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Film Review: What an expanded role for Kadarius Toney might look like

Kansas City is expecting bigger things from the wideout the team acquired last season.

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Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

At last year’s trade deadline, the Kansas City Chiefs acquired wide receiver Kadarius Toney from the New York Giants, who reportedly traded him due to injury concerns. Still, he made an immediate impact to the Chiefs wide receiving corps — including a touchdown in the team’s 38-35 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII.

While Kansas City largely used Toney as a gadget player in 2022, there’s a belief that the team now sees him as its No.1 wide receiver. With each passing day, it becomes more clear that this is the Chiefs’ plan.

What would that look like? Let’s take a look at his film from both college and the NFL to find out.

Backfield touches

When Toney played at Florida, the Gators’ offense simply focused on getting him the ball in any way it could. One way to do that was putting him in the backfield to take handoffs. Toney has the vision and contact balance to do the job.

Putting Toney in the backfield also helped give him advantageous matchups against slot defenders and linebackers. Since he is dynamic enough to win from any angle, his smooth changes of direction allow him to set up any route. Running routes from the backfield give him plenty of space to operate — and defenses struggle to counter it.

So far, the Chiefs have used Toney from backfield only sparingly — but almost every time they did, it was successful.

More and more NFL teams are using wide receivers (like the San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel) out of their backfields more regularly — especially if they have the vision and physicality to take handoffs. If they can handle running back reads, their additional speed adds another arrow to an offense’s play-calling quiver. Aside from Samuel, Toney might be the league’s best backfield wideout.

Expanding Toney’s vertical route tree

Florida used Toney on more vertical routes than he has seen at the next level. While he isn’t the league’s fastest receiver, his vertical route-running is strong. He’s able to get defenders to open their hips in one direction — and then use his explosion to attack their angles and get past them. His ability to recognize leverage is top-notch.

So far, the Chiefs haven’t asked Toney to run many vertical routes — although they have occasionally had him run some deep crossers.

Toney runs these routes well. He knows how to layer his route between the safety and underneath defender, giving his quarterback an ideal throwing window.

With Mecole Hardman’s departure in free agency, there’s a need for a vertical wideout. Toney can fill that role. While he doesn’t have Hardman’s top-end speed, his connection with quarterback Patrick Mahomes (and his spatial awareness) make him a good fit.

Routes from the slot

With both the Gators and Giants, Toney was primarily used on option routes from the slot, which take advantage of his change-of-direction and route-running abilities. He can turn at any angle, which makes it very difficult for defenders to commit to his route — and his skill at changing both his tempo and speed can freeze them.

So if Toney gets a bigger role in 2023, it will start here. With JuJu Smith-Schuster’s departure, the Chiefs could use a slot possession receiver. With Toney’s spatial awareness and pacing skills, this is an area where Toney could dominate.

Beating press coverage

While Florida hardly ever asked Toney to beat press coverage on the boundary, the Giants were sometimes willing to trust him there. His footwork and change-of-direction skills made it hard for cornerbacks to match him with their feet. This allowed him to find creative ways to beat press.

While the Chiefs haven’t asked Toney to beat press coverage very much, there was a play in the AFC championship that stands out.

On a critical third down in the opening drive, Toney is the point man — the receiver on the line of scrimmage in a bunch formation — and runs a fade route against man coverage. While the Chiefs give him some help off the line of scrimmage with a pick route, they are still willing to dial up a play where Toney must create some space right off the line..

While Toney had limited success against press coverage in New York, there could be value in developing that area of his game. While he’ll always be at a length and mass disadvantage, he does possess the tools and releases to get open against press coverage.

The bottom line

Everything about Toney’s usage is health-related. While he truly has incredible talent, it’s fair to ask how much volume can he handle. Unfortunately, we can’t yet answer that question; we simply haven’t seen enough of him in Kansas City.

Full disclosure: when I began this review, I was unsure whether he could handle a larger role. When he was a draft prospect, I wasn’t one of his big fans — and I’ve always had concerns about his ability to have a bigger workload.

But after watching more tape, I am more optimistic. Toney will always be at his best on designer plays, but there’s still a path to having a larger role. If you can get him working in the slot — both underneath and vertically — he should be able to expand from there.

I’m not sure Toney will ever be the No. 1 wideout the Chiefs seem to think he is. But I think he can easily put up 1,000 yards from scrimmage this year. If he can do that, he will be making the contribution Kansas City needs.

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