When the Kansas City Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC Divisional Round game, all eyes will of course be on quarterbacks Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger, Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce and Steelers Pro Bowl offensive weapons Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
But viewers—and the Steelers—shouldn't overlook a rookie fifth-round pick who has emerged as one of the NFL's most dangerous playmakers for Kansas City.
His name is Tyreek Hill, and he's scored eight touchdowns—three as a returner, three as a rusher and two as a receiver—in Kansas City's last six games.
The definition of versatile, Hill became the first player in NFL history to score three-plus touchdowns as a receiver, a runner and a return man in one season, which is rather remarkable considering that 164 players were selected ahead of the 22-year-old in the 2016 NFL draft.
That had a lot to do with the fact Hill pleaded guilty in 2015 to assaulting his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend. For that incident, he was dismissed from the Oklahoma State football program and was sentenced to three years of probation.
You might choose not to cheer for a player with a transgression like that on his record, which is fair. But that doesn't change the fact Hill has the ability to be a major difference-maker on the field this weekend against Pittsburgh, and possibly even beyond that.
The man had eight 20-yard catches, eight 20-yard punt returns and four 20-yard runs this year, with 14 of those explosive plays coming during the second half of the season.
On offense alone, he was one of 10 NFL players to gain 20-plus yards on five or more plays in the final three weeks of the regular season, but eight of the other nine in that club played substantially more offensive snaps than he did.
|Player||20-yard plays||Total snaps||Snaps/20-yard play|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||5||196||39.2|
Pro Football Reference/Pro Football Focus
So Hill would be a major threat even without taking into account the fact he had a league-leading three return touchdowns, plus two more that were negated by penalties.
Pro Football Focus graded him as the best returner in football. His punt return average (15.2 yards) was the best in the league, and even if you removed those two touchdowns he'd still rank in the top 10. Among players with at least kick five returns, he ranked fourth in the league with an average of 27.4. Remove his touchdown and he'd still rank in the top 15.
Among 32 players with at least three punt returns and three kick returns, he was the only one to average 10-plus yards per punt return and 25-plus yards per kick return.
That should strike fear in a Steelers team that ranked 30th in the NFL this season with 24.7 yards allowed per kick return and in the bottom 10 with 9.6 yards allowed per punt return, especially considering that Miami Dolphins return man Kenyan Drake had two big kick returns against Pittsburgh in last Sunday's wild-card game.
The Steelers' punt coverage unit also had some trouble in the final two weeks of the season against the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, so don't be surprised if Hill makes a special teams play that sways a game that is widely expected to be close.
And even if Hill doesn't hit a home run on a return, don't be surprised if Chiefs head coach Andy Reid finds other ways to get the ball into his most dangerous player's hands. Hill's offensive snaps have increased steadily over the course of the year, and Reid is a master with extra time to prepare for opponents.
"We try to give him a little something different to his game every week," Reid said this week, per the Sports Xchange (via UPI).
We've seen him in the slot, out wide, in the backfield and deep on kickoffs and punts, and he's only gotten better wherever he's been.
Expect to see him everywhere on Sunday.
And if he keeps making plays the way he did in November and December, that could be the difference for the Chiefs.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.