(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear as a special section in the Sunday, Aug. 27 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
What can Tyreek Hill do for an encore?
This time a year ago, the Chiefs saw in Hill a blank canvas and used the entire color spectrum to complete the picture.
They lined him up in several positions and maximized Hill’s blazing speed. Wide receiver, slot, running back, punt or kick returner — just get the ball in his hands, ideally in open space, and watch him turn on the jets.
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This is how Hill led the NFL in yards per touch in 2016 at 13.3, was named an All-Pro return specialist as a rookie and commands the respect of some of his most frustrated opponents — guys on the Chiefs’ defense, which Hill continually torched in training camp.
“He can run right by you, he can run around you,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “There is not too much he can’t do.”
But for the first time perhaps in his football playing life, Hill is positioned to be utilized more tactically.
The Chiefs have indicated Hill and his 4.25-second speed in the 40 will be featured less on kickoff returns this fall. And the release of wide receiver Jermey Maclin makes it more likely Hill enters the season as the team’s primary wide-receiver target, which could limit his touches at running back.
The punt-return duties should remain his. After all, Hill topped the NFL in that category, too, at 15.2 yards per return.
Reggie Wayne, the former Indianapolis Colts star and a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, applauds the move.
“I totally agree with it,” Wayne said. “Leave him on punt return because he can get six in the blink of an eye.”
Hill did last season. He was one of three players with two punt-return touchdowns, and his 95-yarder in the Chiefs’ season finale at San Diego was the NFL’s longest last season.
“He’s a big-play guy and you don’t want to run him in the ground,” Wayne said.
Hill, listed at 5-10, 185 pounds, is up for anything. This marks the first time since his sophomore season at Garden City Community College he’ll be with the same team for a second straight season, and that has made a difference in his approach.
“I think I’m more mentally prepared for this year,” Hill said during training camp. “I know exactly how things roll along. I’m more comfortable, more organized. I feel more prepared.”
That was apparent throughout training camp. Hill seemed more techincally sound than he did as a rookie, and it showed as soon as the ball was snapped.
“His route running, and getting in and out of breaks,” tight end Travis Kelce said, “he’s not giving away the route. He’s smart and he can think fastesr than anybody on the field.”
A year ago, any discussion of Hill included his pleading guilty to domestic assault and battery for striking and choking his pregnant girlfriend. That topic became less prominent as the season unfolded and Hill grew more productive by the game. In the first half of the season, Hill was targeted as many as five times in three games. Over the second half, he had least five targets seven times.
Hill had four touchdowns and not more than one in a game through 10 games. Over the final six, Hill reached the end zone eight times with two multi-touchdown games, including a remarkable outing at Denver when he became the first rookie since Gale Sayers to score a touchdown in a game by rushing, receiving and kick-return duties.
“He was electric with the ball in his hands,” Wayne said.
That’s always been the case. Hill’s statistics from his first NFL season read proportionally like his four college seasons spread over three schools.
For the Chiefs, he caught 61 passes for 593 yards and rushed 24 times for 267 yards, playing 283 offensive snaps, and averaged 27.4 yards per kickoff return to go along with his punt-return totals.
At West Alabama, Oklahoma State and Garden City, Hill also filled the stats sheet, rarely leading any one statistical category.
But eye-popping numbers weren’t required to identify Hill as a top-notch talent.
He enrolled at Garden City because of his poor grades out of Coffee High in Douglas, Ga. Hill played his first year with Nick Marshall, the quarterback who led Auburn to the SEC Championship the next year. In his second junior-college season, Hill found himself with many recruiting options, including Alabama, Florida State, Southern California, Texas and Oklahoma.
Hill picked Oklahoma State partly for the opportunity to run track immediately, and during the 2014 indoor season won the 60 and 200 meters and helped the Cowboys to their first Big 12 championship in the sport.
That football season, Hill caught 31 passes and rushed 102 times; neither mark was tops among OSU’s wideouts or running backs.
But with Maclin’s departure, it seems likely that Hill will be the Chiefs’ leading receiver this season.
“When he left, that means I have to step up my game,” Hill said. “I like the pressure. I just have to make the plays.”
And Hill is OK handing over kickoff-return duties to DeAnthony Thomas and others. Hill could still get some time there, but the reps would be reduced.
“DeAnthony is going to do a tremendous job back there, a Pro Bowl season,” Hill said.
What about Hill’s ambition for 2017? A Pro Bowl and All-Pro season as a rookie is tough to top. But all Hill has to do is look across the locker room to find someone who didn’t lose a step from his first to second seasons.
Cornerback Marcus Peters was the NFL defensive rookie of the year in 2015 and was named All-Pro the next season. Peters’ numbers decreased in his second year, from eight interceptions to six, and two picks returned for touchdowns to none. But so did his targets, from an NFL-leading 137 as a rookie to 89 last year. Teams stayed away from his side of the field.
The opposite could happen with Hill.
“He’s not going to sneak up on anybody this year,” Wayne said. “Everybody knows who he is.”