On one late afternoon last February, Chris Conley was feeling pretty good about himself when his cell phone buzzed.
Conley had just completed his rookie season with the Chiefs. He planned to spend the offseason working out at the University of Georgia, his alma mater. He had just moved into a short-term apartment in Atlanta.
Little did he know that plan would quickly be turned on its head.
“Chris!” Jeremy Maclin said on the other end. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Conley replied.
Maclin planned to work out at the Chiefs’ training facility in the offseason. He told Conley that if he really wanted to be a great wide receiver, he’d get on a flight to Kansas City.
“He was like ‘You’re coming back,’ ” Conley said.
Conley didn’t have a place to live in Kansas City, but Maclin offered to let him stay in his home. The decision was simple.
“If that guy calls you,” Conley remembers his father saying, “you don’t tell him no.”
So that’s how the 23-year-old Conley came to live this offseason with Maclin, the Chiefs’ 28-year-old No. 1 receiver.
Over the next month and a half, the two of them and 23-year-old receiver Albert Wilson lifted weights, watched film and worked on route concepts four days a week until the Chiefs’ offseason workout program began April 18.
“When Mac told me he was definitely (going to) be here, there was no hesitation for me coming back,” said Wilson, a Georgia State grad who had also planned to spend the offseason working out in Atlanta until Maclin reached out.
In retrospect, it looks like Conley (the Chiefs’ No. 3 receiver in 2015) and Wilson (No. 2 in 2015) made wise decisions. Veteran free agent Rod Streater and rookie Tyreek Hill made a strong push during organized team activities, but Conley and Wilson held on to their positions.
“Those are a couple of guys that I thought had good camps — they’re kind of growing up before our eyes here, which is fun to watch,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I think I’d tell you yes, that both of them working with Maclin paid off.”
A typical offseason day for Maclin, Conley and Wilson started about 9 a.m. at the training facility. They ate breakfast, got in the weight room, then ran on the field. Then they’d go in the film room or practice footwork.
“I think it’s my job to help them, and to help them understand that ‘Hey, these are the things I do to get myself ready,’ ” said Maclin, who caught 87 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015, his first year in Kansas City. “I’m not necessarily saying this is what you have to do, but you can take bits and pieces and physically get yourself ready.”
And the first thing Maclin wanted them to see is how to work smarter in the offseason, not necessarily harder.
“Conley’s a guy who likes to go, go, go, go,” Maclin said. “The things he was doing didn’t necessarily need to be done. It was the time where you get your body back right. You take mental notes. Running 30, 35, 40 routes a day isn’t really necessary in late February, early March.”
Maclin learned to use his time in different ways.
“Maybe on a Saturday, (Jeremy) would say ‘I’m gonna watch film, ya’ll don’t have to come,’ ” Wilson said with a laugh. “And (he’d) see if we show up, to see how serious we were about things. And of course, we both showed up every chance we got.”
Like Reid, quarterback Alex Smith can see how Maclin’s influence has rubbed off on Conley and Wilson.
“I think one (way) is the attention to detail, how much (Jeremy) thinks about little things, asking questions in installation,” Smith said. “And then the route running, all that, the work ethic, how he attacks guys and things like that.”
Conley, like Wilson, needs to show continued improvement once the pads come on in July. But Smith was impressed with how Conley — a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder who ran a blistering 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine — has grown comfortable using his athletic gifts to beat defensive backs.
Conley says watching Maclin helped him fine-tune his footwork and body control, in particular.
“For me, being a bigger guy — a guy who typically runs 100 miles an hour — it’s hard for me to stop on a dime and make sharper cuts,” Conley said. “It was really working on that, fine-tuning those cuts to where they were effective at getting someone moved off their spot.”
Wilson, meanwhile, is still learning how to set defenders up and needs to do a better job of making tough catches, but the 5-foot-9, 200-pounder is good with the ball in his hands, which is why he saw plenty of time in the slot during offseason workouts and seemed to get stronger as camp went on.
“That’s been a new role for him,” Smith said. “That’s a big plate there when you move inside, that’s a lot on your shoulders — especially mentally — and he’s handled it. Been good there, too.”
Wilson said he also closely watched Maclin’s route running in addition to how he conducts himself on the field.
“From the way he runs his routes, to the attitude that should be displayed on the field, he’s just a flat-out leader, more by his performance than his words,” Wilson said.
Conley said that when Maclin does speak, he can be direct, but he added their time together helped the three become more honest with each other, which allows them to be critical when necessary.
“We’re on a level where he knows if there’s something I’ve done that’s not right, he can tell me, and he’s not going to be shy about saying it,” Conley said. “He might say it in front of everybody, he might pull me aside and say it. He doesn’t really pull punches. He’s a blunt guy, but especially with me — he’ll take it to another level with me because he has expectations.
“But at the same time, he knows what I expect of him — so he knows that I’ll say things to him as well, so we have this respect for each other now that’s different.”
“It’s a big brother-little brother relationship, but it’s a respect,” Maclin said. “It’s not like I think they’re better than me or vice versa. I’m only 28.”
And for that, Conley and Wilson are both thankful.
“I learned a ton, and I’m thankful for that, that he would take the time to allow me into his home and really just be coaching me on not just football, but a football life, every day,” Conley said.
“I know that I have a great opportunity,” said Wilson, who will be a free agent in two seasons. “I’m in a great situation to really take care of myself for a long time.”