KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On third and two a year ago, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith probably would not have even tried throwing a deep pass down the sideline to Chris Conley.
“Trust – that’s a trust play right there,” Conley said after the team’s second preseason game against Los Angeles. “That’s something that you can’t really see straight at the line, you just have to trust that it’s there.”
Smith’s audible at the line of scrimmage and deep throw to Conley for 37 yards against the Rams illustrates just how far the young receiver has come entering his second season. The Chiefs trust Conley, and that makes the young wideout stand out among other young receivers in the Andy Reid version of the West Coast offense.
Just 13 wide receivers accumulated more than 100 yards receiving in their rookie seasons in Reid’s 17 seasons as an NFL head coach. Conley is one of them, along with teammates Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas.
Only three wide receivers under Reid have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in their first two season combined. DeSean Jackson (2,068) and Maclin (1,737) have established long NFL careers. Reggie Brown (1,387) also joined the group before injuries derailed his career. Todd Pinkston is next with 767 yards, followed by Wilson with 711.
Maclin said experience gained as rookie was the biggest difference for him entering his second season, and believes that will help Conley this year.
“The West Coast offense is all about being on the same page as your quarterback, and I think that comes with experience,” Maclin said. “The more reps you get with Alex, the more time you get in a real, live situation, I think the better that chemistry gets, I think the better you play.
Having a resource with Maclin’s experience is a rare commodity. Conley says he pulls as much information from his mentor as possible.
“Whenever you can find someone who has a wealth of knowledge like that and is willing to share it, it’s vital to your development,” Conley said. “There were so many mistakes that I could have made, but he kind of kept me from making those, and some of those plays that I did make are because he taught me how.”
Smith said the ability to think like a quarterback is a valuable trait Maclin instilled in Conley.
“The more those guys and the quarterback can think alike, to think like each other, the better we’re going to be,” Smith said. “The more we can be on the same page the better, and certainly Chris is a great example of that, just building and banking all of that knowledge.”
Conley said he found it difficult as a rookie to approach Smith at first.
“Initially, yeah, because you know who he is, you know the success he has had in this league and you want to respect him and respect that,” he explained. “But then at some point, he really does a great job of breaking down those walls. He came to me first. He made it a lot easier getting that connection started.”
In his second season, however, Conley said he’s more comfortable telling Smith what he sees in defenses, and in turn Smith appears to have more confidence in Conley.
“I think this year he’s willing to give me some more opportunities and I’ve been thankful for that,” Conley said. “It’s really been me communicating back with him what I see out there, the way I’m running these routes, and he’s been giving some great balls and some great looks.”
Conley also believes he possesses better understanding of not only the team’s offensive philosophy but also his role in different situations.
“I think knowing the plays, knowing the positions and the routes really helps me play situational football,” Conley said. “Just come up to the line, see the down and distance, know what coverages we’re likely to get and know what plays are likely to get called.”
Maclin, Conley and Wilson all stayed in Kansas City during the offseason working together, and the move appears to be paying returns.
“We were able to build some camaraderie but then also able to take our game to the next level,” Conley said. “I think everyone had something or multiple things in their game that they wanted to work on and we were able to just come in here and day by day focusing in on those things.”
Wilson has been where Conley is now. The duo shared similar numbers as rookies. Wilson hauled in 16 catches for 260 yards in 2014 while Conley pulled in 17 receptions for 199 yards last year.
He added 35 catches for 451 yards in his second season. His total of 711 yards rank fifth for wide receivers in their first two seasons in the NFL under Reid.
The most difficult challenge as a rookie was understanding the playbook and developing chemistry with the quarterback, Wilson explained.
“(Coach Reid) has a great playbook to where a lot of things change at the line of scrimmage,” Wilson said. “He gives the quarterback the keys to the car, and you have to be on the same page as the quarterback at all times.”
Wilson said his teammates were critical to his successful second season.
“I had a great group of guys around me,” he said. “J-Mac and Jason (Avant) did a great job of preparing me mentally for the game. Pretty much everybody comes in with skills, but the knowledge of the game can take you a long way.”
The more he plays with Smith, Wilson said the game continues to slow down and he learns more and more about the offense.
“Chemistry with a quarterback is a great thing, and the more reps we get together the more chemistry we have,” Wilson said. “It’s a beautiful thing once you get on the same page.”
The Chiefs are relying on both Conley and Wilson as as starters entering the new season. Co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress says he values Conley’s flexibility and knowledge of multiple roles in the offense.
“Chris is a very smart guy,” Childress said. “He was the guy who bounced from about the fifth or sixth game on where he was backing up all three positions. He’s a year better, and he really has the understanding of everything that is happening all around him.”
Reid says both look ready to go for 2016.
“I think both of them are coming off pretty good preseasons,” Reid said. “They both stayed up here with Jeremy in the offseason and worked, and I think that helped them. They’re completely different players, but both of them will rotate at that X position, and Albert will be our inside zebra receiver.”