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What Richie James can bring to the Chiefs’ offense in 2023

There’s a lot to be determined about Kansas City’s wide receivers, but one free-agent player will be part of it.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Even before the first practice of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2023 training camp could officially begin, the team’s wide receiver corps suffered a blow. Kadarius Toney “damaged his meniscus” while shagging kicks and punts — and likely won’t be back on the field at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

In the practice that followed, free-agent acquisition Richie James appeared to step up — apparently in the offensive role that Toney would have filled. From the slot, James made multiple catches with the first-team offense. One was a red-zone play that I — and many others — couldn’t help but notice.

Even before Toney’s injury, James was projected to make the 53-man roster as quality depth at the wide receiver positions. But in some ways, his playing style matches Toney’s — and that could lead to James getting a more significant role in the offense.

I took a closer look at James’ 2022 season with the New York Giants to determine what he could bring to the Chiefs in 2023:

Playmaking from the slot

In his only year with the Giants, James amassed 569 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Even though he played only 46% of the team’s regular-season offensive snaps, he ended up tied for the team lead in both receptions and receiving touchdowns.

When he was on the field, he was in the slot for 85% of the passing plays in which he was involved. His most utilized route there was the slant, where his quickness and ability after the catch could be weaponized in space.

He did, however, run a pretty wide-ranging route tree from the slot.

Two of the plays shown here hit vertically down the field — and I noticed a few completions on deeper in-breaking patterns, too. James has enough suddenness in his breaks to create separation on those routes.

Last season, the Giants’ offensive coordinator was former Kansas City offensive assistant Mike Kafka — so James already has some familiarity with some of the Chiefs’ staple routes from the slot.

The Chiefs love to hit the over route, a pattern run across the field that takes advantage of space opened up by a deeper route. In the first clip, we see a nice rep of this route where James comfortably catches the ball outside of his frame.

In the second clip, James runs another primary route for slot receivers in the Kansas City offense. He runs a curl route roughly 10-12 yards downfield — right at the sticks — to convert a first down. He creates a window by running towards the coverage defender inside of him, then drifts back outside and settles in for the completion.

Playing out of structure

In one specific area, James’ playing style can be directly compared to Toney’s: both of them have uncoachable movement skills in the open field. While Toney’s flexibility may be unmatched, James shows off some of the same joystick ability.

That can be a volatile skill. In the first clip, we see James break off a slant and catch the ball in open space — but a lack of body control runs him right into a defender. With a smoother transition to turning upfield, the play would gain even more yards.

Still, that out-of-control movement can sometimes be used to evade defenders — and turn nothing into something. While James didn’t have many big plays that came that way, you can see how it could be utilized even further in the open spaces of the Chiefs’ offense.

In any offense with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, every receiver needs to be actively getting open — no matter how long the play might last.

In this scramble drill, James shows an understanding of that concept. In the red zone, he comes off his initial route and threatens to get to the corner or the sideline — before quickly pivoting back to the goal line. This creates the space needed for the touchdown.

Return skills

James was the Giants’ primary punt returner last year, registering 24 that gained 174 yards. His average of 7.3 yards per return ranked 14th out of 17 qualified returners. His longest was 23 yards.

James’ efficiency doesn’t really stand out. You can see, however, that he is comfortable catching the ball — and can change direction in the open field. In the well-blocked schemes of special teams coordinator Dave Toub, that could make him a weapon.

Editor-in-chief Pete Sweeney noted James was the team’s first punt returner during Wednesday’s practice. As the team’s most experienced player in that role, it makes sense for James to take it over. Hopefully, there will be no repeat of last season’ three muffed punts.

The bottom line

It’s very likely that James was going to be quality depth for this team. He has the open-field ability that the Chiefs like to have in their role players — and can provide value on special teams.

However, James should be considered as more than just a solid backup option. If he does have to fulfill some of the duties that Toney would have had in this offense, his film shows me that James has the skillset to do it.

He may even provide a little more as a true receiver — both downfield and over the middle — but may not have the same ceiling as a playmaker. Either way, James’ strong start to training camp is no coincidence.

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