In his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs, sixth-round defensive back Rashad Fenton was used primarily as a nickel defensive back while starters Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward played outside. Appearing in 12 games, Fenton notched 15 tackles (11 solo), four passes defensed, a forced fumble and an interception. By season’s end (and the postseason), he was on the field for about a third of the defensive snaps.
But the Chiefs had to do without Breeland to begin the 2020 season as he served a suspension stemming from a violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Ward suffered a fractured hand in the season’s opening game. Then fourth-round rookie L’Jarius Sneed — who had stepped in to start at the beginning of the season — broke his collarbone in Week 3.
That all added up to opportunity for Fenton, who has started the last three games — including Monday night’s game against the New England Patriots. Even though he gave up a touchdown pass, he still emerged as one of the game’s heroes — collecting four passes defensed and a timely fourth-quarter end-zone interception that blunted a long New England drive.
“As as sixth-round guy, you know you’re labeled as a special-teams guy,” Fenton told reporters on Wednesday. “In the game of football, ‘the next man up’ is a gift and a curse... It just feels good, knowing that when your number’s called and you have a job to do, it just feels good that you are able to get the job done at an acceptable level — as the starters would.”
Just the same, Fenton said he is happy to have the veteran Breeland — whose suspension ended after Monday night’s game — back in the mix.
“He brings a lot of the energy back,” he said. “He’s another vet — along with Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen on the defensive corps — so you know it’s great, because I am a cornerback. He’s great, because he brings ‘the years’ into the DB room... He had that pick in the Super Bowl. The whole team is glad to have him back.”
Fenton acknowledged that the role he’s been playing this season has been significantly different.
“At nickelback, you’re basically a linebacker and a defensive back; at nickelback, you’ve got to understand more offensive fronts [and] the offensive run game. Don’t get me wrong: you’re a defensive guy. You’re going to have to worry about run and pass always — but at the nickelback, you’re kind of in the mix of the seven-man front; it’s [in] that aspect that you’re really 50-50 at nickelback.
“At cornerback — like I said, you’re a defensive player, so you have to worry about the run as well — but it’s a difference when you’re on that ‘island.’ You’re kind of yards apart from the nearest tackle or quarterback or fullback. So you’re leaning toward the passing game a lot more when you’re at cornerback; you just kind of read the tendencies of the receiver and he’ll give you run or pass, but you’re kind of dealing with that receiver.”
Fenton said that making the transition has been easier because he understands the defense better than he did in 2019.
“That was my biggest objective from last year to this year,” he said. “[Now] I know it; I know more positions and I know what other people are doing. Also, last year, I was so focused on knowing the defense, I could rarely really get an understanding of the offense, because I was too busy worrying about what I had to do; my job [was] first. But this year — since I know the defense — I’m able to pick apart the offense a little bit more, just learning a little more of the tendencies.”
With his new understanding and confidence, Fenton spoke like a man who is ready to handle whatever assignment he is given.
“I’m a defensive back — wherever coach (Steve Spagnuolo) wants me to play,” he declared. “I could play safety. I could play nickelback. I could play corner. Wherever my number needs to be called, I’m going to be ready to go.”