who can make up for what Callaway lacks. If he can show ability similar ability to what he displayed in 2018, it will be tough for the Chiefs to pass up the chance to have him, Hardman and Hill on the field at the same time — forcing opposing secondaries to really worry about not letting anything get behind them.
With the Chiefs, Callaway has a chance to turn his career around — and help make an incredible offense even more unfair.