KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dave Toub remembers all too well the nightmare of muffed punts, poor execution and missed kicks that defined the Chiefs’ special teams unit during the 2022 regular season. Following the team’s Week 3 loss at Indianapolis, Toub lined up against the wall of the club’s press room and asked, “Is this the firing squad?”
This season, however, it’s all going to be different, he guarantees.
“Everything goes in cycles,” Toub said following the team’s sixth organized team practice activity (OTA) on Thursday. “Like last year we had the cycle of young players, and they did a great job, and they got better and better as the year went on.
“They’re all back, all those guys are back so they’re going to be that much better. Now we got a new group of young players coming in. As a group, I predict that we’ll be better right from the start.”
Toub expected a rough start in 2022 after the departure of several key special teams performers including Dorian O’Daniel, Armani Watts, Ben Niemann, Daniel Sorensen and Byron Pringle. Departing players last offseason accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s special teams snap counts in 2021.
This season, the most significant departures involve Chris Lammons (322 snaps), Michael Burton (238) and Darius Harris (178). This year’s offseason losses account for just 26% of last season’s special teams snaps. Kick block and protection unit players such as Orlando Brown Jr. (90 snaps), Andrew Wylie (88) and Khalen Saunders (55) account for nearly 6% of the loss, illustrating how much depth from the core kick and punt return and coverage units returns this year.
Toub pointed to cornerback Nazeeh Johnson as a reason for his optimism. Johnson received an 86.8 special teams grade from Pro Football Focus last season. That ranked second on the club behind linebacker Cole Christiansen (88.8), who played just 18 snaps.
“Towards the end of the year, Nazzeh Johnson as a gunner, he was playing better than anybody in the league,” Toub said. “I’m excited about him, he’ll probably be our No. 1 gunner coming into next year.”
Johnson is joined by a host of other second-year players such as linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Cochrane, safety Bryan Cook and cornerback Joshua Williams returning this season. Eighth-year veteran safety Deon Bush, who ranked No. 2 on the team with 317 snaps, is back for a second season in Kansas City as well.
These are two positions, however, where Toub expects turnover on his squad this season. With running back Isiah Pacheco and wide receivers Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney expecting to play larger roles on offense, the Chiefs will likely head into the 2023 campaign with new specialists on both kick and punt returns. But general manager Brett Veach has provided Toub with an array of options, including a mixture of veterans and rookies who could fill the breach.
Most intriguing among the rookies is running back Deneric Prince, an undrafted free agent from Tulsa. Toub didn’t hesitate in comparing him to another well-known kick returner from Toub’s tenure in Kansas City.
“He reminds me of Knile (Davis),” Toub said. “He even has the same number (34). Didn’t (return kicks) in college but he’s showing traits right now that so much he reminds me of Knile that it’s kind of scary. Knile was pretty good for us.”
The physical comparisons are understandable. The 6-foot, 216-pound Prince ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Davis, who measured 5-foot-11, 227 pounds, posted a 40-yard time of 4.37 seconds. If Prince can replicate the production of Davis — he averaged 27 yards per return for the Chiefs with two regular-season touchdown returns — then the club has found a diamond in the rough.
For the punt return specialists job, free-agent receiver Richie James appears the early favorite. He averaged 7.3 yards on 75 punt returns during the past four seasons with San Francisco and the New York Giants. He also averaged 23 yards on 47 kickoff returns with the 49ers but did not return kicks in New York last season. James returned a kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown against Seattle during his rookie campaign in 2018.
“Richie James is a guy that he’s got experience, did it in NFL games, which that’s huge as we know,” Toub said. “He’s definitely in the mix.”
Another name to watch for both positions is 27-year-old veteran John Ross, famous for his 40-yard dash time of 4.22 seconds at the NFL Combine and heading to the Cincinnati Bengals with the No. 9 overall selection in that 2017 draft, one spot ahead of Patrick Mahomes. He only has one kick return on his resume in five NFL seasons but his physical tools translate well to the return game.
“He’s another guy that’s got great speed,” Toub said. “He had injury problems at Cincinnati but if he can stay healthy, he’s definitely in the mix. He’s probably one of our fastest players back there.”
Toub also didn’t rule out Moore and fellow receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette as candidates.
“We have a bunch of guys that are possible guys, that could do that for us,” he said.
One thing Toub made clear, however, is that he believes how the Chiefs finished their 2022 season should be an indicator of things to come in 2023. In the AFC Championship win over Cincinnati, Moore returned a punt 29 yards with 30 seconds remaining to help setup the go-ahead field goal by Harrison Butker. In the Super Bowl LVII win over Philadelphia, Toney returned a punt 65 yards that led to a touchdown and Butker sealed the win with a 27-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining.
“We had a tough year throughout the year with the muffs and young players making dumb mistakes and me coming out in front of the media every week trying to tell you, we’re going to get better, we’re gonna get better,” Toub explained. And then a little bit of redemption obviously, in the championship game with Skyy. I felt so good for him that he was able to have two big returns for us and help us win that game. Then the punt return, obviously in the Super Bowl with Kadarius was huge and it was good for the whole group, whole room was so so so elated about that. And then Butker being able to kick out the game-winner with his ankle starting off with the first game with a sprained ankle all year long he was dealing with that.
“Being able to put it all together when we needed it most meant a lot.”