The cornerstones of Kansas City’s special-teams unit won’t change. Kicker Harrison Butker, punter Tommy Townsend and long snapper James Winchester are locked into their respective positions — but that’s it. Everything else about this phase of the game is likely to look completely different this season.
Four of the team’s top five special-teams players departed this offseason, providing an invigorating challenge for longtime special teams coordinator Dave Toub — who hasn’t dealt with this much turnover in years.
While speaking with reporters after Tuesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, he previewed the team’s upcoming preseason contest — and the areas on which he’ll be focusing.
“I want to see all the rookies,” Toub told media members. “I want to see guys like [safety] [Bryan] Cook. I want to see him cover... I want to see Justin Watson, the wide receiver. Jaylen Watson, the corners, Nazeeh Johnson, every one of those defensive guys.
“We have to sort that thing out, we have to see who’s going to be a player for us and who can help us on [special] teams. This Bears game is going to be so important for all of those guys.”
Toub said, however, that one vacated position is already been locked in: rookie running back Isiah Pacheco was listed as the team’s starting kick returner on the unofficial depth chart.
“We’re going to give him every chance to be that guy,” Toub said of the team’s seventh-round pick. “I just think he has all the attributes to be a good kick returner. He’s gotten better and better at practice, he’s doing little things better, he’s catching the ball great. Now we have to see what happens with live bullets. When guys are coming down there to take your head off, it’s a little different.”
Toub is putting Pacheco into the role even though his kick-return opportunities at Rutgers were limited; after 18 returns in his freshman season, he didn’t get another opportunity. That speaks to how impressive he is with the ball in his hands, which forced his college coaching staff to immediately utilize those skills.
But so far, it hasn’t been as easy for Toub to decide who should return punts. The strongest candidates appear to be two wide receivers: veteran Mecole Hardman and second-round rookie Skyy Moore. Free agent wideout Corey Coleman has also had opportunities in training camp.
Toub noted that like Pacheco, Moore lacked returner experience at Western Michigan. Over three seasons, he had only one chance to return a punt — a zero-yard result in a game during his freshman season.
But also like Pacheco, returning punts will be a way to get the ball into Moore’s hands as a rookie. While Toub and the coaching staff are banking on Moore winning the job, he isn’t the only rookie who has impressed the coaches.
“I’m hoping — we’re hoping — that he can be a guy,” Toub declared. “We got [cornerback Trent] McDuffie now, too. McDuffie is a guy that’s probably the best catcher — I call him the best punt catcher as we see it at camp. Everything changes when you have live bullets, so we’re going to see how they handle it.”
Hardman is still the unofficial starter, but neither he or the team want him to be the full-time punt returner. Hardman made that clear on Saturday, referring to himself as “Amazon Prime” while identifying rookies who need more time to learn the position’s intricacies as “regular Amazon.”
If that analogy went over your head, it’s okay. Toub explained that Hardman may be more of a situational returner — similar to the way we saw Tyreek Hill being used.
“If Hardman’s getting a lot of reps on offense,” said Toub, “we don’t want him to run a punt return, then have to take him out for the first down of offensive play. That’s really what happens. Now you’re handicapping your offense.”
Knowing what they have in Hardman, the preseason will be a great chance for rookies like Pacheco and Moore to learn from the live reps as returners. We don’t yet know how involved they will be in the offense — but Toub is clearly excited for them to contribute on special teams.