When a new regime takes over an NFL team, the players left behind are immediately put on notice. Coaches and general managers love to stock the 53-man roster with “their guys,” which makes it tough for the holdovers to gain traction.
That was the position Chiefs’ third-year running back, Cyrus Gray, found himself in when owner Clark Hunt hired Andy Reid and John Dorsey to be the team’s new coach and general manager, respectively, in January 2013.
“You see guys come and go, it’s just a competitive business and we understand that,” said Gray, a sixth-round pick in 2012 out of Texas A&M. “You’re just trying to make your presence felt in everything you do.”
Gray, a former four-star recruit, was humble (and smart) enough to recognize an opportunity to do just that on special teams. There were just two problems: He’d returned kicks only in college and had only limited experience on the units as a rookie.
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“He’s always played fast — that’s one thing that he had,” special-teams coach Dave Toub said. “Last year, he just needed to learn the geometry, where to drop and what the coverage team was looking at and those kind of things.”
But it didn’t take Toub long to see that Gray was a quick learner.
“The thing about Cyrus is that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Toub said. “He just keeps getting better.”
With a little help from Toub, running-backs coach Eric Bieniemy and former receiver Terrance Copper — a special-teams ace who was released in training camp last August — Gray eventually found himself in crucial roles on four of Toub’s special-teams units last season, and remains in those roles nearly 11 months later.
“Right now, Cyrus is really our captain,” Toub said. “He kind of runs the show, makes all the calls. He’s like the quarterback of our punt teams.”
Gray’s special-teams roles break down like this:
Punt coverage: Gray serves as the personal protector for punter Dustin Colquitt, which comes with significant responsibility.
“It’s up to me to make calls and pick up on (formations) of other teams,” said Gray, who is also charged with making tackles downfield.
Punt return: Gray serves as the “mike,” which he said equates to a lead blocker for the punt returner. Again, he’s charged with reading the opposing team’s formations and making calls and adjustments, if necessary.
Kick return: Gray serves as the fullback, which means he’s basically the lead blocker for the primary kick returner.
“You scan the field and try to make important blocks so you can spring the kick returner,” Gray said.
Kick coverage: Gray serves as the “five,” which means he lines up next to kicker Ryan Succop on kickoffs and basically serves as a wedgebuster. He says he always gets blocked, but he willingly takes the punishment in the pursuit of making the play.
Gray, as you might imagine, takes pride in his role as a valuable member of Toub’s units.
“Anybody can do it, but it takes effort,” Gray said. “It takes want to. You’ve just got to be great at it.”
This is probably music to the ears of Toub, who has a strong reputation as a special-teams coach and figures to be a head-coaching candidate one day.
But when asked what the next step in Gray’s progression is, Toub pointed to a harsh reality in this league: Teams can keep only 53 players, and it can be tough to keep a special-teams ace if other players offer more upside as an every-down player.
“He needs to make this football team (first),” Toub said. “There’s a lot of competition over there at running back. That’s the biggest thing.”
The Chiefs’ top two running backs are rock solid, with Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, and slender fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas (5 feet 9 and 174 pounds) has shown surprising toughness as a runner.
The Chiefs brought in another veteran with special-teams chops, Joe McKnight, to compete with Gray this offseason, and while McKnight seemed to edge ahead in the competition during organized team activities (he earned some first-team reps when Charles was absent) he’s missed a substantial portion of training camp because of a hamstring injury.
McKnight is back now, so the competition between him and Gray is far from over. However, both players could have a hard time making the roster if the Chiefs decide to keep, say, a fourth quarterback or a sixth receiver.
However, when asked if Gray is a player worth keeping, Toub didn’t hesitate.
“No question,” Toub said. “We grade guys every night, and he’s consistently playing at a high level for me.”
Reid was then asked how much sway Toub’s opinion could have come the final roster cuts, which don’t take place until Aug. 30.
“He’ll have his say on it,” Reid said. “But as I’ve said before, Dorsey has 51 percent. All the coaches, we want them to stand up for the guys they believe in. At the end of the day it’s a joint effort and Dorsey has 51 percent of it.”
Gray, to his credit, tries not to worry about any of this. He’s worked hard this offseason to improve as an offensive player, and it showed in the Chiefs’ exhibition opener against Cincinnati on Thursday, when he rushed for a team-high 55 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries (albeit against third-teamers).
Reid noted after the game that Gray looked much more patient as a runner, which is a nice compliment for a player who knows he needs to show more as a skill player to solidify his spot on the roster.
But his special-teams contributions certainly don’t hurt.
“He just does it all,” Toub said. “A tough guy.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.