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What the Kansas City Chiefs will do at receiver if Sammy Watkins walks

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs thought wide receiver Sammy Watkins was so vital in 2018 they signed him as a free agent despite the presence of pass-catching stars Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They thought he was so important to keep around last year that when facing a tight salary-cap situation they fought to keep him on a reduced contract.

The Chiefs, for the first time since making Patrick Mahomes their starting quarterback in 2018, may soon find out what life is like without Watkins. He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and though the Chiefs would take him back at their price, there's no guarantee that will happen.

"I love Sammy and I love what he does for our offense," general manager Brett Veach said. "There will be challenges this year. It will be a lot more challenging to retain him and bring him back this year just because of where we are. We were able to work with him and his agent last year and make it work. This year it will probably be more difficult just because we'll have some work to do to get under the cap and once we do, we'll have to see where the markets go."

The Chiefs also could lose another one of their top receivers, Demarcus Robinson, who is also scheduled for free agency a year after returning to the Chiefs on a one-year contract.

Even though Hill will return, the Chiefs' receiving group could look a lot different next season.

"We're certainly blessed to have Tyreek Hill and expecting big things out of Mecole Hardman this year," Veach said. "We're all excited about the development of Byron Pringle. We feel really good about those three players.

"I can't see us running out of the gates the first week in free agency and signing a receiver. I don't think that's where we're at. If the market falls and things make sense for us, we'll be smart and selective. If something doesn't work out for us in free agency, I think there's enough depth to allow us to address it potentially in the draft."

Hardman would be the most logical candidate to replace Watkins. He was their second-round draft pick in 2019.

But he has mostly been a part-time player since then. Even during an extended stretch without Watkins because of injuries last season, the Chiefs gave most of Watkins' playing time to others and not Hardman. In two seasons with the Chiefs, Hardman has a combined 67 catches for 1,098 yards and 11 total touchdowns.

At times, Mahomes has seemed frustrated with Hardman. Mahomes thought Hardman wasn't always doing a good job of finishing his routes as a rookie. After last month's Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes said receivers weren't always where he thought they should be. That was an apparent reference to Hardman after a couple of early incompletions.

By promoting Hardman into a full-time role, the Chiefs would be making a move they haven't seemed comfortable with.

Pringle's situation is different. He joined the Chiefs in 2018 as an undrafted rookie and appeared to have earned a roster spot that year before an injury in the final preseason game ended his season.

The Chiefs kept him around and he produced in limited playing time over two seasons with 25 catches, 330 yards and two touchdowns.

"First and foremost, Pringle is a trustworthy individual," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "He works his tail off each and every day. We knew Pringle had a chance his first year and unfortunately, he got hurt but he bounced back. He came back from the injury and he's just showing himself. Every time he has an opportunity ... he shows you why he has value. He's always interviewing for a job, he's always working his tail off and he does not take anything for granted. On top of that, he plays his tail off on special teams."

Pringle also has contributed his share of big plays. His 37-yard catch in Week 6 last season against the Buffalo Bills allowed the Chiefs to convert a third-and-12 and continue a drive toward the clinching field goal.

"I've always thought highly of Pringle," Mahomes said. "He comes in every single day, he works extremely hard and when his number gets called, he makes plays. He's someone that stuck with us for a while.

"He's made plays and on that one, he was kind of not even in the read. It was the read I was looking at Tyreek and came back to Kelce and their safety drove it pretty well and so I extended the play and Byron kept working like he always does and I found him at a big time."