ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The lasting memory of the Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams in 2015 is likely the 106-yard opening kickoff return by Knile Davis in the wild card game versus Houston.
But last season marked a steep decline for the team in punt and kick return performance. The team did not return a kick for a score in the regular season, and yards per return fell sharply. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub believes his talented roster of return specialists can reverse that trend.
There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to potential kick returners. De’Anthony Thomas and Frankie Hammond Jr. shared punt return duties a year ago, while Knile Davis handled the bulk of the kickoff returns. The three are joined by rookies including draft picks Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson.
“We have a whole stable of returners right now,” Toub said. “It looks like individual practice for wide receivers because they’re all out there. Everybody wants to do it, it’s important, everybody takes it serious. They’re out there catching, concentrating, focusing. There’s a lot of competition there so it brings out the best in guys.”
The Chiefs dropped from 12.1 yards per punt return in 2014 to 7.9 in 2015. Kickoff return yardage declined from 28 yards per return in 2014 to 22.6 a year ago.
Toub said Davis remains the team’s No. 1 kickoff returner for now.
“He’s an excellent player,” Toub said. “He came back in the best shape in his life. In the conditioning test I think he was first out of all those guys. He’s lean, he’s ready to go, he’s focused, he’s ready to compete.
Davis’ value on special teams goes beyond returning kicks.
“He’s not only a kick returner now,” Toub said. “We’re working him in as a cover guy as well, and he’s doing a lot as a mike in punt return. He’s taking it seriously. He knows it’s important. His focus is there.”
Toub said the punt return lineup is still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s drills, Hammond took the first punt followed by Hill, Thomas and Robinson. Toub expects everyone to get plenty of opportunities in the preseason games to prove themselves.
“I think it will sort itself out,” Toub said. “You never go live here at training camp, so you really don’t know exactly what you got. After that first preseason game, we’ll know a lot more.”
Hill has been one of the more electrifying players early in camp, demonstrating elite speed, acceleration and agility. Toub is impressed with what he’s seen thus far from the fifth-round draft pick.
“He’s got great, great catching,” he said. “For a rookie coming in, he’s really advanced as a punt catcher. Then he’s got a really great first step, he’s got top speed. We think he’s strong, and we think he’s tough.”
While the return specialists are competing for roster spots, there is no competition in the kicking game. Punter Dustin Colquitt, kicker Cairo Santos and long-snapper James Winchester provide Toub with few if any worries.
“We know what these guys are they’re coming in at a high level, veteran guys who are leaders, especially Colquitt,” Toube said. “It helps us. It’s something I don’t have to worry about it, I can concentrate on the cover guys.”
Practice started without safety Daniel Sorenson, who a team spokesperson said suffered a foot injury. Safety Stevie Brown took Sorenson’s spot with the first team defense.
Wide receiver Albert Wilson left practice early with a calf injury. He was replaced by free agent receiver Rod Streater on the first team.
Rookie left guard Parker Ehinger also left practice early with a foot injury. Offensive lineman Zach Fulton took Ehinger’s position during the final team drills.
Jamaal Charles (knee), Justin Houstin (knee) and Tamba Hali (knee) all remain on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as they rehab their injuries. Eric Berry continued his contract holdout.