The punt-return candidates took their turns fielding sky-high kicks on the Chiefs practice field, all under the watchful eye of special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
First one up, rookie Albert Wilson, then Frankie Hammond Jr., followed by Canadian Football League import Weston Dressler and then NFL veteran Joe McKnight.
Toub, who worked magic with the Chiefs’ return game last season, has an even more daunting challenge for 2014. How to replace the AFC’s leading kickoff returner in Quintin Demps, and the Chiefs’ career-leading punt returner in Dexter McCluster, both of whom left in free agency.
“It’s exciting for us,” Toub said. “That’s what we do, particularly trying to find the new punt returner. We’ve got a lot of guys to choose from. We feel pretty good about it.”
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Toub feels especially confident in his kickoff returners. Second-year running back Knile Davis averaged 32.1 yards per kickoff return last year as a rookie, including a 108-yarder against Denver, the second-longest kickoff return in NFL history.
“We think featuring him … that’s our goal … to get him a lot more touches,” Toub said of Davis, who had little experience returning kickoffs in college at Arkansas. “He’s shown he can be explosive.
“He’s way ahead as far catching the football. Last year we had to take it from ground zero to learn how to catch a kickoff, and now he’s got a lot more confidence. He’s excited about the idea of being the guy.”
McKnight returned 76 kickoffs for a 29-yard average in three seasons with the New York Jets, including a club-record 107-yard TD in 2011 and a 100-yard touchdown in 2012. He also returned seven punt returns for 69 yards.
“He’s proven, he’s done it with the Jets. And … we’ve got the Black Mamba, too,” Toub said of De’Anthony Thomas, the club’s fourth-round pick from Oregon. “I really think he’s going to be a punt returner moreso than a kick returner.
Thomas, a diminutive 5-foot-9, 174-pounder who returned four kickoff returns for touchdowns (including a 94-yarder against Kansas State in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl) and one punt for a score in his college career, has not been able to participate in the OTAs this week because classes in Oregon are still in session. But he showed Toub plenty during the rookie mini-camp.
“First, you look at his college tape, particularly his (second) year, when he had a lot more touches,” Toub said. “You see an explosive guy who can make the first person miss, and he’ll never be caught from behind.
“He’s got all the tools to be a superstar, really. It’s a matter of him getting better at ball reads and catching the ball and confidence with live bullets coming down. How’s he going to react? Those are the things we have to figure out. We want to come out of this whole off season feeling pretty good about a guy going into training camp. After the OTAs and the final minicamp, once we get De’Anthony back, I think we’ll be able to do that.”
Until last season, the Chiefs had not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009 or a punt for a touchdown since 2010. But Demps and Davis combined for the two kickoff returns for touchdowns, and McCluster delivered two punt returns for scores, including a dazzling 89-yarder that broke open the win over the New York Giants.
“Last year, we really didn’t know who our guy was going to be,” Toub said, “and ( Demps) and Dexter kind of surfaced. We think we have a crop of guys who can do it, and we feel pretty good about the young guys.”
As far as those young players go, Toub said Wilson, rookie free agent receiver from Georgia State, “has really opened some eyes. He’s not only a good punt returner, but he can return kicks, too, and he’s done a lot of good things on offense, too. He’s a guy I’ve got my eye on.”
The Chiefs’ ability to both return and cover kickoffs and punts last season gave the team a huge advantage in field position. The Chiefs led the NFL in both average starting field position on offense — at their 33.4 — and on defense, where their opponents’ average field position was the 23.2. Those 176 yards were important in an 11-5 season.
“It’s something we’re proud of,” Toub said of the field position advantage. “We did set the bar high and we have high standards and goals, and we have to try and reach those goals again.”