Kareem Hunt's fantasy stock rises with improved receiving proficiency

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing as a rookie last year but spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his receiving skills. That showed an understanding of where the next frontier of his game lies.

"I spent a lot of time running routes with quarterbacks, like [Pittsburgh Steelers's] Josh Dobbs and some other people I know," Hunt said. "I spent a lot of time working on my change of direction.

"I feel like I've got a pretty good game running in between the tackles. I want to make sure I'm squared away [as a receiver]."

That's why Hunt and the Kansas City Chiefs were encouraged by his touchdown in last weekend's preseason game against the Bears in Chicago. Hunt's execution wasn't anything special. The Bears blitzed, leaving Hunt alone.

All he had to do was catch the perfectly placed swing pass from Patrick Mahomes and run the remainder of the 19 yards to the end zone. But it was Hunt's recognition of what would happen on the play and the fact it happened on third down that interested the Chiefs.

"I knew the blitz was coming, for sure," Hunt said. "I knew I just had to hurry up and get my head around because I knew Pat was going to need me."

That play and others like it are sparking hope from the Chiefs they can get more from Hunt as a pass receiver this year. His receiving contributions -- 53 catches and three touchdowns -- weren't minimal last season.

The Chiefs want more.

"The fact you can take a big guy like that and that he can be a power and finesse runner and at the same time be a pass receiver is a real plus,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "That's one spot we've probably got to do a better job increasing his role this year in the pass game, giving him a little bit more even than what he had last year. That's just kind of the natural progression from first year to second year there.”

For Hunt to give the Chiefs more as a receiver, he'll need to play more on third downs. (He was in the lineup for 65 of their 200 third-down plays, or about one-third, last season.)

For that to happen, Hunt must prove he also can be an effective pass protector. The Chiefs didn't completely trust him in that area last season, one reason he frequently came out of the game on third downs.

He had a nice block of a blitzing defender against the Bears.

"I spent a lot of time in camp working on that," Hunt said. "That was one of the big things I wanted to work on."

The Chiefs recently cleared some third-down room for Hunt by releasing Charcandrick West, who often was the back to replace Hunt in obvious passing situations last season. But the Chiefs still have alternatives in Spencer Ware and Damien Williams.

They're hopeful it doesn't come to that.

"Every year, you evaluate each player on a different level," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "Now the only thing we want him to improve upon is making sure he understands it's all about the details. It's all about the little things.

"All the little things paid off last weekend with the touchdown."

Hunt dropped 3.2 percent of the passes that came his way last season, putting him 15th among 36 NFL running backs who caught at least 30 passes. So the Chiefs trust Hunt in that area.

"He has unbelievable hands," Bieniemy said. "We know he can catch. But at the end of the day [Hunt needs to] focus on it. Look the ball into the hands all the way into the catch, catch it and then now let's get north and south . . . You just want to make sure each and every play is by far the most important."

Hunt was given the starting job last August, after Ware injured his knee and was lost for the season. Many of Hunt's best games happened early in the season, before opposing defenses and coordinators knew about him or his game.

One of the challenges for Hunt will be to succeed even though he will be a focal point in the opponent's defensive game plan each week. Catching more passes is one way for Hunt to do that.

"He's not in the shadows anymore," Ware said. "They know about him. His name is out there. He's got that target on his back. That just comes with it. He handled all that extremely well last year.

"He's just got to stick to his game plan and be the kind of player that he is. He's the kind of player where he'll stay focused on taking care of business. I'm pretty sure he'll be OK."