Shortly after he was informed about his surprising release from the Chiefs on Friday, Jeremy Maclin dialed up fellow receiver Chris Conley and dispensed one last important instruction.
“That we needed to take the things he’s taught us and move forward with it,” Conley said. “I told him ‘Thank you,’ and I told him to let me know where he ends up. Jeremy’s like a brother to me; we’re very close and we’ll stay in contact.”
Maclin, a nine-year veteran, served as a mentor to Conley for the better part of two years and dished out plenty of tough love. Maclin played with an edge, and he instructed with an edge, too. Last offseason, he called Conley in Georgia on a random February day and all but instructed him to return to Kansas City, where he would live and train with Maclin.
That’s why Conley shadowed Maclin for nearly two months before the 2016 season. The two lifted weights, watched film and worked on route concepts four days a week until the Chiefs’ offseason workout program in April. During the season, Conley emerged as a consistent receiver and blocker, and was good enough to start and play the most snaps of any Chiefs receiver as Maclin missed four games because of a groin strain.
“He just taught me how to be a pro,” Conley said. “When you come from college to the pros, you don’t really play football at the level you play it here, you have to learn a lot of things … how to carry yourself, how to come out here and approach it.”
To Conley, that also means showing up early, putting in extra work and being prepared for every possible situation.
“It’s being able to play every position, knowing every formation and knowing what the quarterback’s thinking,” Conley said.
Conley wasn’t the only one who benefited from Maclin’s presence the last two years. Tyreek Hill, who is expected to get first crack at replacing Maclin at the spotlight “Z” receiver position, also thanked Maclin on Wednesday for being a good example.
“The one thing I learned with Mac is how to be a pro on the field and off,” Hill said. “Being around Mac off the field really helped me a lot. Showing me how to be a man, showing me how to be a good citizen, showing me how to be a great teammate. Stuff like that.”
Hill was asked which player is assuming Maclin’s vocal leadership role.
“It’s really all of us, but definitely Chris Conley,” Hill said. “He’s definitely stepped his game up, he’s definitely talking more in the meeting room. It’s all on him now. He’s just got to step up and play like we know he can.
“Me, I’m a leader but I lead by action — I’m not vocal, I lead by hard work.”
Hill, 23, was the Chiefs’ top wide receiver last season, leading the position group with 83 targets, 61 receptions, 593 yards and six touchdowns. He is also slated to make $586,000 this year, significantly cheaper than Maclin’s 2017 salary cap number of $12.4 million after a down season in which he tallied only 44 catches for 536 yards and two touchdowns.
Maclin’s numbers were nearly identical to the 24-year-old Conley, who caught 44 passes for 530 yards, with no touchdowns, and is set to make $838,000.
Conley should continue to play the “X” receiver spot, which is more of a possession-type position in coach Andy Reid’s offense, but Conley did mention Wednesday that he has been moving around the last two practices, including assuming some of Maclin’s role.
“Other than that,” Conley said, “Things are really the same.”
Except for the fact he’s being counted on to lead, something he’s been groomed to do since he was drafted in the third round in 2015.
Conley has always come off as serious, intelligent and thoughtful. After watching Maclin lead the last two years, Conley appears to have a grasp on how to earn the respect of the locker room.
“The way to be a good leader is to be a good follower first — you have to be a good listener, and I had a lot of time just sitting back and listening,” he said. “You just pay attention. It’s not necessarily being a ‘rah rah’ guy everyday. Sometimes it’s coming out here, seeing what they do, waiting to the end of practice and letting them know what they need to get better at.”
Another area the Chiefs’ receivers must replace is Maclin’s on-field edge. Few were as talkative as Maclin, who rarely backed down from a physical or vocal challenge — a necessity against teams like Denver, which boast outstanding and confident cornerbacks.
“It all comes down to making plays,” Conley said. “The talking is this and that … Jeremy made plays, we’re going to make plays.
“The Chiefs will make plays.”