NFL coaches hate to compare players. Even the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, who is pretty affable compared to his peers, will grumpily dismiss any prompts to do so.
So when Dave Toub says he sees some Devin Hester in Tyreek Hill, that’s an enormous compliment. And a gutsy one. But if anyone has the clout to make the comparison, it’s Toub.
Toub was the Chicago Bears’ special-teams coach during Hester’s glory days a decade ago. Watching Hill, Toub can’t help but see some of the same traits — at least as a returner.
The rare vision. The absurd acceleration. Even the joy with which both players returned kicks.
“I mean, he loves being a returner,” said Toub, who now leads the Chiefs’ special teams. “I’m sure he’ll be the first one to tell you.”
Toub wants to see more from Hill after a breakout rookie campaign in which Hill returned two punts and a kick for scores and emerged as the game’s most dangerous return man, inspiring fear and wonder from his counterparts at this year’s Pro Bowl.
But after the Chiefs’ release of Jeremy Maclin, you could argue they need more from Hill on offense too, and that’s where things could get troublesome.
Hill is a strong, thickly-built 185-pound athlete, but he probably stands closer to 5 feet 8 than the 5-10 he is listed at. Over a 16-game season, the potential for wear and tear on the Chiefs’ most dynamic offensive threat is real, which is why Hill likely will see his role on kick return — where he fielded only 14 a year ago — marginalized.
“We can’t have him on kickoff return — that’s one thing we’ll probably take him off,” Toub said. “And you know last year we did that, too. We really didn’t use him there very much except for the last game of the year.”
The case for taking Hill off kicks and not punts, Toub said, is because kick returns are often designed to hit a certain spot of the field, which limits returners’ creativity and exposes them to more physical punishment.
“But, you know, we’d really like him to be our punt returner,” Toub said. “I know Andy has a plan for it, and we’ll just follow Andy’s plan.”
Reid insisted this week that managing Hill’s workload won’t be a problem.
“Listen, I have dealt with this with (Brian) Westbrook and DeSean Jackson,” Reid said. “You can balance that out ... there is nothing that says they can’t do both.”
The history of smallish, stud returners-turned-offensive regulars is an uneven one, however. While Carolina’s Steve Smith Sr. made the Pro Bowl as a rookie for his return skills and quickly developed into a future Hall of Fame receiver, you can count the Chiefs’ own Dante Hall — not to mention Hester, the greatest return man of the modern era — as dynamic stars whose receiving skills never matched their return ability.
“It’s very tough (to do),” Toub said. “I mean, with some guys, their limit might be a great returner, you know?”
A player can have the speed, vision and courage necessary to be a dynamic returner, but lack the route savvy, hands or football IQ to be an equally effective receiver. A combination of those factors thwarted Hall and Hester’s attempts to be consistent offensive threats, though none of those negative traits seem to apply to Hill, who is confident he, like Smith, can make up for his lack of size.
“It’s all about what’s in your heart, man,” Hill said. “Steve Smith, he’s the same height as me and he’s a dog on the field.”
It’s also worth noting that Hill caught more passes and more touchdowns as a rookie than Hall or Hester did in any of their 20 combined professional seasons, yet another positive sign for the Chiefs.
“He’s really just scratching the surface as a wide receiver — (he) just keeps better and better,” Toub said. “The offense just keeps throwing more and more stuff at him, and he just keeps improving. It’s really amazing.”
With Maclin banged up a year ago, Hill finished second on the team with 61 catches and 593 yards and first with six touchdowns. His blinding 4.24-second 40-yard dash speed scared corners, and his ball skills were better than any pundit could have reasonably anticipated before the draft.
What’s more, Hill improved his route running, so much so that former receivers coach David Culley said four games into last season that Hill could potentially play Maclin’s “Z” receiver spot, the spotlight position in Reid’s offense.
Now that Maclin is gone, Reid said this week that Hill is the next man up at the “Z.” And Hill is not concerned about the likelihood of an increased workload.
“I could have done a little more (last year),” Hill said.
Internally, the Chiefs are optimistic about what Hill can do with more snaps. Remember, he racked up last year’s numbers while appearing on only 40 percent of the offensive plays, besting Maclin’s numbers on approximately 215 fewer snaps.
“Tyreek is a special, special player,” said receivers coach Greg Lewis, who took over for Culley in January. “He’s got elite speed, he’s got track, Usain Bolt speed. That’s something special.”
The Chiefs certainly hope so, since Toub said the likely removal of Hill from kick return will create more return opportunities for De’Anthony Thomas, a fourth-year pro entering a contract season. Thomas possesses outstanding speed and return instincts, as well, but he’s never returned a kick for a touchdown in 35 tries, and his career average of 25.8 yards per return is nearly 2 yards lower than Hill’s 27.4.
Other players in the mix to return kicks, Toub said, include Chris Conley, Albert Wilson as well as Demarcus Robinson, who has has impressed the coaching staff of late.
“He’s really come on,” Toub said of Robinson.
But so has Hill, whose diligence toward refining his craft as a punt returner has caught Toub’s eyes in offseason practices, despite the increased usage of Hill on offense in practice.
“Tyreek has really taken it to another level,” Toub said. “He’s doing the finer points of the return game. He’s a great catcher, he does everything that we know he can do, and he’s really improving on the little things he needed to work on.”
While Hill trusts the coaching staff to take care of him — “They know what they’re doing,” he said — Toub and the Chiefs are trusting a 23-year old whose combination of talent and youthful exuberance for football continues to drive their ongoing, seemingly neverending probe to see how much more he can handle.
“I just love him — I love the kid,” Toub said. “We had that idea before we drafted him, and I’m just glad we were right.”
Terez A. Paylor: 816-234-4489, @TerezPaylor. Download Red Zone Extra, The Star's Chiefs app.