ST. JOSEPH, Missouri. — Patrick Mahomes played just one possession in last Saturday’s preseason opener, but to the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback, the 11-play touchdown drive was revealing in how he will operate this season without long-time leading wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Each of Mahomes’ six completions went to a different receiver.
“I think it’s going to be a lot like that this year,” Mahomes said. “It’s going to come from everywhere. It’s going to be hard for teams to game plan against. Obviously, Travis [Kelce] is going to probably have a lot of catches. That’s just who he is. Other than that, it’s going to come from the whole group, and I think the guys have kind of embraced that and know that whenever their number does get called, they’re going to play. And if the other guy makes the play, they’re going to be happy for him. That’s what you want on a team and as an offense.”
How the Chiefs plan to fill Hill’s role in the offense has been a big question this offseason. Hill saw 25% of the Kansas City targets last season, the 12-highest team share in the league per NFL Next Gen Stats. Mahomes has spread the ball around at training camp, with Kelce getting a large share of the targets and JuJu Smith-Schuster being the most consistent producer among the wide receivers. The other top receivers on the depth chart are Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore.
Smith-Schuster and Moore weren’t involved in last week’s opening drive against the Chicago Bears on Saturday, a 19-14 loss. Valdes-Scantling, Hardman, Kelce, fullback Michael Burton, running back Isiah Pacheco and tight end Blake Bell all hauled in a pass from Mahomes, with Bell catching a 5-yard touchdown to cap off the 72-yard drive.
The Chiefs got a look at some of their backup receivers in practice this week, with Smith-Schuster being out with a sore knee and Hardman getting carted off the field on Wednesday with a groin injury. Justin Watson, who caught 23 passes in four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, caught a touchdown pass against the Bears from third-string quarterback Shane Buechele.
“We’ve got a deep group of wideouts,” Kelce said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can fly down the field, and we have some guys that play physical football. That’s what you want out of the wide receiver group, guys that are going to be able to block in the running game and guys that are going to be able to go up top and make plays when the ball’s in the air.
“The type of players that are here, we can do so much with it that it’s kind of like ‘pick your poison.'”
Smith-Schuster ran a wide majority of his routes the past two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a slot receiver, but he was lining up in a variety of receiving spots this preseason before his injury. He said he thinks that will make him a more prolific receiver than he was in Pittsburgh. He caught just 15 passes in five games last season but had 97 receptions in 2020.
“I’ve run more routes here than my previous offense,” Smith-Schuster said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to show just because of the offense I’m in right now. I didn’t have to come in here and ask for anything. The playbook is meant for everyone to know everybody’s position.”
Smith-Schuster is one of two free agent receivers signed by the Chiefs to help replace Hill, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins this offseason. Valdes-Scantling is the other, coming in after four seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Valdes-Scantling’s camp has been more up and down than what we’ve seen from Smith-Schuster. He had some big catches but also dropped several passes. Mahomes threw two passes his way in Chicago, and Valdes-Scantling had one catch for 11 yards.
“Anybody can get the ball at any time,” he said. “It’s very explosive. We pass the ball a lot, and obviously as a receiver, I’m going to love that. … Obviously Patrick is one of those guys where he can make any throw. And with that, he kind of gives you some freedom to work some things into it. Obviously, him and Kelce have been doing it the longest here. You learn a lot from those guys about how they see things, how they run routes, how they get open, how they find different voids in defenses, what he likes and how soon he reads it.”
Hardman is the only one from Mahomes’ top group of receivers who has caught a pass from him in a regular-season game, though. He caught one pass for nine yards in Chicago and has been featured in a variety of ways at camp, including on reverses and screen passes.
The Chiefs have also used him several times as the quarterback from the Wildcat formation.
“It takes me back to my high school days,” said Hardman, once a high-school quarterback in Georgia. “I think I’m kind of familiar with it.”
So how will the receiving roles play out once the season starts? It’s still a work in progress, but when everyone has been healthy so far, Valdes-Scantling and Hardman have been Mahomes’ top targets down the field — no surprise because of their speed — with Smith-Schuster joining Kelce as the top receivers on shorter routes. And you can expect them all to get looks in this Hill-less offense.