Vahe Gregorian

Under-the-radar Albert Wilson is surprisingly crucial cog in Chiefs offense

Chiefs WR Albert Wilson: “It’s year four for me and I’m still learning”

Star columnist Vahe Gregorian spoke to Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson about Wilson's role with the wide receiver group.
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Star columnist Vahe Gregorian spoke to Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson about Wilson's role with the wide receiver group.

Between receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs boast two of the most dynamic targets in the game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt made an amazing splash early and went over 1,000 yards with 116 yards on Sundayagainst Oakland.

In the same game, the offensive line had its best game in weeks with simplified schemes and some renewed juice.

Quarterback Alex Smith has had some lapses, but isn’t he still the team MVP entering the showdown against the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium?

So there are lots of obvious reasons why the Chiefs have scored 57 points the last two weeks and are averaging 25.3 a game (sixth in the NFL) despite the wretched stretch in which they scored 36 points in the month of November.

But there also is a more subtle and under-appreciated aspect to this: fourth-year receiver Albert Wilson, who had five catches for 72 yards against the Raiders that included a spectacular toe-tapping 36-yarder on the sideline and a crucial third-down conversion late in the game.

“To make that catch, shrug that tackle and get the first, he’s had so many plays like that,” Smith said. “Those plays end up winning games.”

While the flashy Kelce has 73 catches for 945 yards and the turbo-charged Hill has 64 for 986, the 2014 undrafted free agent from Georgia State has more pedestrian totals of 28 for 356.

But the scope of his game extends well beyond his highly efficient receptions, 22 of which have gone for first downs.

If he’s not the engine for it all, he’s more of the glue than you might have realized.

Especially in an offense that’s always been a matter of trust.

To hear Smith tell it, one of the key reasons for the Chiefs’ resurgence on offense is a restored sense of order that has coincided with Wilson being back from injury for three weeks since missing three of four games (all losses).

“Look at those games — for sure,” Smith said. “It was different all of a sudden when he came back.”

All the more so considering receiver Chris Conley’s season-ending injury on Oct. 8 at Houston, a week before the Pittsburgh loss that Wilson also missed.

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat writer Terez A. Paylor welcomes the A-Team as the quartet of writers discusses the Kansas City Chiefs leading up to the Saturday night showdown at Arrowhead against the Los Angeles Chargers for the AFC West lead.

The double-shot left the Chiefs with little experience at a position that requires just that, and maybe some mind-reading chemistry with the quarterback.

“When you miss a link of something that was clicking for you, it kind of goes unstable,” Wilson said. “But we’ve got a lot of pieces back.”

In fact, the 25-year-old senior member of the Chiefs’ receiving corps is a piece that helps make everything else go.

For a bunch of reasons, including his command of the complex offense — no small thing — and willingness to do the less glamorous work and the sheer heart he pours into the job.

So much so that what offensive coordinator Matt Nagy has to say may surprise you.

“He’s invaluable. He’s our Energizer Bunny,” said Nagy, raving about everything from Wilson’s blocking to his route-running to his comfort with the schemes. “He’s the hammer, not the nail. He has excellent hands. He plays fast. …

“And,” Nagy added with a pause, “he knows what he’s doing.”

That might seem like a minimum requirement, but it’s not a given with so many variables on any play and so many young receivers around in the wake of Conley’s injury and the offseason release of veteran Jeremy Maclin.

Not to discredit others, Nagy said, but it’s crucial that Wilson can be counted on to line up in the right place and right way, know the ins and outs of all the pass-route adjustments (from multiple positions), and run them with the precision to help Kelce and Hill get open, if not himself.

“I know we’ve got a lot of versatile guys, but I think he might be our most,” Smith said. “When you take into account all the blocking and playing inside and outside, the guy plays every position we have — and we do about everything there is to do with him.”

Moreover, since Kelce and Hill — and Hunt out of the backfield — usually draw so much attention, Wilson typically receives minimal attention.

“In our system, he’s the one getting man-to-man a lot; we feel like that’s ‘advantage, Chiefs,’ ” Nagy said. “So now that’s a third element in the passing game that (opponents) have to be aware of.

“I’m sure opponents probably are not going to game-plan around him. But that’s OK.”

All of this comes from a certain hunger and dedication that have defined Wilson since he was raised by foster parents in Florida amid a turbulent childhood.

“I’ve been through a lot in my personal life,” he said, adding that football has always been an outlet for him to release some stress.

That baseline made for an improbable ascension to the NFL for the undersized Wilson (5-foot-9, 200 pounds), who has become a notable role model for teammates.

“I think a lot of these guys see how hard he plays,” Nagy said, “and they don’t want to be a guy who doesn’t play as hard as him.”

All of it less conspicuously than the likes of Hill, Kelce and Hunt …

But far more essentially than might meet the eye.

“We’re different,” Smith said, “when Albert’s on the field.”

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist with The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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