KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jeremy Maclin was one of college football’s biggest threats as a punt returner when he played at Missouri. He had practiced returning punts ever since signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent in March.
Still, it was surprising to see the Chiefs go with Maclin as their punt returner in last Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers after they lost De’Anthony Thomas with a concussion. Maclin is the Chiefs’ best and most accomplished wide receiver and their offense would take a significant hit if they lost Maclin to an injury while he was shagging punts.
That they went with Maclin anyway is a sign of how serious the Chiefs take their return game.
“We’re going to play the best players," special-teams coordinator Dave Toub said. “If he’s our best punt returner, we can use him. That’s the way Andy [Reid] relays everything to me."
Another wide receiver, rookie Chris Conley, replaced Thomas as the kickoff returner in San Diego. The Chiefs might again need alternate returners in Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium. Thomas didn’t practice Wednesday and Reid said Thomas had yet to pass through the concussion protocol.
The Chiefs won’t necessarily go with Maclin and Conley again if Thomas doesn’t play against the Bills. The Chiefs went with Maclin against the Chargers as much for his ability to catch the ball as anything.
He wound up making a fair catch on four of his six returns. Maclin gained a total of 13 yards in the two punts he did return.
“He’s one of our best punt-catchers," Toub said. “We felt good that he was able to go in there and finish a game for us, make the catch, keep field position at that point. It had to be perfect protection for him to be able to take off and run because he hasn’t done it in a game. The next time he does it, I’m sure he’ll feel even more comfortable and probably steal a couple of those returns."
Conley might yield the kickoff return job to Knile Davis, who was the return specialist early in the season but was inactive in San Diego. Davis could be available against the Bills if injured running back Charcandrick West doesn’t play.
The Chiefs have other options, including Albert Wilson, the other starting wide receiver.
“Had he got more reps during practice, he probably would have been the next guy in," Toub said. “If we practice Albert a lot more this week, it could be Albert.
“We have a lot of guys out there that want to be the guy and are pretty good at it."