ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs allowed wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman to walk away in free agency, and in their place they signed a couple of relative unknowns while taking a gamble on an injury-prone talent and unproven draft pick.
The expectation this season is that Patrick Mahomes can make it work, just as he has for so many years.
It helps that All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce is still producing at a level that few wide receivers can match, and the Chiefs return a deep backfield led by Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It also helps that the interior of their offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, which should help give Mahomes time to find all those new options.
Now it’s up to them to catch some passes.
Kadarius Toney is back with Kansas City after showing flashes of stardom last season, including in its Super Bowl win over the Eagles, though the injury problems that dogged him with the Giants already have returned. Toney tore the meniscus in his knee on the first day of training camp, leaving the Chiefs to hope he can be ready for the start of the season.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling is also back and expected to take on a bigger role. He as much as anyone showed what catching passes from Mahomes in an offense orchestrated by Chiefs coach Andy Reid can produce: Valdes-Scantling had 42 catches for 687 yards in his first season in red, a career-best yardage total after five seasons with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
Valdes-Scantling hopes to replicate the leadership he once received from Davante Adams and Randall Cobb with the Packers.
“Just seeing those guys go to work every day,” he said, “and then having a guy like Aaron as a young guy — seeing what that looks like then and now being able to do that in a different light, and be a veteran to those guys, and watching how Pat and Travis go about their business, just like, I got to be the same guy for the young guys in the room, too.”
There are plenty of them.
Skyy Moore, a second-round pick a year ago, caught 22 passes for 250 yards during an uneven rookie season. He struggled with punt returns early on, and that may have contributed to a crisis of confidence. But he was instrumental in the Chiefs’ comeback win over Philadelphia, and Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy have been effusive in their praise of him in camp.
“You know, the second year in, knowing the offense, being more comfortable in who he is — they drafted him in the second round for a reason,” Valdes-Scantling said. “He is super talented and having him be able to move around and do some things that he can do, I’m excited to see what the season holds for him.”
The Chiefs used another second-round pick in April on Rashee Rice, who turned heads not only at SMU but during the pre-draft process, when he worked out with Mahomes and several other receivers at the quarterback’s home in Texas.
That offseason work with the league MVP has given Rice a head start, too.
“He expects his receivers to be in a specific spot at a specific time,” Rice said this week, when asked what he’s learned about his quarterback so far. “He’s going to bomb the ball so don’t look back and run; look up and run.”
There is some spirited competition for the other spots on the roster.
Justin Watson was part of their Super Bowl-winning team a year ago, and he re-signed with Kansas City after offers elsewhere. He has the inside track on a job along with Richie James, a special teams standout who spent last season with the Giants.
The biggest wildcard is Justyn Ross. The former Clemson star missed an entire college season to a congenital condition in his neck and spine that required surgery, then he missed last season after foot surgery. But at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Ross gives the Chiefs the kind of big red zone target they would have lacked after Smith-Schuster signed with New England.
“He’s such a big kid, tall kid,” Reid said, “the ability to go up and get the ball, that type of stuff will benefit him.”
The Chiefs indeed have plenty of options at wide receiver. Few of them are household names outside of Kansas City. But taken together, they could be the difference in another Super Bowl run or a season that fails to meet expectations.
“There’s been a lot of change in this receiver room over the last two seasons,” Watson said. “We have a bunch of young guys that are just chomping at the bit and really pushing everybody, so it’s been a good mix of older guys and younger guys in camp.”
NOTES: DT Tershawn Wharton practiced Wednesday for the first time since undergoing ACL surgery last fall. P Tommy Townsend (sprained ankle) also was at practice while DE Mike Danna (calf strain) continued to work to the side with trainers. … CB L’Jarius Sneed did not participate in practice because of knee inflammation. He had worked out earlier in the week.
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