ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — Two cornerstones of the Chiefs’ four straight AFC title game appearances walked into training camp elsewhere this week, and Kansas City coach Andy Reid will be spending much of the next month figuring out how to replace them.
That task alone could determine whether a fifth consecutive championship game appearance awaits in January.
The biggest departure came when the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a package of draft picks in January, a move made with an eye both on long-term success and the bottom line but with the immediate effect of depriving Patrick Mahomes of his favorite downfield playmaker since the moment their QB stepped foot in the league.
The other big hole opened up on defense, where Tyrann Mathieu was allowed to leave in free agency, taking not only one of their biggest playmakers on that side of the ball out of the equation but also removing one of the locker room leaders.
“I look at it more of everybody getting on the same page,” Reid said, “and it’s an urgency to that because we know the level that we are capable of performing at. Rather it is coaches and/or players, the ones that have been here or the new ones, I think there is a sense of urgency that makes it the exciting part. Let’s see what we can do.”
The Chiefs and aggressive general manager Brett Veach took a remarkably similar approach to filling the openings at wide receiver and safety, spending lavishly in free agency and the draft earlier in the offseason.
To replace Hill, the Chiefs signed JuJu Smith-Schuster and are hoping for a bounce-back season following some health issues in Pittsburgh; they signed Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who must be doing something right to go from catching passes from Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay to Mahomes in Kansas City; and they spent a second-round draft pick on Skyy Moore, who has many of the same characteristics as Hill but has a steep learning curve coming from Western Michigan.
Then there’s Mecole Hardman, the lone significant holdover in the wide receiver group, who is heading into a contract year and is bubbling with confidence despite having shown little ability to be a No. 1 player at his position.
“I ain’t trying to prove nothing to nobody,” Hardman said Monday, when veterans joined the rookies and quarterbacks in camp. “I know what I’m capable of doing. I’m just going to do that and let the work show for itself.”
The first opportunity to do that comes Wednesday, when the full squad works out for the first time at Missouri Western.
That will also be the first chance for safety Justin Reid, signed from the Texans in free agency, and the rest of the rebuilt Kansas City secondary to get on the field in camp. Reid will be joined by two more draft picks, second-rounder Bryan Cook and seventh-rounder Nazeeh Johnson, as the Chiefs move on from Mathieu’s tutelage the past three seasons.
“It’s a lot of pressure I put on myself just to learn everything around me,” Cook admitted. “As far as leadership, it’s kind of just something that — not that I fell into, but I love helping other guys around me. That’s where it kind of comes from.”
The Chiefs will take leadership wherever they can get it in the defensive backfield.
The 25-year-old Reid, who is entering his fifth season, is a veteran compared to most of the guys back there. The 22-year-old Cook and 24-year-old Johnson will battle 26-year-old Juan Thornhill for the other safety job, while the top cornerbacks are Rashad Fenton (25), L’Jarius Sneed (25) and rookies Trent McDuffie (21) and Josh Williams (22).
It might take all of them to help fill Mathieu’s void on that side of the ball.
“A big thing obviously is just learning the plays, making sure I have everything down,” McDuffie said, “and I think a big thing for me is bonding with the DBs, bonding with the whole defense, so we can all come together. I mean, there are a lot of new moving parts, so we kind of get to establish a new identity, which is going to be a lot of fun these next few weeks.”
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