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Several Chiefs core special teamers have lingered at the back of the roster for years. Could Toub’s squad have new faces in big roles for 2021?
Each season, fans and analysts often complain that Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator (and assistant head coach) Dave Toub has too much input on personnel decisions. Last week, we looked at five players with the ability to make the Kansas City roster based almost entirely on their special-teams ability. This included three players who have lingered at the back of the team’s 53-man roster for several seasons — while making very minimal contributions on offense or defense.
So now, let’s take a look at the other side of that coin.
While the Chiefs continue to field an elite roster that is fully expected to contend for a Super Bowl, the team seems to be facing a recurring problem: each season, it has few low-cost options penciled in for depth roles during the following season. Currently, Kansas City has 38 players under contract for 2022 — but 14 of those players are either this year’s draft picks or rookie free agents.
For the franchise’s long-term health, the Chiefs would do well to identify players capable of playing special teams roles in 2021 — and who might develop into at least role players on offense or defense in 2022.
Over The Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald recently ranked teams by how many 2020 snaps will potentially be lost to free agency in 2022. The Chiefs had the third-most, with 6,169 offensive snaps and 5,095 defensive snaps given to players unsigned past this season. (Note: these numbers do not include recently re-signed defensive end Alex Okafor’s 2020 snaps).
So filling out the roster will present a challenge since most 2022 salary-cap space (either existing or created) will likely go to safety Tyrann Mathieu and offensive tackle Orlando Brown.
Given Kansas City’s needs beyond this season, here are some players who could be options for Toub’s 2021 lineups — while still getting some work with position coaches for more prominent roles in 2022.
CB Dicaprio Bootle
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Bootle is a former three-star recruit from Florida who started 32 consecutive games for the Nebraska Cornhuskers over the past three seasons. He split time between safety and cornerback at Nebraska, showing the versatility that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo values from his backup defensive backs.
Bootle’s college film shows an intelligent player who is a sure tackler. During his last two seasons in the Big 10, he frequently played outside — but given his size, any NFL defensive contributions will likely come inside as a slot defender or rotational safety.
At Nebraska’s pro day, Bootle’s 4.38 40-yard dash time was met with some skepticism — but his playing speed appears more than adequate to contribute on both special teams and defense. Arrowhead Pride lead analyst Ron Kopp did a great breakdown on Bootle.
LB Riley Cole
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Under head coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs have frequently shown a preference for high football IQ over raw athletic ability in their reserve players. According to Charles Goldman of USA Today’s Chiefs Wire, the team thought so much of Cole’s football intelligence that they worked him out at fullback — even though he never played an offensive snap during his South Alabama career.
Cole could benefit from what looks like a weak group competing for reserve linebacker roles. But with his limited athleticism, he will need to win Toub’s trust to stay in the running for a roster spot; likely, there are not enough defensive snaps available to justify keeping Cole on the same roster with Nick Bolton and Anthony Hitchens.
If given a chance to develop while seeing time on special teams coverage, Cole could be a rotational linebacker in 2022, playing a SAM role in obvious running situations and providing depth at MIKE linebacker — possibly behind Bolton in the event Hitchens is released for 2022 cap room. Ron also wrote an excellent piece on Cole.
S Devon Key
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Thanks to their BYU connection and almost identical size, undrafted safety Zayne Anderson has been compared to current Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen. But looking at Western Kentucky defensive back Devon Key’s tape, he plays more like Sorensen — for both better and worse.
Key has almost no potential to be a starter in 2021 but potentially offers value in sub-packages where a box safety is used.
Like Sorensen in 2014, Key comes to the Chiefs with four years of college production. While Western Kentucky rarely plays elite competition, Key’s experience could allow him to play special teams early in his career— as his new teammate was able to do.
During the offseason program, Key stood out from other undrafted rookies. He was seen working on defense, although little can be assumed from practicing without pads at box safety. It will be interesting to see if he can build on his hype after contact begins.
CB BoPete Keyes
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Since he already has a year of experience with the coaching staff, the former Tulane cornerback is in a different situation than the other players on this list. Based on his 2020 usage — and the number of reserve cornerback candidates signed after the draft — there are signs that the team’s experience with Keyes may not necessarily work in his favor.
Most will remember that the Chiefs traded back into the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft to select Keyes — giving up what would eventually be the 215th pick of the 2021 Draft. The very minor compensation used to acquire him will likely not be a factor in making this year’s roster.
In 2020, Keyes appeared in eight Chiefs games, seeing 58 snaps on special teams. He played six snaps on special teams in the Divisional Round playoff game against the Cleveland Browns before being inactive for the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LV.
Almost all of Keyes’ defensive snaps came in Week 17 against the Los Angeles Chargers — while starters were resting. Keyes allowed four receptions on six targets in this small sample, earning a PFF grade of just 39.1. With 17 defensive backs heading to camp, Keyes should feel an urgency to show immediate improvement; few players are kept as projects for multiple seasons.
Working in Keyes’ favor is his size — which is likely why the Chiefs originally traded for him. Even with a crowded secondary room, the Chiefs do not have many players who profile as tall boundary corners behind L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward — the latter a pending unrestricted free agent. If Keyes can earn Toub’s trust on special teams, he could buy himself more time to develop his physical traits on defense.
WR Cornell Powell
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Unlike the other players on this list, the former Clemson wideout enjoys a very high degree of roster security. While Powell did not create the buzz that many fans hoped to see during the offseason program, it would be shocking if the 2021 fifth-round pick did not make the team.
Powell played five years at Clemson — finally breaking out in his redshirt senior season. After playing behind some of college football’s best receivers, Powell comes to the Chiefs with experience on kick coverage teams, but only a small sample as a kick returner.
Coming off a long career at one of college football’s most successful programs, Powell could be a valuable player on the overall roster. He may be experienced enough that even as a rookie, he could handle a significant role on special teams — combined with a rotational position on offense. Even if he does not put up impressive statistics, his versatility could be useful if the team wishes to keep an extra body at a different position of need.
Other than Powell — who will almost certainly be a big part of Toub’s units regardless of his offensive contributions — it is tough to predict which of these players will make the roster. After the draft, the team did seem to make an effort to sign players capable of contributing almost immediately on special teams while still having the potential to develop as future role players. This suggests there will be at least one or two new faces playing for Toub this season — likely at the expense of some of his longtime favorites.