Secret Superstars: Kansas City Chiefs
Our Secret Superstar series continues with the Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn’t possible to watch or follow football during the 2014 season, without being informed that the Chiefs’ wide receivers were drawing a blank. Of the team’s 18 passing touchdowns, nine went to tight ends, and nine went to backs. Since then the team has bolstered their options at the position by signing Jeremy Maclin, drafting Chris Conley and Da’Ron Brown, and most recently, moving our Secret Superstar, De’Anthony Thomas, from running back to receiver for the 2015 season.
Thomas was seen as an elite prospect coming out of high school. He committed to Oregon, nominally as a running back, but in practice, his job was to find space and explode for big yardage, whether running, receiving or returning. That’s exactly what he did as a freshman, with 2235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns. Thomas never eclipsed his freshman numbers, even so, he remained a dynamic playmaker who averaged one touchdown for every 10.3 touches in college.
Despite his game-changing potential, Thomas wasn’t exactly a hot commodity ahead of the NFL Draft. Teams were concerned about his size (he measured in at 5-foot-9 and 174-pounds at the NFL Combine), durability and fit. So rather than being the first-round pick his early college play suggested he could become, Thomas wound up going to the Chiefs in the fourth round.
The problem for Thomas, was that he was a hybrid player moving to a league where hybrids have often failed. He was replacing Dexter McCluster, a similarly exciting college player who’s play at Ole Miss had lit up the SEC, but not the NFL. He was also following in the footsteps of LaMichael James, who starred at Oregon but hadn’t in his first two years as a pro. Their stories are far from unique, while every team would like to find the next Darren Sproles, too often they end up with players like Jeff Demps or Chris Rainey, terrific athletes who just didn’t fit at the NFL level.
As a rookie Thomas had a marginal role on the offense, compiling 37 touches for the offense in 12 games. He scored one touchdown, had 23 receptions for 156 yards, 14 runs for 113 yards, and graded positively as both runner and receiver. However he was at his most dynamic as a returner, averaging 30.1 yards per kick return, and grabbing a touchdown while averaging 12.3 yards on punt returns. He just about missed out on PFF All-Pro nomination as a returner, but was the clear choice for that role for the 2014 PFF All-Rookie Team.
Like all who excel as returners, Thomas has the speed, agility and explosive burst to turn a small gap into a big gain. However, his strongest attribute is arguably his ability to plot the right path to maximise the advantage of the blocking ahead of him. His first career touch came on a punt return early in the third quarter in the Week 5 match against the San Francisco 49ers. Thomas caught the ball on the Chiefs’ 14-yard line, used his blocker to beat the first man, before picking a weaving line that took him 28 yards upfield.
His return touchdown came in Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders where Thomas took the punt at the Chiefs 19 yard line, stepped infield to use the blocker to beat the first man, then angled back to the left sideline to put the rest of his blockers between himself and the opposition. From there it was a pure foot race, he took a short step inside to ensure that the punter had to step into the path of a blocker, before outrunning the field to the end zone.
On offense, Thomas’s production generally came when he had the ball in space, often with downfield blockers. His very first official carry, in the Week 5 game against the 49ers, went for a touchdown. He began the play lined up as the outermost receiver to the left, he motioned into the backfield and was lined up deep behind Alex Smith at the snap. He then ran a shallow route to the left, caught a lateral pass from Smith on the 24 yard line, stiff armed his way past Antoine Bethea, and sprinted up the sideline for the score, making full use of a block by Rodney Hudson on the way.
In the final game of the season against the San Diego Chargers, Thomas showed that he has more to offer as an orthodox receiver. Lined up in the slot to the right, Thomas zoomed past Chris Davis on a go route, but an underthrown pass forced him to slow, then make a difficult catch under the arm of the defender. It was still a fine play from Thomas, but would have been a touchdown if the pass had hit him in stride.
While Thomas’s roster position has been officially switched from running back to wide receiver, that is purely semantics and unlikely to make any difference to his role. He lined up as a receiver on 83.9% of his offensive snaps in 2014, while lining up in the backfield on just 16.1% of his snaps. He has potential as a slot receiver if can develop his route running skills, if not, or until that point, he can continue to tear it up as a return man, and get his touches on offense through a steady diet of screens and jet sweeps. He isn’t built to be a 20-touch-per-game player, but his dynamism means he should see more than the 3.1 touches he averaged as a rookie.