ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Speed always has defined Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill. It's what immediately excited his coaches, instantly frightened opposing defenders and eventually transformed him into a rookie Pro Bowler. In Year 1 of his NFL career, Hill proved himself to be an unquestioned star. His success in 2017 depends on how quickly he can add to an already impressive skill set.
If there is one thing that stands out as the Chiefs move deeper into training camp, it's that Hill's growth is going to play a huge role in whatever this team does. There is no more Jamaal Charles to provide breathtaking runs, and the team decided wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was too expensive to keep, as well. Sure, there is still Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, but he can't carry the passing game by himself. This team ultimately needs Hill to be an even better version of the player he was last season.
We all know the man whose nickname's "Cheetah" is arguably the fastest player in the league. What isn't so clear is how he'll perform when defenses have a full year to prepare for him.
"He's a weapon in so many areas and every defensive coordinator that's out there is concerned about him because of his speed," Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "We just need to make sure that, as we go forward here, we put him in the right spots, we don't overuse him and mentally you want to stick to that less-is-more mentality, so that he can play fast."
That, by the way, is always going to be the challenge with Hill. He can impact the game through so many methods that it's ridiculous for the Chiefs not to use him as much as possible. Last season alone, he scored on receptions (six), runs (three), punt returns (two) and took a kickoff return to the house. He did his most damage on offense as a wide receiver, catching 61 passes for 593 yards.
Hill actually was a pleasant surprise in the passing game because he elevated his performance when the Chiefs lost Maclin to a groin injury. By the time Maclin returned from a four-game absence, Hill had become an invaluable playmaker who was being asked to take on multiple responsibilities each week. As ChiefsPro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters said, "He was hungry when he first got here and it displayed in (the) year that he had last year. You know -- a Pro Bowl year. He is just hungry, man."
The difference now is that Hill no longer has the benefit of surprise. He has to be more technically sound as a receiver, more disciplined in his routes and more consistent with his hands. As good as he was last year, Hill only caught 11 passes in the last four games of the regular season -- and totaled just 27 yards on four receptions in the team's Divisional Round playoff loss to Pittsburgh. What became more apparent as the year went on was that Hill didn't have that many ways of terrorizing opposing defensive backs if he wasn't running by them or out-leaping them for jump balls.
"I think it is great, especially at this time of the year," Hill told reporters when asked about the bond that he's building with Smith. "I think this is actually great. We just need to continue to improve each and every day and just get better."
Another encouraging sign for the Chiefs is that Hill has coveted the challenge of working against Peters in practice. It was fairly common for Peters to go against Maclin in years past, largely because the top cornerbacks and top receivers tend to face off regularly in such sessions. Hill even opened a few eyes early in camp by beating Peters on a go route. It was a play that was all the more impressive because Hill displayed patience off the line of scrimmage, set Peters up with a move inside and then bolted past one of the NFL's best ballhawks for the reception.
It's that kind of effort that will set Hill apart even more this coming season. It's no secret that the Chiefs play in a division filled with top cornerbacks, as the Denver Broncos (Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.) and San Diego Chargers (Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett) each boast a pair of guys who've hit the Pro Bowl at the position. Hill isn't going to win consistently against those defenders because of his blazing speed. He's going to have to do it by being a master technician.
The good news is that Hill's intelligence is too often an underrated aspect of his game. Hill's rare physical talents weren't solely responsible for his ability to handle the workload Kanas City gave him as a rookie -- Hill excelled because he has a knack for picking things up quickly. It's that same mental acuity that will help him this coming season, especially now that he has a full offseason to develop more comfort with his myriad responsibilities.
Said Nagy: "We put a lot on his plate last year and he handled it great. I think we were more concerned with making sure we didn't do too much. There's that balance mentally where he's at and then physically where he's at. You take him on all those jet-sweep motions and then you take him on vertical routes downfield (and) that's a lot. Then, mentally, we put so much stress on these guys. I was absolutely amazed more at that, mentally, how he handled it, than physically."
The Chiefs actually are in a position where they have little choice than to ask more of Hill. There are other young receivers on the Kansas City roster -- Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, Demarcus Robinson and rookie Jehu Chesson -- but they all still have plenty to prove on the field. Hill, on the other hand, has shown that he can deliver the type of explosiveness this offense sorely needs. Head coach Andy Reid might be a master at game planning, but none of that crafty play calling means much if there isn't some legitimate danger to opposing defenses on the roster.
Hill provided that dimension last season, at a time when the Chiefs desperately needed it. This coming year, he'll be dealing with a job that won't include the comfort of flying under the radar or emerging from Day 3 of the draft. There's little doubt that most people know what Tyreek Hill can do. Now it's up to him to show he can do it even better than before.