As much as I feel the need to continue talking through the Kansas City Chiefs’ unbelievable move to trade away star wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the deal is done. Hill will no longer be catching passes from quarterback Patrick Mahomes — and the Chiefs must now focus on building a receiving corps without him.
It’s not often that a team trades away its most productive skill-position player while still expecting to contend for a Super Bowl, but that’s what’s happening here. But as long as Mahomes is taking the snaps and head coach Andy Reid patrols the sidelines, this team will be in the mix.
It will just be much tougher to achieve than it has been in the last four seasons. The offense just won’t look the same.
How will Hill’s absence impact the unit?
1. An expanded role for Mecole Hardman
When Hardman was drafted, it was natural to look at him as a direct replacement for Hill. Nearly three years later (and in the last year of his rookie contract), his shot to truly fulfill that initial expectation has now arrived.
It will be Hardman’s first opportunity to be schemed as the primary Z-receiver — the wide receiver who aligns off the line of scrimmage in order to be utilized in pre-snap motion to avoid the impact of press coverage.
Of course, the Chiefs have deployed Hardman from similar alignments — but on a given play, he was rarely part of the primary route combination. If it wasn’t a quick pass or a designed touch, he’d be an auxiliary option after the first reads on a clear-out vertical or a checkdown.
We got a taste of Mecole playing in Tyreek's role last year in Wk 17— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 24, 2022
They run Wasp, w/ Mecole as the primary route on the post-corner. A fantastic route not only shakes the CB, but makes deep S throttle down -- widening & maximizing the space for Mahomes to throw into #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/z3VUhdlkga
But in this play from Week 17, we see a snap where Hardman is in Hill’s place as the primary route on a third-down passing play. The Chiefs run Wasp.
Hardman runs the post-corner route with great timing and fluidity, creating separation from both the cornerback and the safety by selling the post route. The play is an encouraging sign for Hardman’s potential as the headlining receiver.
That said, Hill has been a very unique player; the Chiefs can’t simply substitute Hardman into everything that he did. Just the same, Hardman has been in the system for three seasons — and in the minds of the coaching staff, he seems to have finished the 2021 season strongly. It’s likely that he will lead wide receivers in snaps, giving him a real chance to prove whether he can do the complex things that Hill did in the offense.
Still, Hardman will need to display generally improved play at the position — whether that’s in route cleanliness, hand usage or simply being on the same page with his quarterback. In this contract year, he’ll have all the opportunities he needs to go off. The only question now is whether he will.
2. A tougher task for Travis Kelce
With Hill no longer striking fear in man-coverage defenses — forcing them to play zone — they will shift their focus to Travis Kelce as the top playmaker to stop. That could make things even harder for the All-Pro tight end.
Kelce eats zone coverage alive; his feel for spacing and manipulation of defenders’ coverage responsibilities allows him to consistently get open. If teams don’t have to worry about Hill beating a cornerback in man coverage, they will play more press-man than zone. As the years go by, that will become more and more difficult for Kelce to beat.
On top of that, Hill’s absence will make safeties feel more confident about playing closer to the line of scrimmage, where they will be ready to take away intermediate-level throws to players like Kelce. That’s why it will be necessary for Hardman to become a legitimate threat to create a big play at any moment.
Overall, nothing about this trade benefits Kelce. The onus to lead the pass catchers will all be on him. Unfortunately, he should be trending the opposite way: subtly limiting his snaps to preserve him as long as possible.
Unless he’s excited to try and pump up his statistics, this does nothing but make things more difficult for the 32-year old Kelce.
3. A possible shift in offensive philosophy
While the Chiefs’ passing attack has suffered a blow, it’s hard to imagine defenses will suddenly disrespect that phase of the offense. Whether with man coverage or zone underneath, teams will still be likely to deploy a higher-than-normal rate of two-high safety looks against the Chiefs.
But Kansas City will no longer have the game-breaking, unguardable wideout who allows them to really chip away at a defense through the air — one who can get the ball in space and magically avoid tacklers on the way to a first-down conversion. So it is worth considering whether there should be some sort of shift in the offense’s play-calling mindset.
Using a punishing running game to truly maximize opportunities against light defensive boxes will help soften the impact of Hil’s absence. Instead of defaulting to zone runs, the team should feature more of the gap-running game, which allows its bullying offensive line to play to their strengths by overpowering their opponents. It could also benefit the Chiefs to maximize wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster’s abilities as a blocker, allowing them to get creative or unpredictable with their personnel.
On top of that, Mahomes will be missing his chemistry with Hill — while also being without veteran wide receivers like Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson. The more that the offense can force defenses to devote further resources to stopping the run, the better off it will be. It should ease the unit’s adjustment to this new era.
The Chiefs should consider leaning more on the running game — and their most-recent actions suggest they understand that: it appears they’re already on the hunt for an addition to the running back room, hosting a visit with free agent Ronald Jones.