Rookies show promise with special teams unit

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The Chiefs went with a youth movement at kicker and punt returner in 2014, and the results provided a promising future.

2014 ROSTER: Kicker Cairo Santos, punter Dustin Colquitt, long snapper Thomas Gafford, punt returner De’Anthony Thomas, kick returner Knile Davis, returner Frankie Hammond Jr.
INJURED RESERVE: None
2015 FREE AGENTS: Thomas Gafford, Frankie Hammond Jr. (exclusive rights)

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) celebrates after kicking a 42-yard field goal from the hold of Dustin Colquitt against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) celebrates after kicking a 42-yard field goal from the hold of Dustin Colquitt against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

POSITION REVIEW

All eyes were on undrafted rookie kicker Cairo Santos once the Chiefs parted ways with veteran Ryan Succop after the fourth preseason game.

The Chiefs were due to owe Succop’s $1.9 million base salary. Instead the team saved by paying Santos $422,000, just above the $420,000 league minimum for rookies.

Santos did not disappoint, converting on 25 of his 30 field goal attempts. His 25 made field goals tied Succop’s single-season record for the most made field goals by a rookie kicker.

It didn’t come to Santos right away, however. He missed two of his first four field goal attempts, whereas Succop, who had signed on at Tennessee, was perfect in his first four tries.

Santos took off when he lifted the Chiefs to a 23-20 victory over San Diego in Week 7 with a 48-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the contest.

Santos was nothing but consistent from Weeks 4 to 14, going a perfect 14-for-14 on field goal attempts.

After Santos missed two field goals in the 31-13 win over the Raiders in Week 15, long snapper Thomas Gafford was put on notice.

The Chiefs signed long snapper Charley Hughlett to the practice squad just days after coach Andy Reid voiced concerns about the kicking game, and then special team coordinator Dave Toub mentioned the snaps.

Meanwhile, rookie De’Anthony Thomas brought explosiveness to the table. Known for his open field and returner abilities at the college level while attending Oregon, the 5-9, 174-pound fourth-round pick was set to make an immediate impact in the return game. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury sidelined Thomas the first four games of the season.

He returned to the lineup in Week 5 and announced his presence on the first two touches of his career with a 28-yard punt return and a 17-yard rush for a  touchdown.

The highlight of Thomas’ season was an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 13, a play that garnered him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

Veteran punter Dustin Colquitt continued to be one of the NFL’s best. Colquitt punted only 71 times, the third least amount in his 10-year career, but he placed 31 punts inside the 20-yard line.

LOOKING AHEAD

The mastermind of special teams coach Dave Toub combined with the stability of Colquitt and the emergence of Santos and Thomas provides a reason to hope for the 9-7 Chiefs.

Another piece to this unit is backup running back Knile Davis, who provided a solid balance with Thomas in the return game.

The only uncertainty appears to be Gafford, who finished his seventh season with the Chiefs. Gafford, a long-time fixture on the special teams unit, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March.

ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK?

The Week 16 signing of a long snapper to the practice raised understandable questions for Gafford before the Cleveland Browns signed Hughlett to its 53-man roster.

But the recent signings of long snappers Jorgen Hus and Brandon Hartson to reserve/future contracts likely signal the Chiefs are set to go another direction from Gafford.