I wish I had the energy for some kind of lengthy, exciting introduction. But as I write, it’s 4:07 in the morning. Thanks to a rowdy (though cute) one-year-old, I have been up all night splitting time between reviewing film and singing songs about farm animals.
So let’s just dive right in: Kendall Fuller’s film from 2017 is insane.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Chiefs traded (or will trade, I guess I should say, though in reality the deal is done) Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins for a third round pick and Fuller, a third round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2016 (hey, that’s where Brandon Flowers went! I like Brandon Flowers!). The move was stunning in a weird way, in that I didn’t expect this for at least a few weeks.
Since I don’t follow other teams as closely as I should, I naturally didn’t know much about Fuller. However, the more I read the more difficult it became to contain my excitement. The praise for his play was literally universal, at least from all the people I saw commenting on the trade. That is incredibly rare for any player, let alone a corner.
However, we’ll get to what other people say. I don’t tend to take others’ word for such important things as “is Player X good?” I have to check for myself. And so to the film I went, reviewing four games from 2017 over the course of the season. Why four games? Because it allows for a decent sample size over a period of time, as well as a variety of opponents.
Hey, let’s take a quick break for a gif that’s a preview of things to come in this article, shall we?
Fuller (38 here, changed number in '17) is just STICKY. So tough to shake. pic.twitter.com/QOulzuSim0— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
First things first: yes, Fuller played almost exclusively from the slot in Washington. However, I was able to see how he handled playing the boundary on some snaps due to the nature of opponents’ alignments and routes, so that at least tells us something.
Second things second: Fuller measured 5’11 and 187 pounds at the combine, with 31.5 inch arms. That’s one inch shorter than Marcus Peters and the same arm length. So please hold off on your “he’s too small to play boundary corner” takes in advance. How the Chiefs will use him, I have no idea. But this kid can P-L-A-Y.
Smothering coverage by Fuller here, AND gets his head around for the pick. Oh my. pic.twitter.com/FLzxneAQvq— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
(quick note: I made WAY too many gifs of Fuller in coverage to put in one article. You can find a ton more on my Twitter page. Also, follow me, because it makes me feel good and will make you a better person. One of those things is true)
If you’ve never read a CB film review by me, here’s an in-depth explanation of what I do and why. The short version is this: I review every single coverage snap, grading it as a success, failure, or neutral. I do this because it allows you to get a complete picture of how the corner played throughout the entire game, rather than just a handful of snaps. It also allows you to separate the CB’s play from the play of everyone else. Great coverage that results in a catch due to a fantastic throw by the QB is a better play than a CB getting torched but the WR drops the ball, yet statistically it’s worse. So we gauge every play.
The important number to track is “fail percentage.” We obviously want a CB who fails as little as possible. What’s a good number? Well, that’s up for debate. However, based on the similar reviews I’ve done over the years for Darrelle Revis, Sean Smith, Marcus Peters, Phillip Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, Kenneth Acker, Steven Nelson, and a few more, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion (and this has morphed over time as I’ve reviewed more film) that I’m willing to accept a 20-25% “failure rate” by a corner. Lower than that is good, above that I start to get concerned. With all that said, let’s talk about Fuller’s numbers and then his film.
To be blunt, those numbers are absurd.
I have never had a CB score that well in terms of win/loss percentage over a sample size larger than a single game. Never. For comparison, Sean Smith’s 2015 season (though I graded it slightly differently) featured a loss rate of more than double that. While Revis did well last season down the stretch with the Jets in terms of loss percentage, he was still a ways behind Fuller and was light-years behind in terms of successes.
Also, there’s the fact that Fuller defensed more passes (including a couple of picks) than he allowed catches. And the fact that he only allowed 54 total yards receiving in four games. Again, he played absurdly well.
But if you’d like a non-Chiefs-guy source on that, look at his PFF grade (a 90.0, the sixth best-rated CB in the NFL. Regardless of what you think of PFF, it’s one extra voice that says he played at an extremely high level.
Or perhaps you want something more in-depth than a number (understandable)? OK, here is a ranking of the top slot defenders in the NFL in 2017 per Ian Wharton, who is (in my opinion) arguably the very best guy out there for cornerback review. This list contains not just rankings, but reasoning. Fuller ranked... first. Ahead of Chris Harris Jr., who was rated second by Ian.
Or perhaps you’re a deep stats person?
CB Kendall Fuller allowed a 55.0 passer rating when covering the slot in 2017. The LOWEST mark in the NFL this season!— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 31, 2018
(min. 150 snaps in slot coverage)
Anyways, my point is that this isn’t just me being overly optimistic. Kendall Fuller was exceptional last season. Take a look at Washington’s SB Nation site and view the fan reactions to him being traded if you have any doubt. Their comment section reads like ours would if the Chiefs traded Travis Kelce.
All that aside, I trust what the film shows. And unlike other CBs I’ve reviewed who have shown flashes but needed improvements on consistency or certain aspects of their game, Fuller was the complete package.
To start off, Fuller has exceptional footwork.
Fuller's feet are tremendous, and he seems to read routes very well. pic.twitter.com/Pt9nOajFEW— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
Fuller has a very smooth backpedal. He doesn’t take many false steps (where he dances in place rather than pushing towards where he’s looking to go), and that results in enhancing his already-impressive quickness. Regardless of the type of route that’s run against him, Fuller almost always looks in control, and a huge part of that is how quickly and efficiently his feet churn. Additionally, Fuller’s great footwork allows him to change direction immediately without losing his balance.
In addition to that, Fuller repeatedly demonstrated an exceptional ability to read receivers’ routes, rather than guessing. This, combined with his great footwork, often resulted in him appearing to run the route right along with the receiver.
Fuller out here anticipating and breaking on receivers routes before they're even starting their break. pic.twitter.com/CsXUfUntDq— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
When you combine natural athletic talent (Fuller isn’t an amazing athlete, but he’s a solid one with good quickness) with sound footwork and the ability to read receivers, good things are bound to happen. The level of competition didn’t matter, Fuller was consistently able to hold his own.
This included the last minute of a game in which he’s asked to defend a Hall of Famer.
Fuller (29) breaks on the ball really, really fast from what I'm seeing so far. This time smothering Fitz. pic.twitter.com/6yXaTcWVyI— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
Larry Fitzgerald is still a very, very, very good receiver who runs pinpoint routes and gives most corners fits. This play was on third down at the very end of a game in which Washington was leading by five. Arizona went to their go-to guy, and Fuller shot him down with his combination of recognition, footwork and closing speed.
And speaking of closing speed, that’s another thing Fuller has going for him. While he does not have elite speed (I’d call his top-end speed passable, but nothing to write home about), he does have short area burst that allows him to close the gap between himself and the ball carrier very quickly. That showed up on this play, and does on many others as well.
Fuller played off man coverage the vast majority of the time, but he was still fairly physical in coverage, which is a positive sign. Speaking of physicality, Fuller is not afraid to mix it up when looking to contest a receiver for the ball.
Matched up alone against one of the best slot WR's in the league, Fuller reads the route and just TAKES the football. he's exceptional at playing the ball. pic.twitter.com/qhfYrG2usR— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
Fuller’s willingness to stick his nose in there and initiate contact to compete for the ball is a great thing to see. His ball skills aren’t limited to just that situation, though. As you can see, Fuller is very good at contesting the ball at the catch point, a requisite in Kansas City, where corners are often asked to operate on and island. He’s capable in that area both in short passes, like the one above, or deeper shots down the field.
Look at how Fuller sets this up. Gives up inside leverage knowing he has help initially, keeps his eyes on the receiver and the ball coming in, closes perfectly and makes a play on the ball over the top. Whew. pic.twitter.com/NNpD1fqkkR— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
I love Fuller’s awareness of the route and other defender on this play, but I want to keep talking about physicality for a moment. A lot of Chiefs fans are concerned about the CBs ability to defend the run and make tackles. I’m happy to report that although Fuller is not a great tackler, he’s absolutely a guy who is willing to play physically, regardless of the size of the player he’s going after.
"But can he tackle, Seth?"— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
I dunno, let's ask Alshon Jeffery. (yes, he can, both RB's and WR's. Willing tackler from what I'm seeing). pic.twitter.com/JhA7M2eYo9
While Fuller didn’t have a ton of snaps where he was a factor against the run, it was very rare to see him even hint at shying away from contact. In general, he’s an enthusiastic hitter and wraps up, which is all I ask of from corners. His willingness to be physical also shows up on quick horizontal throws, which he repeatedly blew up last season for Washington.
Fuller’s overall awareness of his receivers’ routes and the defense as a whole was noticeable, particularly given how often Washington used zone looks. In zone coverage, Fuller consistently kept his eyes on the QB but was still aware of receivers in his area. He was constantly moving and (from what I saw) didn’t allow himself to get sucked into following one receiver at the expense of leaving his zone open.
Every Chiefs CB except Peters (and later Revis) struggled in zone last year. Give me a guy who is this aware of the receivers in his area (and doesn't get caught up in just one receiver). pic.twitter.com/PUBBD4gWwT— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
As the tweet above indicates, the Chiefs’ corners (outside of Peters and later Revis) really struggled with zone coverage, often leaving receivers completely uncovered. It was nice to see Fuller, a second year player, demonstrating proper discipline in maintaining his zone with his eyes on the quarterback.
Fuller’s savvy was on display in more than just zone assignments, though. he was constantly in communication with the rest of the defense, switched off appropriately when the coverage dictated it, and generally seemed to read and react to plays very, very quickly. He also didn’t bite on play fakes or decoy routes, and did a great job navigating traffic on plays where other receivers attempted to screen him off with their route.
Again, Fuller has very quick recognition skills and navigates through traffic very well. Not a great tackler, but very willing (and that's half the battle for a CB, really). pic.twitter.com/x8XJuJh2Im— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 31, 2018
It’s great to see a corner able to pick his way through (see what I did there?) without getting caught up, and Fuller did so quite often.
Another good trait Fuller demonstrated was proper use of contact, even beyond five yards. While Fuller very, very rarely pressed, he was physical throughout routes and did a nice job keeping a hand on receivers when appropriate to keep their movement in check and “read” where they were going. He had 1 penalty in the 4 games I watched him, and was smooth enough in how he handled contact that receivers rarely complained to the refs, a rarity for a CB in good coverage.
To sum up...
Fuller has great footwork, is very quick, plays the ball at the catch point very aggressively, anticipates and mirrors routes as well as anyone I’ve reviewed, plays physically without risking flags, appears to have good awareness of the field, communicates well, is quite willing as a tackler, and is able to rotate his hips quite well to turn and run with receivers. In 2017, he was truly exceptional in the games I watched, rarely losing and often smothering receivers.
It was genuinely difficult for me to find things about Fuller’s film I DIDN’T like. In an attempt to be picky, I’d say that his top-end speed isn’t that high. He does look faster than, say, Peters when it comes to recovery speed. But he’s not elite in that area or even in the “very good” category. I also saw him guess wrong a few times and end up breaking the wrong direction on a route.
Predictive analysis is tricky in football. Just because a player was great one year doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be great the next, especially when switching systems and when dealing with a young player.
However, by my eyes and charting, Fuller absolutely earned the unanimous praise he received for his play last season, and based on the way his teammates reacted to him being traded, I don’t believe it was a fluke. He didn’t just demonstrate the traits of an elite CB last season... he WAS an elite CB. That performance was out of the slot, but nothing that I saw indicates he has to be shackled there. Reports are that Washington was planning on using him outside as well as inside this season, and I believe that would be a very good idea.
The Chiefs defense, barring a MASSIVE step backward for Fuller in 2018, got significantly better with this trade. Honestly, I can’t believe Washington was willing to trade this particular player. His level of play was that high on film. I can’t wait to see how it plays out this season, because I have a feeling Brett Veach is just getting warmed up.