After the Kansas City Chiefs spent most of the preseason preparing for undrafted rookie running back Deneric Prince to be the team’s starting kickoff returner, they had to change course when Prince failed to make the 53-man roster. He is now the the team’s practice squad.
While speaking with reporters before Monday afternoon’s practice, special teams coordinator Dave Toub revealed the team’s plan.
Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub confirms that Richie James will serve the team as both it's punt and kick returner.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) September 4, 2023
“Richie, right now, you’ll see him line up there and [go],” Toub revealed. “We do have other guys that can do it, obviously. We liked the way Richie came out of preseason with his decision making. He’s the experienced guy back there to help us.”
James — already manning the role of punt returner — will be building on his 47 career kickoff returns. He returned one for a touchdown during his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers, a 97-yard play in the first quarter of a Week 15 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
James will officially be succeeding running back Isiah Pacheco as the team’s kickoff returner. Pacheco took 29 of the team’s 36 kickoff returns in 2022, averaging 20.6 yards per attempt. That was the lowest rate by the team’s top kickoff returner in the 10 seasons Toub has run the unit under head coach Andy Reid.
The Chiefs are also looking for their first kickoff return touchdown since Week 7 of the 2020 season, when wide receiver Byron Pringle ran through the Denver Broncos (and the snow) for 102 yards. But with the NFL’s new rule that will place the ball at the 25 yard-line after it is fair-caught between the 25 and the goal line, it may not be so easy.
Earlier this summer, Toub assured reporters he’d stay aggressive on kickoff returns — but on Monday, he clarified how thoroughly they are thinking through the advantages and disadvantages.
“The fact that with a fair catch, you’re getting the ball automatically at the 25-yard line, that’s a big factor,” Toub noted. “The more you think about it, those are free yards right there. There will be times where we fair catch, we’re not going to return everything like I said the first time. You have to go back and look at the analytics of it; the free yards you get from there are too big.”
Whether or not James will return the ball on a given kickoff, however, will be up to him.
“You have to trust [the returner],” said Toub. “They have they keys to the car; they have to make good decisions... you just have to trust your players on the field to make a big play. Whatever it is, we’re going to block it up.”
Toub also noted James will be the team’s primary punt returner, supplanting wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Toub, however, didn’t rule out the possibility that Toney could jump back into the role at some point.
“It’s a long season,” Toub emphasized. “He’s a guy that can do it. He hasn’t had a lot of catches. He just started practicing again, and we get a bunch [of reps]. Every day, we’re out there catching them. He missed all of those reps. It’s going to take a while for him to get going.”
Among the other roles in special teams, the Chiefs are depending on two key defensive players: cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson, whom Toub said would be the primary gunners on punt coverage.
“They’re both long, fast, experienced,” observed the coach. “They are guys that can get out and run. They are tough, good tacklers. I like them on all phases. They’re going to help us on everything — as blockers, too, on kickoff returns.”
Now that wide receiver Justyn Ross is officially over the 53-man roster fence, Toub confirmed that the decision wasn’t just about his offensive contributions; he’ll play a part in special teams whenever he is active (or up) for a game.
“We have to decide who’s going to be up and who’s going to be down,” noted Toub. “That’s always a factor. Anybody that is up is going to help us; they won’t be up for no reason.”
If Ross is active for the season opener against the Detroit Lions on Thursday, it will be interesting to see where he plays in the third phase — and if he boots someone else in the receiving room to the gameday inactive list.