Even without JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, Chiefs confident in WR depth

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Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, stood in front of his players Wednesday and urged them to contemplate the season’s newest challenge.  “I always tell them, ‘Make sure that you’re maximizing the opportunities in the classroom, on the field, in the weight room and the training room because we’re at the time of the year where injuries happen,’” Bieniemy, a former NFL running back who played nine seasons, said Thursday. “‘You may be called upon throughout the course of a game to define your greatness.’

“The question is: ‘When those opportunities present themselves, have you mentally and physically prepared yourself for those particular moments?’”  Perhaps Bieniemy’s message resonated the most with the Chiefs’ receivers.

Even before their first practice this week, the Chiefs knew that their two most productive receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman, were unlikely to play in Sunday’s prime-time showdown against the Los Angeles Chargers. Smith-Schuster, the most experienced receiver on the roster, entered the league’s concussion protocol last week during the Chiefs’ victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars after he was hit in the head by free safety Andre Cisco. Hardman, a speedy four-year veteran, missed the game because of an abdominal injury he sustained the previous week while returning a punt in an overtime win over the Tennessee Titans.

The Chiefs practiced Thursday without Smith-Schuster and Hardman, who will miss the next four games after he was placed on injured reserve. Before his injury, Hardman led the Chiefs receivers with six total touchdowns while producing 328 all-purpose yards.  “We’ll be cautious,” coach Andy Reid said Wednesday of Smith-Schuster’s status. “We’re not going to do anything that you shouldn’t do according to what the data shows and how he feels.”

Against the Chargers, Bieniemy, alongside Reid and superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, is expected to rely on four receivers, all in their first seasons with the Chiefs: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, Kadarius Toney and rookie Skyy Moore.

The performance of the Chiefs offense was smooth against the Jaguars even without Smith-Schuster and Hardman. But Bieniemy understands that Sunday’s game will be the first this season when the offense will operate a full game without two main contributors, which will reveal, good or bad, the Chiefs’ depth at the receiver position against a good divisional rival.

“That’s what team ball is about,” Bieniemy said before Thursday’s practice. “That’s why I always say this: This is the greatest team game that you can have.”

Last season, Mahomes didn’t play in a game without his two best receivers, Hardman and Tyreek Hill, the league’s fastest player. But since the Chiefs traded Hill to the Miami Dolphins in March, Mahomes has expressed appreciation that Reid and general manager Brett Veach have acquired players such as Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling, Watson, Toney and Moore to help the offense have a more balanced, harder-to-predict attack.

As much as the Chiefs have placed their faith in Mahomes, he expressed trust that his co-workers will demonstrate their skills to ensure the offense — which leads the league in scoring (30 points per game) — remains potent against the Chargers.

“I think the coaches do a great job of putting the right guys in the right positions,” Mahomes said Wednesday. “When JuJu went out, we put Skyy kind of in that inside role, let him catch the ball (and) get up field. That was JuJu’s route.”

Mahomes shared another example, one that was pivotal in September, when the Chiefs rallied to defeat the Chargers in their home opener. In the third quarter, Watson entered the game in place of Hardman, who had sustained a left heel injury. Watson, the fifth receiver on the depth chart, then ran an out-and-up route so crisply that J.C. Jackson, the Chargers’ best cornerback, turned his hips in the wrong direction. Mahomes stepped up in the pocket and delivered his longest completion of the game, a precise strike to Watson for a 41-yard touchdown.

“I just rely on my coaches to put guys in the right position, and then I go through the reads how I’m supposed to go through the reads — other than if (star tight end Travis) Kelce is (against man coverage), I give him the ball,” Mahomes said while laughing. “But I go through the reads the way that I’m supposed to go through the reads, and usually good things happen.

“It’s helped me be a little bit more patient. There’s still sometimes, like (at) the end of the last game, when I threw the pick, where I get a little too aggressive. I just try to maintain that balance of being aggressive but making the right decision.”

Mahomes completed passes to nine teammates last week against the Jaguars, finishing with 331 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. A similar performance from Mahomes could be the Chiefs’ best strategy against the Chargers.

One receiver who has developed better chemistry and timing with Mahomes — particularly on deep passes — since the first meeting against the Chargers is Valdes-Scantling. In the past three games, Mahomes has targeted Valdes-Scantling nine times, and Valdes-Scantling, often using his rare speed, has generated seven receptions for 183 yards, including his first touchdown of the season against the Jaguars.

After the game, Valdes-Scantling praised Smith-Schuster and Watson for how they ran their routes: a corner and a post, respectively, which led to his being wide open against the Jaguars’ zone coverage. Valdes-Scantling also commended his newest teammate, Toney, whom the Chiefs acquired late last month in a trade with the New York Giants. Showcasing his quickness, toughness and leaping ability, Toney was the breakout star of the game, scoring his first career touchdown and finishing with 90 all-purpose yards.

“K.T. is a special talent. Obviously, that’s why he went (in the) first round (of the draft),” Valdes-Scantling said. “We put him in some positions to get him the ball and find out how he can help this team. He’s super dynamic. The mental part of coming into this offense is never easy, so being able to come in and learn as much as he’s learned and be able to go out there and play fast is important. I think he’s going to be a huge asset to this team as we make our run.”

Although he has been on the roster less than a month, Toney has proved to the Chiefs that he is capable of being an above-average receiver while playing several roles, whether it’s from the slot, the perimeter or as the gadget/misdirection weapon. The challenge for Reid and Bieniemy this week is finding the best way to use Toney’s skills to help maximize the Chiefs’ offensive production since his snap count (28 against the Jaguars) could be its highest of the season against the Chargers.

“He’s an outstanding worker,” Bieniemy said of Toney. “The kid is very, very intelligent. Our job is to make sure that we’re not providing too much information to him and exhausting him to where he doesn’t know what to do. We just want to continue to bring him along. He’s doing a great job of mixing in with the guys, and the chemistry seems to be going in the right direction.

“Anytime someone has an opportunity to change an address in this league, sometimes a change can be very good for you. So far so good.”

Injury update

Cornerback Chris Lammons (concussion protocol) didn’t participate in practice Thursday. Valdes-Scantling (illness), running back Jerick McKinnon (left shoulder and hamstring) and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (knee) were limited participants.

Right tackle Lucas Niang, who is returning from a torn patellar tendon in his left knee, was also on the field for the eighth of the nine possible practices he can participate in before the Chiefs have to decide if he can return to the active roster or must stay on the physically unable to perform list for the rest of the season. Because Niang is not on the active roster, his level of participation in Thursday’s practice wasn’t included in the team’s injury report. “Lucas is practicing his tail off,” Bieniemy said. “He’s doing good.”


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