With the surprise release of Jeremy Maclin on Friday, the Kansas City Chiefs made a clear statement: They believe rookie sensation rookie Tyreek Hill is ready to take on an even bigger role in 2017.

The move to cut Maclin just two years into a big-money free-agent contract seems partly motivated by cap reasons, but the Chiefs wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t believe their receiving corps could survive without him.

Maclin was a relative non-factor in 2016 after an impressive first season in Kansas City, catching 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games. He watched as the Chiefs’ offense shifted toward the dynamic talents of Hill, along with elite pass-catching tight end Travis Kelce.

But is Hill, a versatile weapon who excelled moving all over the field and contributing in a major way on special teams, capable of an increased workload in the passing game and can he act as a true No. 1 option?

The presence of Kelce, who will likely lead the team in targets, should ease the burden of responsibility from Hill, but the Chiefs have few other proven wideouts to threaten teams and draw attention away from the second-year standout.

Chris Conley and Albert Wilson should be next in line for added work from Alex Smith, but neither are starting-caliber players. Conley finished as Pro Football Focus‘ 98th-ranked wide receiver (out of 115 qualifying players) in 2016 and Wilson was even worse, ending the campaign in 102nd.

Demarcus Robinson, a fourth-rounder last year who didn’t catch a pass, and rookie Jehu Chesson are two intriguing options, but Kansas City would be naive and overly optimistic to expect either to be major factors in 2017.


(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

Hill was inarguably sensational last season. He finished with nearly 1,000 return yards and had three special teams touchdowns, caught 61 passes for 593 yards and found the end zone six times, and added another 267 yards and three scores on the ground.

Simply put, Hill was a nightmare for opponents, consistently wreaking havoc with his speed and versatility.

The Chiefs could have a perennial All-Pro talent on their hands, but teams know about Hill now. Every defensive and special teams coordinator will be game-planning for him. While Maclin wasn’t effective in 2016, he was still someone defenses had to account for. Now, with Maclin gone, they can zero in on Hill, especially if the Chiefs try to mold him into a more traditional No. 1 receiver.

And recent history is littered with “gadget” offensive players who stumbled once their teams tried to expand their roles. The Chiefs don’t want Hill to become their next Dexter McCluster.

Kansas City sent out a big signal that it’s ready to focus on the future when it traded up to select Patrick Mahomes in the first round of this year’s draft, and the release of Maclin is another clear sign.

Hill is an enormous part of that future. But his rookie season was as good as it was because he was used in ways that highlighted his strengths and minimized his weaknesses, namely his route-running skills.

The 23-year-old is already under a ton of pressure to repeat his rookie success, which was always going to be tough considering the how much luck factors into touchdown production.

No. 1 receivers come in all shapes and sizes. All that really matters in today’s NFL is production. Hill has all the talent to be the Chiefs’ top threat for years to come, but it might be too soon to expect him to excel as the lead dog of an underwhelming group in 2017.

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