The man has played just 14 games in one season as a full-time receiver, so the question comes with a bit of an apology, and maybe this is as much a statement on the low standard as anything else, but goshdangit here goes anyway:
Is Tyreek Hill the Chiefs’ best wide receiver since Otis Taylor?
This is the kind of thing sportswriters can stretch to get #content where there is none, a discussion about something potentially irrelevant. So you should know that before these words were written the question was posed to the man better positioned to answer than anyone else on the planet.
“He’s the best Chiefs receiver since who?” said Len Dawson, the Hall of Fame quarterback and broadcaster. “Oh, my. I don’t know.”
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Dawson was stumped, and for good reason. Hill has 69 catches for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns. With just two games left, that’s a pace for 1,227 yards, which would be the fourth most in franchise history — behind Derrick Alexander (1,391 in 2000), Carlos Carson (1,351 in 1983) and Taylor (1,297 in 1966).
No disrespect to Alexander, but Dawson needed one second to answer whether Hill is better: “Of course.”
And even less time to answer if Hill is better than Dwayne Bowe: “No question.”
When it came to Carson, he took a little more time: “Now you’re getting to some better comparisons.”
Comparing across eras is always difficult, but part of what makes Hill’s case so compelling is how far he’s come in such short time.
He played a lot of running back in college, and was (controversially) drafted as much as a return specialist. He played just 40 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps as a rookie last year, and now in his first season as a full-time receiver is one of the best in the league.
Alex Smith has a 129.9 passer rating when throwing to Hill, which is the best of any qualifying receiver in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Hill is seventh in yards, and no one else in the top 15 has a higher catch percentage (70.4). Only two in the top 10 are averaging more yards per reception (15.6) and nobody in the top 25 is averaging more yards per target (10.96).
In summation: he’s reliable, dangerous and efficient.
It really is a remarkable transformation — from part-time college receiver to extremely raw draft prospect to one of the league’s best receivers in less than two years. He’s the youngest man in the league’s top 10 in receiving yards.
“Dude is awesome,” said new teammate Darrelle Revis. “I would like to see him and Usain Bolt race, man.”
Hill is so much more than just a speed receiver, though. Almost immediately, in rookie minicamp, he showed superior ball-tracking skills and footwork along the sideline. Next came understanding Andy Reid’s notoriously complex offense, then improvement with his hands, leverage against cornerbacks, timing and other subtleties that separate the good from the great.
“There’s been a lot of fast guys in this league that came and went,” Revis said. “But he’s the new-age receiver.”
A review of all 98 of Hill’s targets this season — second to Travis Kelce’s 114 on the team, and 15th among all of the league’s receivers, if you’re curious — shows how the Chiefs are utilizing a unique target.
He’s lined up in every way imaginable (wide, slot, backfield, even Wildcat, though you probably want to forget that one) and run routes at every depth.
Fourteen of his targets have come behind the line of scrimmage, and 22 have been more than 20 yards downfield.
His targets have included 15 screens, designed to get him the ball with blockers in front. They’ve included 23 hitch routes, designed to take advantage of defensive backs fearing his speed. And they’ve included 20 “go” or deep double-move routes designed to use truly world-class speed (his high school time in the 100 meters would’ve finished sixth in the Olympics that year).
You have a real job, so you don’t have time to blow a morning going through all the targets, but if you did a few things would pop out.
He doesn’t doesn’t just win with speed. He consistently wins in the air, even against taller defensive backs, and has a gift for toe-tapping along the sideline.
He doesn’t just run go-routes. Even if you include deep double-moves, that’s only 10 of his catches, 20 of his targets and 513 of his yards (it’s notable that he’s caught his last five targets on deep balls).
But, man, that speed. It’s why defensive backs usually play off of him, which allows so many hitch routes. But it’s also why he often beats defensive backs even when they line up 10 yards or more off the line of scrimmage. A few times he’s done this with pure speed, but more often he’s able to use a quick fake to turn the defensive back’s hips. When that happens, it’s easy money.
Officially, Hill has two drops, and depending on how strict you are two to four more that could’ve been completions without terrific catches (Pro Football Focus has him with four drops). Compare that with about twice as many catches on off-target throws, and — this is important with a cautious quarterback — only one interception on balls thrown his way.
That came late in the Bills loss, when Smith rushed a telegraphed pass and Tre’Davious White jumped the route. There have been at least two other balls thrown to Hill that might’ve been intercepted, but he either made the reception or worked hard enough that it fell incomplete.
The most encouraging part of Hill’s tape is that for as much as he’s improved, he’s not particularly close to a finished product yet.
When asked this week, he and Andy Reid both referenced route running as something he could refine, and that comes across when you watch the snaps on loop.
From Reid: “It’s something he’s worked really hard at and has gotten very good at, but he can take it up even another notch there. It’s a matter of getting through that first year (as a full-time receiver).”
From Hill: “I tend to sometimes try to depend on my speed too much and rely on my speed to beat corners when instead it’s all about technique and fundamentals. That’s what I’m going to work on this whole offseason.”
His routes aren’t bad. That’s not the point. And in fact, when he’s running at a defensive back, he has a gift for a quick fake or jab step that gives him the advantage by turning the defender around. But he does have a tendency to round off some his routes, particularly on outs, so that his move is less a 90-degree turn and more like the curve on a highway.
There are also snaps where he doesn’t appear to be in the right place. Most of those are likely so-called “sight adjustments,” which call for a receiver to alter his route after the huddle based on what the defense shows. Also, against the Bills, the snap in which he and Wilson went for the same screen pass was likely Hill’s fault.
But these are all high-level criticisms, and the lack of any fundamental flaws — hands, footwork, inability to release — is why the question of whether he’s the Chiefs’ best receiver in decades is legitimate.
Hill is still just 23 years old. No Chiefs receiver has ever had 1,000 yards so young. If he maintains his season pace, he will be just the 14th player across the league that young to go over 1,200 yards since 2000. The others include Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans. Julio Jones had 1,198 yards in his second season, at age 23.
You probably would’ve assumed this, but every man on that list was a full-time receiver for at least one season in college. All but one played at a Power Five conference school. Hill had 25 carries and 27 catches his last year at West Alabama, playing a Division II schedule that included schools named Stallman, Cumberland and Shorter.
He came to the Chiefs with less technique and understanding than most, is the point, so he’s had more improvement required.
When you think about it in that way, if he’s not the Chiefs’ best receiver since Taylor already he probably will be soon.
“I would say that’s right,” Dawson said. “And I would say that’s a pretty good thing.”