With Jeremy Maclin gone, the KC Chiefs have a big gap to fill

Chris Conley Maclin Chiefs

The game of football is all about gaps. On offense, you’re trying to create gaps, while on defense you’re trying to close them. For the Kansas City Chiefs, the 2017 season will be all about filling the gap left with the departure of leading receiver Jeremy Maclin, who was released in June.

Maclin appeared to be a salary-cap cut victim. Cutting him when they did saved the Chiefs $10 million against this year’s cap, room they desperately needed. Before they signed any of their draft top picks they had just $3 million available, which was not enough to sign their six-player draft class without some major restructuring.

Maclin’s production dropped off significantly in 2016 after an outstanding 2015 with 87 catches for 1,088 yards. Last year he fell off to 44 catches for 536 yards. The Chiefs weren’t saying it was production-related either, calling it simply a “business decision.”

Without signing another salary-cap casualty from another squad, the Chiefs will enter the 2017 season with no wide receivers with more than three years of experience, more than 82 career catches or more than 990 yards. It was a peculiar move at best.

“I think everybody knows, I am very fond of Jeremy,” said coach Andy Reid who coached Maclin in Philadelphia before bringing him to KC. “This gives him time to hook on with another team, which he will do. Jeremy can still play.”

It did not take long before the Baltimore Ravens signed Maclin.

“This is part of the NFL business,” Reid said. “I am not going to get into specifics with it. We go about weighing a bunch of different things. It is a decision we end up making. This is the worst part about the job, clearly. It is not easy for…me or the coaches. But, it is decision we ended up making and we go forward.”

So the question remains, who will fill the gap left by Maclin?

There are plenty of options but none certain. Chris Conley started 11 of 16 games last year and was semi-productive. He caught 44 passes for 530 yards, up significantly from 2015.

Conley was drafted to be a big-play receiver, but he has yet to live up to the hype. He feels he is ready to step up.

“Being a pro is carrying yourself with professionalism, showing up on time, actually showing up early, and putting in the extra work on your own,” Conley said. “It’s being prepared for every situation. For receivers, being a pro is being able to play every position and knowing every formation, and knowing what the quarterback is thinking.”

Conley is well-spoken and has the credentials in the receivers room to be a leader. But leadership often comes from those making a big impact, so it’s incumbent on Conley to take it up a notch.

“Jeremy called me and let me know that we needed to take the things that he’s taught us and move forward with it, that we know what to do and that we’re ready,” he said.

“Jeremy is like a brother to me. He taught me how to be a pro. When you come from college, you don’t play football at the level that you play here. You have to learn a lot of things. You have to learn how to carry yourself, how to come out here and practice every day and how to approach it.”

The most productive returning receiver, other than tight end Travis Kelce, is Tyreek Hill, who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign. Reid acknowledged he would be using Hill more. Hill ran the ball 24 times for 267 yards and three touchdowns last season. He caught 61 passes for 593 yards and six touchdowns. Plus, he had 976 in return yards with three touchdowns.

Hill is ready for whatever role he’ll fill.

“I feel like it’s still going to be exactly the same,” Hill said of his role. “I’ll just be in there a little bit more. I feel like the coaches do a great job on knowing how to use me and knowing my workload and stuff. Those guys do a phenomenal job with all that because they had D-Jax (DeSean Jackson), (Brian) Westbrook. So they already know what they’re doing with that.”

Hill also is thankful for Maclin’s influence. With a checkered past, Hill is even more thankful of Maclin’s off-the-field counsel.

“I feel like the one thing that I learned the most with him is learning how to be a pro off the field,” Hill said. “We spent time together on the field, but people really didn’t see us off the field. I feel like being around Mac off the field really helped me a lot, showing me how to be a man, showing me how to be a citizen, showing me how to be a great teammate to my teammates.”

Other options for Reid are even less certain. Veterans Albert Wilson and D’Anthony Thomas are certainly not certainties to make the team. Rookie Jehu Chesson from Michigan has the tools, but taking them from the college game to the pros is never easy. He had 35 catches for 500 yards and two touchdowns as a senior.

Second-year pro Demarcus Robinson made a name for himself last year on special teams, but he didn’t catch a pass. Yet at the first opportunity to have players speak with the media at OTAs after Maclin was cut, Robinson was one of three receivers brought forward, along with Conley and Hill).

Robinson said all the right things, but all those words and $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

So Robinson will have to show it on the field.

Kelce will be relied on heavily, but as Chiefs fans remember from a couple of decades ago, a team whose best receiver is a tight end will have trouble scoring enough points to go deep in the playoffs. It is up to the coaches to figure out who can deliver the goods.

“When you’re a coaching, you coach your guys, regardless of who’s in the room or who’s not in the room,” wide receivers coach Greg Lewis said. “It’s our job to get the most out of our players and to get them the information they need so they can go out and execute all of it.”

Reid doesn’t seem concerned. He has a “take it one step at a time” attitude, at least publicly.

“I’ve got a ton of trust in the young guys that they will step up and do a good job for us,” Reid said. “The point that we have here is we’ve got some good players. We are okay there.”

For more coverage of the Chiefs visit http://kcsportspaper.com/category/pro-teams/

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Article by David Smale

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