Camp Notebook: Chiefs Eye RB Isiah Pacheco, Other Rookies for Big Roles on Special Teams

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Saturday’s preseason trip to Chicago to take on the Bears will be pivotal for the Chiefs’ rookie draft class looking to make its mark on special teams.

The biggest spotlight will shine on running back Isiah Pacheco, whom special teams coordinator Dave Toub tabbed as the starting kick returner.

“We’re going to give him every chance to be that guy,” Toub said. “I just think he’s got all the attributes to be a good kick returner, and he’s gotten better and better at practice, and he’s doing little things better

Pacheco hasn’t returned kicks in a game since his freshman season at Rutgers in 2018. He returned 18 kicks for 348 yards, averaging 19.3 yards per return with a long of 34 yards. His return role ended when he became a full-time starter in his sophomore campaign.

Yet his speed, agility and north-south running style make him a natural candidate as a kick returner, Toub says. He feels similarly about receiver Skyy Moore, who will get the first crack at punt returner. Moore returned one kick for 13 yards and one punt for no gain at Western Michigan.

Toub would also like to see cornerback Trent McDuffie in the punt return role. At Washington, he returned five punts for 74 yards for a 14.8-yard average with a long of 45 yards. Toub calls McDuffie “the best punt catcher” in training camp.

“It will be a lot of firsts in this game, but it’s all good,” Toub said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Toub also wants to see several other rookies and newcomers in special teams action, especially safety Bryan Cook, wide receiver Justin Watson and cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson.

“We got to sort that thing out,” Toub said. “We got to see who’s going to be a player for us and who can help us on teams. This Bears game is going to be real important for all those guys.”

Notes & observations

The sun returned to St. Joseph on Tuesday morning but luckily the heat did not, with the temperature reading 70 degrees at 9:15 a.m. for the 2-hour, 5-minute workout in pads.

After the route stretch, individual and installation periods, the team began group work with running backs and tight ends taking on linebackers in one-on-one drills on the primary field and wide receivers dueling with defensive back on the secondary field.

In the battle among running backs and tight ends against linebackers, the first set of reps were pass protection drills followed by passing route drills. In the pass protection, linebacker Nick Bolton scored a win over running back Jerick McKinnon, who despite his stature (5-foot-9) is a tough-as-nails blocker. Running backs Ronald Jones and Pacheco also had strong blocking reps. Among the tight ends, the best blocker on Tuesday was Travis Kelce, who continually gets overlooked for his pass protection since he rarely gets to demonstrate it during games.

In the route portion of the drill, McKinnon shined with a great rep against Darius Harris. Jones struggled during this portion with two drops. Jones has been better than advertised in the passing game in camp but Tuesday was a rough session for him in that regard.

Up next on the primary field was a 9-on-7 run period with receivers and defensive backs on the secondary field. In the one-on-one matchups, the two biggest cheers went to cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who made a one-handed interception, and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for his remarkable grab in the back end zone despite good coverage from Dicaprio Bootle.

In the 9-on-7, Clyde Edwards-Helaire opened things up followed by McKinnon, Pacheco, Jones and Derrick Gore. There was no rotation among the offensive line on Tuesday, which meant Andrew Wylie was back at right tackle full time. On the No. 2 offense, it was the most common lineup with Christian Geron, Nick Allegretti, Austin Reiter, Michael Caliendo and Roderick Johnson from left to right. All five are strong candidates to make the 53-man roster. Tackles Darian Kinnard and Prince Tega Wanogho along with interior lineman Vitaliy Gurman are also in the mix.

The first full-team period was a red zone session with Patrick Mahomes and the offense opening up strong. After Clyde Edwards-Helaire plowed through a big hole in the end zone, Mahomes connected with Kelce and Smith-Schuster (on a wicked sidearm sling around a defender) he missed a third straight completion when Hardman dropped a pass in open space.

The defense got the best of Chad Henne and the second team, albeit not without some drama. When Henne tried to scramble away from pressure, defensive end Carlos Dunlap took a swipe at him and knocked the quarterback to the ground. Henne didn’t appear happy, and neither was defensive line coach Joe Cullen.

“I love the rush but stay away from our quarterbacks,” Cullen said after practice. “Do not go near them.”

The second series went much better for the defense, which forced incompletions on three of four Mahomes passes. Jaylen Watson also broke up a Henne pass intended for Josh Gordon. The third set of reps tilted back to the offense with Mahomes connecting with Kelce and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and in between scrambling for a score. Henne completed the teams period with a nice throw and catch to running back Derrick Gore.

Following a special teams period for the field goal team — and a perfect series for kicker Harrison Butker — it was time for 7-on-7 on one end of the field and one-on-one drills between offensive and defensive linemen at the other end. The starting offensive line fared very well, with Creed Humphrey, Joe Thuney and Trey Smith having strong performances and Orlando Brown Jr. splitting two reps with Frank Clark. Defensive end Malik Herring has quietly had a solid camp, including two wins over Evin Ksiezarczyk.

During the 7-on-7 period, Moore settled into a nice groove, making a contested catch in traffic from Mahomes and also connected with Henne on a couple of passes as well. His rare missed connection came on a well-defended pass by safety Devon Key.

The final team period featured another long drive for the No. 1 offense and defense consisting of 15 plays. It’s the third time in the last four practices that Reid has kept his first-team units on the field for drives of 14 or more plays. Jones was busy in the backfield with the second-team offense, running the ball three times in a five-play sequence. Bootle picked up another broken-up pass on a throw from Henne to Moore.

The practice concluded with a special teams period for the punt return team. Moore, Corey Coleman, Omar Bayless, Devin Gray and McDuffie alternate as the returner.

Injury report

Cornerback Rashad Fenton returned to the practice field for the first time in 2022 after starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list following offseason shoulder surgery. He was a limited participant on his first day back in primarily individual drills as he begins acclimating himself back into action.

Safety Zayne Anderson left practice after the individual period with what a club spokesperson labeled a shoulder injury. Wide receivers Daurice Fountain (groin) and Gary Jennings (concussion) along with tight end Jody Fortson (quad strain) and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth (knee contusion) did not practice Tuesday.

With Fenton’s return, offensive tackle Lucas Niang remains the only player remaining on the physically unable to perform list. Niang suffered a season-ending patella injury in January. The original timetable for his potential return to the field was estimated as early September.

Transaction

The Chiefs reinforced their defensive line again on Tuesday, agreeing to terms with free-agent defensive tackle Danny Shelton, according to a report from ESPN.

Shelton is an eighth-year veteran who entered the league as the No. 12 overall pick by Cleveland in 2015. He’s also spent time with New England, Detroit and the New York Giants, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots in 2018.

With the Giants last season, Shelton played in 13 games as a reserve, picking up a half sack and 31 total tackles. Known primarily as a run-stuffing nose tackle, the 6-foot-2, 345-pound Shelton posted his best season with the Patriots in 2019, collecting 61 total tackles with three sacks and a forced fumble.

It’s the second move the Chiefs have made to beef up their defensive interior in as many days. On Monday the club signed defensive tackle Matt Dickerson while releasing defensive end Shilique Calhoun.

The club has yet to announce the signing officially or make a corresponding move to free space on the 90-player roster.

The Fab Five

If the Chiefs cash in big with the five draft selections they invested in their secondary in this year’s NFL Draft, defensive backs coach Dave Merritt has the nickname picked out already.

“I’ve never – this is my 26th year in the league – been around a group (like this),” Merritt said. “I call them the ‘Fab Five.’ Most of them weren’t even born then.”

In fact, none of this year’s class was born when the original Fab Five took Michigan basketball to the NCAA national title game in 1991. But Merritt feels he has something special in the group of cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson along with safety Bryan Cook.

“To be able to have the guys to come in and have the camaraderie that they’ve had and be able to have the love for one another has been great,” Merritt said. But, it’s like Christmas to me. You’re working with the guys, trying to teach them new techniques, they’re all sponges. It’s been wonderful.”

Merritt’s been especially impressed by McDuffie, who stepped into the first-team defense during offseason workouts and is the only rookie listed as a starter in the team’s first unofficial depth chart of the preseason.

He’s very comfortable out there at the corner spot as well as the nickel,” Merritt said. “The thing is that now we have a guy that can actually do dual roles for us just like (Sneed). He’s very patient at the line of scrimmage and has done a great job.”

On the Mike

Nick Bolton has comfortably moved into the Mike linebacker role and will wear the green dot this season for the Chiefs as the defensive leader on the field who will call plays and set the defense, according to linebackers coach Brendan Daly.

“Nick has done an excellent job,” Daly said. “He’s continued to grow from a year ago, has really good understanding in terms of checks, adjustments and communication skills.”

The question for the Chiefs is who will backup Bolton as the Mike and play-caller when needed. Darius Harris has filled the role with the second-team defense.

“I would say his growth in the three years that he’s been doing that has been really impressive to me,” Daly said. “Leo (Chenal) has done a really nice job with some of that when he’s in there. Jack Cochrane has managed some of that as well. I feel good about the depth and the knowledge and understanding that we have got at that position for sure.”

Admiring from afar

Cullen may be new to the Chiefs as their defensive line coach but not all of his players are new to him. If Cullen had his way, Chris Jones would have been a Baltimore Raven instead of with the Chiefs.

“I really tried to get him, but obviously he went earlier and couldn’t get him,” Cullen said of the 2016 NFL Draft, where Jones went No. 37 overall to the Chiefs. “But I’ve loved the way he’s always played and he’s really just buying into working his best that he can every day and he’s done that out here and he’s done a great job consistently getting better every day. And I love working with him. He’s smart, but he tries to do exactly what you’re trying to teach him to do.”

Carlos Dunlap is another player Cullen ranked highly when he entered the league in 2010. He also watched Dunlap with the Bengals while he coached six seasons in the AFC North with Cleveland and Baltimore.

“He brings a lot to the table,” Cullen said. “You know those older guys, Frank Clark and Carlos and Chris and the Mike Dannas that have been around a little bit, they’re really helping George out but they’re also helping out the younger guys. Carlos is a 96-career sack guy, and we love the addition of Carlos.”

Justin Reid: Kicker?

Justin Reid is a full-time safety and an occasional kicker, going viral earlier this week after hitting a 65-yard kick off a tee through the uprights. On Tuesday Reid was hanging around the field goal unit during the special teams period, as he usually does. After kicker Harrison Butker finished his final rep, coordinator Dave Toub kept his squad on the field and sent Reid in for a short field goal try.

“I just wanted to surprise him, throw him in there, see how we would handle it,” Toub said.

James Winchester zinged his snap into the hands of Tommy Townsend for the hold, and Reid swung his leg with a kick rush bearing down on him. Unfortunately, the kick wobbled off Reid’s foot, sailing wide left and fluttering relatively harmlessly to the ground, narrowly missing a spectator who didn’t realize they were in the line of fire.

“I don’t think we found our backup kicker yet,” Toub said.

Reid has a legitimate leg, handling kickoff duties for Houston in a preseason game after Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn suffered an injury during pregame warmups. Reid sent two kicks inside the 5-yard line. Toub hasn’t dismissed the idea of Reid as an emergency kicker either.

“We’re going to continue because he’s got a good leg, we’re going to keep working it and see what he can do there,” Toub said. “Get a little bit more practice before we just throw him in.”

The Next Future GM

Kansas City has become fertile ground for developing NFL general managers. Brett Veach (Chiefs), Chris Ballard (Colts) and Ryan Poles (Bears) were all part of the front office with the Chiefs in 2016, and it would be no surprise if the team’s assistant general manager Mike Borgonzi becomes the fourth person on that list.

Borgonzi has been connected with GM openings in the past, and it’s a position he desires to hold one day.

“I am very fortunate to have the job that I have here now, so you want to stay focused on the job at hand,” Borgonzi said. “I do have aspirations to become a general manager one day, and I think that when the time is right, it will come.”

Borgonzi joined the Chiefs in 2009 under former GM Scott Pioli as the club’s college scouting administrator. He quickly moved through the ranks, including stints as manager of football operations, pro personnel scout, assistant director of pro scouting, director of player personnel and director of football operations. He was promoted to assistant general manager in 2021, and this year marks his 14th training camp with the Chiefs.

“I’ve worn a lot of different hats within the organization,” Borgonzi said. “Whether that’s college and pro or doing operations, just to kind of see how all of the moving pieces in the organizations come together. I’ve been really fortunate that way.”

What’s next?

It’s an off day for the players on Wednesday, who can use some rest after four straight days of practices and eight workouts in the last nine days.

The team is back on the training camp fields Thursday for a 9:15 a.m. practice. Tickets are free and must be reserved on the team’s website. After practice, quarterbacks, running backs and specialists will sign autographs.

The club travels to Chicago on Friday and will meet the Bears at noon Saturday in their first preseason tilt.

The final stretch of training camp begins Monday, Aug. 15 with the first of four practices that will close out training camp.