Kansas City Chiefs season-in-review 2017: Wide receivers analysis
By Matt Conner
John Dorsey bet big on his unknown talent stocked at wide receiver in 2017, and it was a risk that paid off in spades for the Chiefs.
Coming into the 2017 regular season, the Kansas City Chiefs had more question marks at wide receiver than any other position on the field. Heading into another offseason, there’s perhaps no other position about which the team should feel better concerning its present and future.
John Dorsey’s decisions at wide receiver last offseason were a bit unexpected to say the least. Tyreek Hill was known as a dynamic weapon, but he certainly had never carried a passing offense. The Chiefs touted the belief that he could be a No. 1 wide receiver, but whether it was his size or his inexperience, there was considerable vocal opposition to relying too much on Hill to make the necessary leap as a No. 1 wideout.
In a move that placed even more pressure on Hill, Dorsey decided to cut ties with popular wideout Jeremy Maclin before training camp started, a preseason cut that saved a lot of necessary money. It also cut the one wide receiver who knew the entire route tree and who’d served as an on-field coach. He was also the most proven and productive wide receiver on the roster.
In a single move, the Chiefs went from “fairly unknown” to “completely unknown” at wide receiver.
In a word: little.
First of all, it’s clear that Alex Smith’s reputation as a starting quarterback has changed over the last 12 months, from the efficient dink-and-dunk, conservative style that defined his earlier years to an accurate downfield thrower. Before this season, however, no Chiefs fan had any reason to think that Smith would put up such numbers and allow speedier threats on the roster to bloom.
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If there were any expectations, they centered on Hill’s top-end speed, but even then, it was impossible to tell how he would fare when regularly lined up against the opposing team’s best pass defender. Could he run a complete route tree? Did he know the playbook enough? Would teams figure out how to best defend him after a year in the league? Was he physical enough?
Beyond that, there was nothing but potential. Albert Wilson was often cast aside in most fans eyes, with many in Chiefs Kingdom wondering why the front office and coaching staff was so high on him. He was the eldest of the bunch sans Maclin at the age of 25.
Chris Conley was a former third round choice with serious athletic skills who is a fantastic spokesman and the sort of player you’d love to hang out with. However on the field, the Chiefs had yet to really figure out how to utilize Conley as a consistent weapon. If anyone was expected or needed to step up, it was here.
From there, it was a junk drawer of Dorsey’s draft picks. DeMarcus Robinson showcased some serious skills in camp, but the Chiefs are used to that sort of thing from others like Jon Baldwin. Jehu Chesson was the newest addition as a fourth round choice for whom Dorsey traded up. Yet looking at middling stats from his senior year at Michigan, it’s clear that Dorsey’s vision was greater than what we could see on paper.
It was a beautiful season for this part of the team’s roster.
If nothing else happened other than Tyreek Hill’s leap to top-tier receiver, that would be enough. Most teams spend millions and/or high picks in search of that elusive wideout, but the Chiefs unearthed a hidden gem in the fifth and coached him to perfection.
Hill ended the season with 75 catches for 1,183 receiving yards, good for another Pro Bowl season and 7th overall in the NFL in yards. More importantly, his presence became part of an offensive trio that’s nearly impossible to defend when balanced. Hill clearly kept defenses from keying in on tight end Travis Kelce, who enjoyed another Pro Bowl season, and rookie running back Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing yards, which kept teams in the box.
Conley once again showed flashes of his tremendous speed and agility that could make him such a strong weapon, but unfortunately he was lost for the year after 5 games to injury and placed on IR. Even worse for Conley, he never had a breakout game at all, ending the year with just 175 receiving yards.
Fortunately, Conley’s absence and the lack of experience after Maclin’s release created some holes that needed to be filled beyond Hill’s emergence and the team stepped up as needed.
Wilson became a true weapon on the team in 2017, showing fans why Dorsey was so bullish on his talent. Wilson ended up second on the team in receiving yards with 554 on 42 catches with 3 touchdowns. If you watched the Chiefs much this year, you’ll recognize several key moments for Wilson including a couple game-saving moments with key catches or blocks. This was the year Wilson became a well-rounded threat a la Maclin, even if the stats don’t give the full picture.
Beyond that, the Chiefs have to love what they saw from DeMarcus Robinson, the receiver taken one round before Tyreek Hill in 2016. He caught 21 passes for 212 yards and came up big down the stretch. In addition, he also was on the unfortunate end of a few errant passes from Smith that should have boosted his numbers a bit more. It’s clear Robinson has a great future as a pro receiver.
Moving forward, the Chiefs are in excellent hands here, even as they face the threat of losing Albert Wilson. Given the team’s financial limitations, you could make a good argument for either keeping him or letting him leave.
On the one hand, Wilson is now the most well-rounded wideout who knows the system very well and has learned to perform as a jack-of-all-trades sort of receiver within it. It’s a very valuable commodity that shows best to those who watch the game closely. That said, others like Dorsey, now with the Browns, or Matt Nagy, now head coach of the Browns after serving as the Chiefs offensive coordinator, could make it tough to keep Wilson in free agency.
If Wilson gets too expensive, the Chiefs need to let Wilson walk. They will miss him for sure in the early going but they also have the weapons to let him leave and eventually make up the difference.
Hill was seriously under-utilized. Looking forward, the Chiefs will have to figure out how to make his receptions total 90 to 100 or more on a given year, because Hill was both productive and efficient since he was also top 10 in yards/reception at 15.8.
In addition, Conley only caught 2-3 passes per game while active, but he had an even better yards/reception ratio than Hill. Both receivers boast the sort of metrics that beg for them to get the ball more in 2018.
The same can be said for DeMarcus Robinson, who I believe can become that sort of Wilson-esque receiver. Wilson is only 5’9 while Robinson is 4 inches taller, but they weigh about the same and can get very physical. Robinson himself put on some key blocks down the stretch on teams and yet he’s also shown he’s got great hands.
The Chiefs also have feel good about the potential on the roster beyond the known quantities. Chesson was last year’s fourth round pick who showed strong on special teams. The Chiefs selected him in a loaded draft, and there’s reason to trust Dorsey’s instincts on this one.
Even more, the practice squad has players that made the fans very, very curious last preseason, including former Hawaii wide receiver Marcus Kemp. The lean 6’4 target is the longest of all Chiefs receivers and could give them a nice end zone option if opportunity calls for it.
Overall, it’s safe to say the Chiefs have found one solid young performer after another as they’ve given reps to their wide receivers and there’s even a few more waiting for their turn. If they face tough decisions at this position in the near future, there’s little reason to not trust the process and let the next man up do his thing.