ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Three stories about Kansas City returner/receiver Tyreek Hill:
1. Andy Reid has never seen this: Reid has a conditioning drill he likes to do in training camp. It’s called the 110. Three groups (skill players in one, linemen in another, tight ends and linebackers in the other) line up, one after another, along one sideline, and take off, running 53 yards to the opposite sideline, then running back. One day, he noticed the indefatigable Hill running little serpentine 8’s from side to side. This guy was voluntarily running an extra 15 or 20 yards on every 110 with this weaving—and still finishing at or near the lead of his group.
2. Weekly counseling: Hill arrived in Kansas City with the darkest cloud of any 2016 draftee over his head. He was expelled from the football and track teams at Oklahoma State in late 2014, pleading guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation for striking and choking his eight-weeks-pregnant girlfriend. Hill got a three-year deferred sentence with probation and was entered into a batterer’s program. In his last year of college, at Division II West Alabama, he was the same scintillating player he’d been at Oklahoma State, but several teams were revolted by Hill’s assault and pulled him off their draft boards entirely. He became Kansas City’s fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft.
Hill still attends regular counseling sessions, a team source said, and has not had any off-field issues since being drafted. As someone with knowledge of the Chiefs’ thinking told me, Hill entered his pro career with two strikes on him, and he’s done nothing to merit strike three.
3. It’s a copycat league, and teams are looking for their own Tyreek Hill: Isaiah McKenzie, Denver’s fifth-round pick this year, was named the Broncos’ starting punt returner this week. At camp, you hear the whispers, This guy’s our Tyreek Hill. DenverBroncos.com reported this week that McKenzie and special teams coordinator Brock Olivo, an assistant in Kansas City last year, have been studying Hill’s returns on tape. “We’ve got to be more explosive on offense,” GM John Elway said. “That was an emphasis this offseason.” Denver’s not the only team. Carolina picked a Hill-like player, Curtis Samuel of (the) Ohio State, in the second round.
“That’s amazing, man,” Hill said in camp this week. “I don’t really think about it like that, but it’s amazing.”
It’s interesting that last Sunday, as rain threatened on the Missouri Western State University campus an hour north of Kansas City, Mike Vick and Hill were on the same practice field. Andy Reid takes in strays. It’s Reid, on the advice of his drug-troubled sons, who gave Vick, a convicted felon, a second chance in the NFL with the Eagles in 2009. When Reid reached out to give Vick a coaching internship this summer, Vick, who has done some high school coaching in Florida, jumped at it. He might want to make a career of it. The Kansas City Star assailed the Chiefs’ hiring of Vick, saying a serial dog-abuser who served time in federal prison didn’t deserve the chance. Vick has often been seen advising Hill in camp this summer.
Reid and then-GM John Dorsey got hit much harder by the public when they drafted Hill. “Those fans have every right to be mad at me,” said Hill after he was drafted. He accepted the venom and mostly shut up about it. He went to his mandated counseling sessions through the season—and beyond.
On Sunday, after practice, Hill said: “I am definitely proud of the way things have gone all around [in Kansas City]. I would definitely say I came to the right team, because this team has helped me a lot in every way, whether that is counseling, whether it is guidance. They have done a great job. It feels like home. Coach Reid is like a father. He tells me a lot of things that I need to know. He keeps it real.”
And the Chiefs-Hill marriage is about to get a lot more significant.
Last season, he caught 61 passes on 283 regular-season passing snaps—playing about half of the Chiefs’ passing downs. Only once did Hill play more than 40 offensive snaps in a game. His major impact was as the NFL’s first-team All-Pro punt returner; he scored twice on punt returns and once on a kick return. But this year at camp, Hill has, remarkably, ascended to the team’s No. 1 receiver role.
In Sunday’s practice, it was easy to see why. On the first play of a full offense-defense competition, Hill lined up as the middle receiver on the left in a 3-by-1 alignment. He sprinted downfield (4.25-second speed helps) on a straight post pattern. He split the two-deep coverage, and then did something quite instinctive. With safety Steven Terrell closing in from his right, Hill naturally faded to his left, away from Terrell as Alex Smith let a 45-yard strike fly. Touchdown. Veteran throw by Smith—he saw Terrell infringe on Hill’s post route and corrected the arc of his bomb. It would have gone for naught it Hill didn’t adjust his route slightly.
I asked Hill to dissect his thoughts on the play. “As a receiver, you have to know coverages, and that's something that I have done a tremendous job of learning this offseason,” he said. “I saw it was Cover-2 and I just played the safety. Also, our receivers coach [Greg Lewis], he does an amazing job on drilling that play in our heads. He drills it every day. If it’s Cover-2, and you’re between them, always favor the left safety instead of the right safety, because you can get hit in the back instead of the front.”
“People think he’s just fast,” said cornerback Marcus Peters. “But he’s a really technically sound receiver.”
So Hill has evolved from a Darren Sproles-type multi-purpose weapon to a player the Chiefs will try as an every-down receiver—and their most important one. “People get enamored by the speed,” said GM Brett Veach, who took over for the fired Dorsey in July. “But there’s straight-line speed, which he obviously has, and there’s the ability to throttle down with control, and work your leverage on the defense, and be instinctive, which he has too.”
Being around the Chiefs, I got the sense that Hill could play 60 snaps from scrimmage in some games, and 35 snaps in others. Some games he might return punts, and some days he might not; fellow return man De’Anthony Thomas might get an expanded return-game role this year with Hill playing more on offense. I asked Veach if there would be a set plan with Hill this year, week-by-week. “Not necessarily,” Veach said. “Could be quarter-by-quarter.”
Interesting. Maybe that’s what is still motivating Hill in camp. “I’m not the best,” he said. “I feel like I have learned a lot, whether it is being more patient at the line or getting all your depth on the route or this controlled speed at the top of routes. I’ve learned all of that so I feel like I have come a long way in just a short time. But I feel like I am no better than anybody else. I can’t take my foot off the gas. I still feel like I could get cut any day. I’m going hard and making plays and I’m trying to be a leader to those young guys who were once me.
“Every day, I try to make one play—at least once play. Just one of those wow plays where the whole coaching staff will be watching film and they’ll be like, ‘Wow! This kid might have something!’ You know what I’m saying?”
We’re finding out, quickly.
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