Sam Mellinger

Chiefs rookie receiver Tyreek Hill as a football player? Pretty dang good so far

Chiefs' Tyreek Hill on playbook, life in Kansas City

Kansas City Chiefs WR/KR Tyreek Hill spoke on Wednesday after the team's mandatory minicamp at Arrowhead on learning the playbook and the fan's reaction to him in Kansas City.
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Kansas City Chiefs WR/KR Tyreek Hill spoke on Wednesday after the team's mandatory minicamp at Arrowhead on learning the playbook and the fan's reaction to him in Kansas City.

The Tyreek Hill skeptic stood behind a microphone and did his best to throw water on what has become the biggest development of the Chiefs’ offseason practices.

The man who pleaded guilty to a stomach-turning beating of his then-pregnant girlfriend two years ago was always going to be a major story after the Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round this spring. The awful crime is where the discussion often and deservedly stops around Hill, a needed spotlight on a massive problem in America.

But Hill is also being judged as a football player, more now than ever before, and he is making a habit of turning each Chiefs practice into something like his own highlight reel.

Oh, look, there goes Hill running away from and literally waving goodbye to a cornerback.

Oh, look, there goes Hill on another go-route, two steps behind the defensive back, making it easy for the quarterback.

Oh, look, there goes Hill adjusting to a ball thrown behind him, turning his body, stretching toward the sky for the catch, and then running down the field with a speed that makes it look like he’s the only one on one of those people-movers they have at airports.

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But, well, look. Here is the skeptic to put it all in perspective.

“It doesn’t mean nothing because no pads,” he says. “Any fast guy can do it. Everybody reads articles on fast guys making plays. We gotta wait until camp and see what’s up.”

The skeptic makes a heck of a point.

Also, the skeptic — and this is a key point here — is Tyreek Hill.

Hill is the most obvious player on the field. If you watched a Chiefs practice and didn’t know anything about his past, or even about his ability, at some point you would turn to the person next to you and say something like, “Who the crap is that No. 81?” Even on a field full of elite athletes, he is a step faster.

The issues of Hill’s football ability and horrific violent act are both separated and forever entwined.

Separated, because many who know what he did will never accept him as a football player. Separated, because if he can’t play then he’s gone from Kansas City and the Chiefs.

But also entwined, because he will be judged differently, by fans if not coaches, the standard higher for even some diehard fans to be OK with him on their team.

We can all make our own judgments on that, but at least at the moment, Hill looks like the kind of player football men see as worth the trouble.

He is De’Anthony Thomas, only bigger, and faster, and a better receiver. Hill’s willingness to be coached has never been an issue, and those who’ve been around since the beginning of camp see a noticeable growth in his confidence and comfort.

None of this means he’ll be a good NFL player, or even, well, an NFL player. Minicamp practices are essentially passing practices. No pads, no tackling. Defenders can’t press as much, and without the threat of a pass rush, the quarterbacks are never rushed and never off-balance.

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Hill ran a 4.24 40 at his pro day, a time equal to Chris Johnson’s NFL combine record. A guy with his ability standing out in nonpadded practices isn’t a sign of stardom as much as it is the minimum expectation. If he can’t stand out here, in this environment, then he doesn’t have a chance once the hitting starts.

So aside from everything else, the most promising sign of Hill’s football future may be that he understands all of that.

Asked to grade his offseason so far, Hill gave himself a C. Among scouts, there is a concern about whether he can maintain his speed through contact. At both West Alabama and Oklahoma State, there are instances of him going down relatively easily. He is said to have a tendency to get alligator arms over the middle, something else you don’t see without the threat of a hit.

Hill seems to have a grasp of all that. He names receivers DeSean Jackson, Tavon Austin and Steve Smith as his football role models, because they’ve done what he’s trying to do as a smaller receiver in the NFL.

Hill is the Chiefs’ most controversial draft pick in years, even more so than Eric Fisher was as the overall top draft pick in 2013. There was always going to be more attention on him. There were always going to be people dismissing him or rooting against him because of what he did to that woman, and there were always going to be some rooting for him, because this is football we’re talking about.

The Chiefs’ last minicamp practice is Thursday, but already Hill has passed his initial test. If you are among those rooting for him, the most encouraging part is that he understands how little that means.

“It’s going to be physical,” he said of training camp, when pads will be worn and tackles will be made. “That’s the only thing I heard. I can’t wait.”

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