More than any other regular-season game, NFL openers are surrounded in mystery. Teams have the freedom to work on their opponent as early as training camp. They’ll install plays and schemes that haven’t been printed on game film.
The Chiefs, who pull the most daunting task of the week with a trip to defending Super Bowl champion and league bully New England on Thursday, may have an edge here.
His name is Tyreek Hill.
Coming off a rookie season in which his role and production expanded as the year progressed, Hill finished as one of the league’s top threats, earning an All-Pro spot as a return specialist. He also led Chiefs wide receivers in receptions and yards and averaged 11.1 yards on 24 rushing attempts.
And he hasn’t played against the Patriots.
“I’m sure they have a lot of different ways to use him and he’s a very versatile player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He can run, he can catch … I’m sure they use him a decoy. He’s a very explosive player.”
The Chiefs have indicated Hill will be used more on punt returns than kickoffs, and with the departure of Jeremy Maclin, the wide receiver role for Hill is expected to expand.
But with an asset like Hill and Andy Reid’s reputation for creative play design — he had defensive tackle Dontari Poe throw a jump pass for a touchdown last season — along with additional time to prepare, no telling what the Chiefs could cook up.
“I don’t know exactly where he’ll be, but you certainly have to be conscious of him whenever he’s on the field,” Belichick said.
Hill didn’t show up much on the preseason stats sheet. On the first play of the opener he ran under an Alex Smith pass for a 32-yard gain. For the preseason, he caught two other passes, rushed once for 11 yards and didn’t return a kick.
A year ago, Hill was a fifth-round draft pick intent on proving himself, but he said there was little difference between his first and second preseasons.
“I was basically doing the same thing,” Hill said. “Coach (Reid) added a little more to my plate, but that’s what I get paid to do. I’m able to adjust and learn.”
The more he adjusts and learns, the better the Chiefs become.
“There haven’t been many things that we’ve asked him to do that he’s failed at,” Smith said. “We move him around and do different things and he’s so fluid and natural at almost all of them.”
There’s also this about Hill: He loves the prime time. His best game last season came on a Sunday night at Denver, when he became the first rookie since Gale Sayers to score a touchdown by rushing, receiving and kick return. A Thursday evening game against the Raiders produced a 36-yard touchdown reception and 78-yard punt return for a score.
On Christmas night against the Broncos, Hill ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run.
“I’m always trying to make the big play under the lights because everyone’s watching,” Hill said.
For the Patriots, it will be for the first time.