ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Blazing speed is a prerequisite for any top return man in the NFL, and Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman possesses that in spades. What he likes, however, is experience under fire, according to the club's special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
“We've got four preseason games that we have go see him in,” Toub said. “We don't know how he's going to react when the live bullets are coming down there.”
Hardman ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and that speed gets showcased daily on the practice fields at training camp at Missouri Western State University. The Chiefs would love Hardman to develop as a reliable returner to take some of the burden off Tyreek Hill as a punt returner.
“We're trying to develop Mecole to be that guy, to pick up a whole bunch of reps there because Tyreek's getting so much on offense,” Toub said.
The troubles, however, have come with Hardman's consistency. Too many balls on the ground due to misjudging the ball's flight or muffing the handle on the catch have concerned some in St. Joseph. Toub stresses that Hardman's putting effort into enhancing his catching ability.
“He's catching the ball, we're getting a lot of balls on the Juggs machines right now,” Toub said. “He's still getting better and better every day with his catching. He's got to build confidence in himself, and we have to build confidence in him.”
Tremon Smith's move from cornerback to running back this week shares a connection with Hardman's return struggles. Smith averaged 26.8 yards on kick returns last season, ranking fourth in the league. Smith remains the club's best kick return option, but he found himself falling down the depth chart at cornerback. The move to offense increases his likelihood of holding down a roster spot as a returner.
The Chiefs have other options just in case. Toub pointed to receivers Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson as possibilities if needed.
“We have a plethora of guys, we have a lot of returners, so we're fortunate in that way,” Toub said.
The offense worked on goal line situations during the install period, setting up for some goal line work later during 11-on-11 work. The squad also worked on one-on-one matchups with tight ends and running backs taking on linebackers in pass blocking and coverage situations. Linebacker Raymond Davison used a nice move to get past Darwin Thompson. Rookie H-back candidate John Lovett also had a couple of good moments with solid blocking against inside backer D'Juan Hines and later beating linebacker Reggie Ragland for a reception.
Among the most notable depth chart adjustments on Friday was the first sustained reps for second-round pick Juan Thornhill with the No. 1 defense.
Thornhill and Sorensen shared snaps at free safety with the first-team unit. The club certainly believes Thornhill can win the job in training camp. But they don't want to push the young player too hard too fast, and they also want Thornhill to win the job on his own and not just hand it to him. Thornhill pairing with Tyrann Mathieu is ideal for the Chiefs, because it's clear early in camp that Mathieu prefers to play close to the line of scrimmage, and Thornhill is a ballhawk with speed and good instincts.
The defensive line rotation remains a work in progress. While Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi and Alex Okafor continue primarily as the first four up, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Emmanuel Ogbah both saw reps with ones on Friday. Breeland Speaks, Justin Hamilton and Khalen Saunders are second-team mainstays, and Joey Ivie saw some second-team work in place of Xavier Williams. Jeremiah Attaochu also sees time as a standup end who can drop back in coverage.
The offensive line rotation also saw some changes on Friday. Mitchell Schwartz returned to practice at right tackle, but Cam Erving entered in relief later in the day. With Erving working the first team, the second-team line ran left to right with Dino Boyd, Jimmy Murray, Nick Allegretti, Kahlil McKenzie and Pace Murphy. That's flip-flop with Murray moving to left guard and Allegrett to center, and a promotion for McKenzie who had worked primarily at third-team center. The Chiefs want all three players to get time at center, and envision all three as players who rotate through center and both guard spots.
The offensive versus defensive scrimmage result in a draw of sorts. The teams ran a simulated drive with no time on the clock, with the offense looking to get into scoring range. The No. 1 offense beat the No. 2 defensive for a field goal on the first drive and a touchdown on the second drive, with Mahomes hooking up with Tyreek Hill on a deep post route.
The No. 1 defense won both its turns, forcing the offense behind Chad Henne into a turnover on downs and holding Chase Litton's squad to a punt.
Tyrann Mathieu remains a big play machine in camp, and on Friday he turned an errant throw from backup quarterback Chad Henne into six points. Henne rolled to his right and threw toward the sideline with both Marcus Kemp and John Lovett in the area. Mathieu, however, jumped the route from underneath strolled into the end zone. Mathieu appears to fit very well into defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme, whether dropping back in coverage, blitzing from anywhere on the field and stacking the box against the run.
Runner-up: This on-the-run sidearm laser from Mahomes to tight end Deon Yelder through traffic for a touchdown in goal line work:
But was Yelder in bounds? You make the call:
Offensive Performer of the Day
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins seems to simply make plays day in and day out. His name doesn't necessarily get mentioned as much as deep threats such as Hill and Hardman, but Watkins has dominated the short- and intermediate-passing games. On Friday he took a short pass from Mahomes on the left sideline by hitting the juke stick to fake out a safety and tack on yards after the catch. Watkins looks in midseason form already.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward hasn't heard his name mentioned as much as other defensive backs in camp, and that's actually a compliment. Ward played steady through the first week of practice without many missed assignments or blown coverages. On Friday he turned into big defensive plays, breaking up a pass from Mahomes to Byron Pringle during 11-on-11 and later getting his hand in to break up a deep ball from Mahomes to Demarcus Robinson.
The backup tight end behind starter Travis Kelce certainly requires strong pass-catching as well as inline blocking skills, but special teams skills remain a must as well.
The Chiefs must find a replacement for Demetrius Harris, who played a team-high 78.9 percent of the club's special teams snaps last season. His 366 snaps ranked as the most special teams plays by any tight end in the league. Right now, veteran Blake Bell appears in the lead in that position battle.
“Right now Blake Bell is playing all his positions,” Toub said. “Right now the plan is to have him be that guy.”
“(Harris) was setting the bar really high, so we're not going to necessarily to ask him to be that guy,” Toub said. “But he's going to be playing a lot of those same positions. He might be just a two-phase guy, but we'll see.”
The Chiefs rewarded kicker Harrison Butker with a five-year, $20.275 million contract extension during the offseason, and thus far the third-year kicker is proving his worth to Toub.
“I think he's only missed one field goal in this camp, which is saying a lot, and it was a long one,” Toub said. “It was a 58-yarder. He missed it, then he came back and made it. Today he made a nice long one today again.”
Butker also feels very comfortable with his range from long distance.
“When it's warm outside and I'm fresh, I feel good from 60 (yards), I hit my normal ball,” Butker said. “Then if you've got wind at your back it just goes back 65, things like that.”
Mecole Hardman left practice feeling ill after a strong performance early. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland briefly checked into the medical tent by later returned to practice.
The only other new injury comes with defensive tackle Xavier Williams missing practice due to an undisclosed injury. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill (quad contusion) and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (back spasm) both return to practice, although Schwartz gave way to Cam Erving late in the session.
Running back Damien Williams (hamstring), wide receiver Gehrig Dieter (back), safety Jordan Lucas (hamstring) and linebacker Darius Harris (shoulder) did not practice.
“I rolled out to the right and I was very off balance and it was probably the ugliest 60-yard pass I've ever thrown in my life, but it got there. I was glad that it just got there, got caught and he scored the touchdown.”
– Quarterback Patrick Mahomes on a broken play touchdown pass to receiver Mecole Hardman
The Chiefs have a busy weekend with Family Fun Day on Saturday and Season Ticket Member Day on Sunday. Practices start at 8:15 a.m. both days followed by team autograph sessions. Workouts should run about two hours and 40 minutes.
There is a $5 admission on Saturday with children 3 and under free. Missouri Western also charges $5 for parking for each practice.