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Draft Darlings: Trey Palmer could make the Chiefs’ offense vertical again

If Kansas City wants more speed, this Nebraska draft prospect could provide it.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

When the Kansas City Chiefs traded superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins just over a year ago, the team lost a lot of its vertical passing game. In 2022, quarterback Patrick Mahomes posted his fewest passes over 20 air yards in a season not affected by injury. Over the last two seasons, his average intended air yards have ranked 32nd and 28th in the league. First, opposing teams sold out against the deep pass — and then, Hill was traded. The Chiefs had to adjust on offense, regaining efficiency by focusing on more throws to underneath routes.

But this offseason, Kansas City lost even more vertical pop in their offense, when free agent wide receiver Mecole Hardman signed with the New York Jets. While Hardman had a limited offensive role, he still was the team’s most dynamic vertical threat.

If the Chiefs are looking for a guy who can provide that kind of vertical speed, Nebraska wideout Trey Palmer might make sense.

Here’s what you need to know about him:


Out of high school, Palmer was a four-star recruit from Louisiana, where he won the state’s Class 1A 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash, breaking the state 200-meter dash record with a time of 21.11 seconds. He committed to Louisiana State University (LSU), where he was used sparingly as a rotational receiver.

Amid coaching changes (and a smaller role), Palmer entered the transfer portal in 2022, ultimately moving on to the University of Nebraska. While there was also coaching turmoil in Lincoln during the 2022 season, Palmer still produced at a high level. He racked up 71 catches for 1043 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cornhuskers.

At the NFL Combine, Palmer measured 6 feet and 192 pounds, which is a good size for a vertical threat. While he only participated in the 40-yard dash, he ran it a staggering 4.33 seconds, which ranked first among all 2023 receivers and in the 94th percentile all-time. His 1.51-second 10-yard split ranks in the 80th percentile.

In short, Palmer has vertical speed that no other receiver in this class can match.

Film evaluation

That’s the first thing that stands out in Palmer’s film: his speed.

Palmer doesn’t even look like he needs to run very hard to get to full speed; he can get on top of a defender in a hurry. Teams typically felt the need to “cloud” him — keep a safety over the top — to keep Palmer from beating them downfield. But even when he’s double-covered, Palmer has enough speed to get on top. That opens space for other receivers to get open, too.

But it’s not just that. Palmer’s also good as a vertical route runner. He’s a fluid athlete with a good feel for tempo and pace, which helps him set up downfield routes. In Nebraska, he ran deep over and seam-bender routes. These require the ability to find open space by recognizing leverages — which Palmer does well.

While Nebraska didn’t send Palmer on a lot of underneath routes, he did show the ability to run dig routes over the middle of the field. He still needs development in his route-running, but he has enough fluidity in his hips to expand his overall route tree.

How he fits with the Chiefs

Palmer could play in the slot immediately. He wouldn’t need to have free releases designed for him (as the team needed to do with Hardman), but keeping him off the line of scrimmage is going to be important. He would likely begin with a vertical route tree that included drag, over, post and go routes. He’d also be dynamic on jet sweeps and screens — so he’d fit right into the Kansas City offense.

As we often see with rookie receivers in head coach Andy Reid’s offense, Palmer’s snaps would probably be limited — but early on, he could play a role on third downs and in the red zone. His immediate role would be dictated by how well he develops as an underneath route-runner — but it’s likely Palmer would be able to expand his route tree (and his role) over the long term.

The bottom line

If the Chiefs are looking for a vertical threat in this draft, Palmer would be my first pick of the bunch. The circumstances of his college career are weird, but he was productive in a limited offensive infrastructure. In a better one — like Kansas City’s — Palmer could be an instant contributor as a vertical threat.

Frankly, Palmer looks like a better prospect than Hardman did in 2019. At the next level, he will need to get stronger and add to his underneath route tree — but if you’re looking for speed, Palmer is the guy. If that’s what the Chiefs are seeking, he would be a smart choice.

Grade: Fourth or fifth round

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