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Kansas City always has players who seem to make the roster for their abilities on special teams. Who could they be in 2021?
Each year on roster cutdown day — and repeatedly during the season — both Kansas City Chiefs fans (and media) make a similar complaint: that special teams coordinator (and assistant head coach) Dave Toub has too much input on personnel decisions. During head coach Andy Reid’s tenure, the number of Chiefs players who have (seemingly) been kept only to play on special teams has been a consistent criticism.
When forced into extended action on offense or defense, these players sometimes struggle mightily. Examples include Frank Zombo playing more defensive snaps during Tamba Hali’s last two seasons — or Daniel Sorensen frequently filling in when Eric Berry was injured. While few can point to many specific examples where a player was cut to keep a core special teams player on the roster, the Chiefs are still often perceived to sacrifice better depth in order to keep Toub’s favorites.
For much of Reid’s time in Kansas City, special teams has been a strength of the team that clearly helped win some games. Of late, however, Toub’s units have appeared uncharacteristically undisciplined and gaffe-prone — which has put the back of the roster under much more scrutiny than would be typical for a team with this much recent success.
Whether or not these criticisms have been justified, special-teams value will likely continue to be a factor for the back of the Kansas City roster in 2021; Toub will probably have his usual amount of input on personnel decisions.
So let’s examine some low-upside players who are unlikely to make an impact on either offense or defense but could have legitimate chances to make the roster based on their special-teams play.
WR Marcus Kemp
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It’s crazy — but since 2017. Kemp has appeared in 27 Chiefs games in which he has accumulated just two receptions for 18 yards. (One of those receptions came from quarterback Chad Henne during garbage time during 2020’s Week 7 game against the Denver Broncos). But in that same period, Kemp has played 467 special teams snaps for the Chiefs — and is widely reported to be one of Toub’s favorite coverage players.
However, there is a slight chance that Kemp might get an opportunity to play more on offense. Before a gruesome knee injury during the 2019 preseason, Kemp saw action with Mahomes and the starters during training camp — and after being activated from the practice squad for the postseason games against Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he had 14 offensive snaps in those games. And based on photos published on the official team site, Kemp did see action with the starters during OTAs.
But there are seven receivers on the roster with more career catches than Kemp — plus a fifth-round draft pick. His ability in coverage units is likely to decide his fate again.
DB Chris Lammons
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Lammons has been with the Chiefs in some capacity since he was signed to the team’s practice squad in December of 2019. Earlier that season, he had appeared in 12 Miami Dolphins games, receiving a Pro Football Focus grade of 49.3 on 145 defensive snaps.
Last season, the Chiefs elevated Lammons from the practice squad for the Week 13 game against Denver and the following week’s game against Miami. While he was elevated for all three playoff games, he was declared inactive for the Super Bowl.
In these appearances, Lammons played 69 special-teams snaps but had none on defense. For 2021, he faces a very crowded defensive back room. The good news for him is that after last season, the Chiefs did not appear to make an effort to retain core special-teams player Antonio Hamilton, who had played 330 special-teams snaps.
If Hamilton’s absence creates a void on special teams, Lammons may get an opportunity to fill it.
LB Dorian O’Daniel
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Very little more needs to be said about Kansas City’s infamous 2018 NFL Draft. Despite a dwindling role on defense, 2018’s third-round pick Dorian O’Daniel has managed to stay on the roster.
After playing 302 defensive snaps for former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton during his rookie season, O’Daniel has had only 15 defensive snaps in two seasons under Steve Spagnuolo. But during his three years, he has racked up almost 800 special-teams snaps — and will likely play out the final season of his rookie contract in a similar role.
Unlike other players on this list, O’Daniel is not in a crowded position room; only four linebackers are ahead of him on the depth chart. But one thing that may go against him is that his salary is slightly higher at the end of his rookie deal. The Chiefs could save as much as $288,000 by cutting him and going with a cheaper back-of-the-roster player for a special-teams role.
In the grand scheme of things, $288,000 may seem minuscule, but even minor differences in cap space could matter when the team is making its final roster decisions.
WR Darrius Shepherd
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Compared to other players on this list, Shepherd probably has much less control over his roster fate. Over two partial seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he appeared in 14 games where he caught six passes for 47 yards, returned three punts for a total loss of three yards — and returned 20 kickoffs for 374 yards.
Being a Blue Springs High School alumnus in Chiefs training camp, he’s a great story. But his numbers show little reason to think that he offers much on offense — and his ceiling as a returner does not appear exceptionally high.
Shepherd’s only likely path to the roster is wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle carving out significant roles on offense, which would create an opening in the return game. The Athletic’s Nate Taylor has been bullish on both receivers through the offseason, so such an opening is possible.
If Shepherd is needed, the team would hopefully go with a higher upside return specialist; Shepherd makes this list simply by being a relatively experienced in-house option.
DB Armani Watts
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After Watts missed all of the voluntary offseason program — and mandatory minicamp — it‘s been surprising there hasn’t been more speculation about him.
Watts has been a significant part of special teams in the last two seasons, ending 2020 with an 81% snap count. He was also a complete afterthought on defense, with just 175 defensive snaps in two years under Spagnuolo. 72 of those came with starters resting during last season’s Week 17 — and 48 more came in 2019’s Week 17 after Juan Thornhill’s ACL injury.
After seeing what was then his most extensive action, the staff decided that the best way to replace Thornhill for an eventual Super Bowl run was not with Watts. Instead, they gave Kendall Fuller a two-week crash course in how to play safety.
Like O’Daniel, Watts is not getting any cheaper in the last year of his rookie deal — and the defensive back competition is much stiffer. His snap counts, however, indicate that Watts likely has Toub in his corner. Making the roster is likely to be an uphill battle for him — but it would be silly to count out Watts sticking around in his usual role.
Pre-camp fearless prediction
I think O’Daniel wins a roster spot but again sees action primarily on special teams. I think Kemp and Lammons hang around on the practice squad, making multiple appearances during the season. I think Watts will be squeezed out by one of the many back-of-the-roster defensive backs — and that in the return game, the Chiefs go in a different direction than Shepherd.
Next time, we’ll look at fringe players with higher upside on offense or defense — ones who might take special-teams roles from these players.