Chiefs roster evaluation: Heavy investments at wide receiver work out
By Scott Loring
The Chiefs arrived in St. Joseph fully healthy and ready to go. Kansas City was expected to be one of the league’s premier offenses, and one of the many contributing factors to that was the overall team speed. Everywhere you looked, 40-yard dash times were being quoted. The nicknames were flying, the t-shirts were selling, and the outlook for the Chiefs WR group was to exceed even some of the greatest groups in league history. Comparisons to the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf unit from 20 years ago were plentiful.
The team prepared to leave for its season opener in Jacksonville with Hill, Watkins, Robinson, Hardman and Pringle, with veteran receiver DeAnthony Thomas set to rejoin the team the following week after serving a one-game suspension.
The unfortunate truth was that not all of the receivers would be able to make the final roster. By the conclusion of the preseason, the Chiefs had released Thompson, Fortson and Custis, and put Dieter, Kemp and Davis on IR.
Thompson and Fortson would catch on with the Kansas City practice squad, though Thompson would later leave for other opportunities. Fortson stayed with the practice squad through the duration of the season and will be a part of the puzzle in 2020.
Late in the first quarter in Week 1, Hill caught a pass near the sideline at midfield and left for the locker room. Just days after signing a $54 million extension, the fourth-year pro suffered a gruesome shoulder injury in which his collarbone punctured his sternum. We would later learn that Hill’s injury would keep him out for the first quarter of the season.
But this would be just the first example of what became a frustrating motto that would describe the culture of the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs: Next man up.
Without Hill in the lineup, the Chiefs were without their primary deep threat. Losing their top wideout would cause some offenses to collapse under their own weight, but the Chiefs receivers pulled up their bootstraps and filled in the gaps.
In Jacksonville it was Watkins, who chipped in 9 catches for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns. The following week it was Robinson who stepped up his game and finished with a line of 6/172/2. In Week 3, Hardman had his coming out party with 97 yards on 2 catches, including an 83-yard catch and run for a touchdown in his career home opener against the Ravens.
In Week 5, Watkins left the game against the Colts almost immediately with an injury. It was Pringle who shined in this one, racking up 6 receptions for 103 yards and a remarkable 28-yard touchdown catch on a comebacker at the goal-line after Mahomes stretched the play.
But without both Hill and Watkins, the Chiefs offense was mostly constipated. That night became the first time a Mahomes-led team scored fewer than 26 points.
Hill would return the following week against the Texans, and it didn’t take long for him to make a splash. Less than five minutes into the game, Mahomes dropped back to pass on a 3rd-and-21 at the Texans 46-yard line. The Chiefs’ young signal caller saw a flag for a defensive penalty and took a shot deep to his trusty deep threat. Hill skied for the ball in double coverage and came down with it at the 2-yard line. He turned and powered into the endzone between three would-be tacklers, much to the delight of the Arrowhead crowd.
Hill continued to dominate even when Mahomes was knocked out with a knee injury in the middle of the season. Leading 20-6 in the third quarter in Denver, Hill easily slipped away from Broncos cornerback Chris Harris on a drag route before cutting upfield. Third string quarterback Matt Moore floated a perfect pass 20 yards downfield, and Hill took it the last 37 yards to paydirt.
Watkins returned in Week 8, and the Chiefs WR group was back to full strength. Hill again made the highlight reels in Week 9 with an absolutely dazzling 40-yard touchdown catch to open the scoring against the Vikings. Moore faked a handoff to running back Damien Williams before lofting another flawless pass at the pylon. Hill left his feet and corraled the pass for his fourth score of the season. His pivotal 40-yard grab in the 4th quarter led to kicker Harrison Butker‘s game-tying 54-yard field goal, and moments later Hill would make a clutch 13-yard reception on 3rd and 4 to set up Butker’s 44-yard game-winner with just three ticks on the clock.
Hardman showed flashes in limited snaps in 2019, averaging over 20 yards per reception. His lightning speed was on display in Week 10 at Tennessee when Mahomes leaped in the air while in the pocket on 3rd and 9, hitting his rookie receiver at midfield. Hardman saw a seam between two Titans defenders, turned on the afterburners and there was no catching him.
We would see another flash from Hardman in the Week 14 victory at New England, on a play curiously similar to the 3rd and 15 pass from the Super Bowl that we’ve all come to know as Wasp. Hardman caught a pass from Mahomes and took advantage of another poor angle from a defender who miscalculated Hardman’s acceleration. Hardman played in less than half the snaps in 2019, but is expected to have a much larger role in his second season. Had he had enough receptions to qualify, his 20.7 yards per catch would have led the NFL. The rookie amassed a line of 26/538/6 in 2019.
Robinson peaked early in the season, with a masterful performance in Oakland and one particularly astounding grab against the Ravens in Week 3 that may have earned him millions when the free agency period begins. But he finished with 32/449/4. For what it’s worth, as the fifth-leading pass catcher for the Chiefs, Robinson had more yards than any other team’s fifth-best receiver in the league in 2019.
Hill and Watkins, as expected, led the team in catches and yards. Neither had the type of season you would come to expect from them, but that is more because of missed time rather than poor play. Hill’s final line was 58/860/7 while Watkins accumulated 52/673/3.
For the second straight season, Watkins came on strong in the playoffs, racking up more yards (288) than Hill (213). Both were prime time performers for Kansas City in 2019 and were a huge part of what made the Chiefs the juggernaut that they are.
In the final regular-season tilt of the year, the Chiefs needed a win and some help from the Dolphins in order to secure a bye week in the playoffs. Late in the game, Hill was matched up with a linebacker on a critical 3rd down and hauled in a 47-yard gainer that helped seal that win. Without that play, the Chargers would have gotten the ball back down 3 points with just under three minutes on the game clock.
Despite missing several games each, the Chiefs receivers played an integral part in the team’s Super Bowl run. It’s easy to look at things now and think that they will always be this good. They won’t. Let’s take a look ahead to 2020 with the wide receiver group.