In the Rookie Rewind series, we’re taking a look at Kansas City Chiefs players after their first season in the league, focusing specifically their development — and areas that led to improvement or regression in their play. How did they improve from Week 1 — or even college — to the end of their first season? And what does that say about their future?
As we work through the Chiefs’ 2019 rookie draft class, fifth-round cornerback Rashad Fenton is next on the list.
To be candid, I — and most of the AP Draft Team — weren’t extremely excited about Fenton as a draft prospect. He wasn’t bad — or a reach where the Chiefs selected him — but in our minds, he was just... all right. That seemed to be the consensus around the NFL, too; there wasn’t much hype surrounding Fenton before the 2019 season.
But after hearing the Chiefs coaching staff talk about his versatility — not only as a special-teams player but also in terms of the types of coverages and techniques he had played — you could understand why the Chiefs liked him.
As Day 3 selection in the NFL draft, it was unlikely Fenton would see a lot of playing time as a defender early in the year; he would have to earn his spot with his special-teams play. He would be competing to become a defensive depth piece — one who would have to be ready to jump onto the field in case of an injury. And that’s exactly what happened.
So let’s take a look at how Fenton was able to improve as the year went on — and the role he played at the end of the season.
As the season began, Fenton was used exclusively on special teams. But in Week 6 — when Kendall Fuller was injured — Fenton saw the field as a defensive back. At that time, his role was limited to being a second slot/apex defender opposite Tyrann Mathieu, with most reps coming in some form of match-zone coverage that didn’t force him to chase slot receivers all over the field.
During Fuller’s absence, Fenton showed some highs — including an interception against the Los Angeles Chargers — and the lows you would expect from any rookie. After Fuller returned in Week 13, Fenton was inactive two of the season’s last five games. But after Bashaud Breeland was injured, Fenton suited up as an outside cornerback for the Week 17 matchup with the Chargers.
Except for a single game, Fenton’s alignment didn’t vary much. But as the year went on, his assignments started changing to match the rest of the team. The coaching staff started trusting him more — and when called upon, he showed up well.
*Only charted two games of Fenton due to limited snap count and usage given the rest of the roster.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 22, 2020
Almost entirely different usage of Fenton between the two games - which is good - as injuries to Breeland and Thornhill forced Fenton to move around a fair amount. https://t.co/mE3Va7yKHL pic.twitter.com/Hpaw9AFb5G
The big thing to notice here is the difference in alignment and usage in these two games.
In the Week 17 Chargers game, Fuller had returned and was working in as a fourth safety and as the second slot defensive back; Breeland was out with an injury and Fenton played as an outside cornerback. In playoffs against the Houston Texans, Fuller was used almost exclusively as a safety. This made Fenton the sixth defensive back, playing exclusively in the slot across from Mathieu. To show Fenton at his best, that Week 17 matchup with the Chargers is where to start.
Rashad Fenton saw most of his reps in the slot last year but may have looked the best on the outside when filling in for Breeland in spurts.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 22, 2020
Stays patient, plays his leverage, and allows the WR to show their hand firss. Good job hooking w/o turning the WR on the undercut pic.twitter.com/BfThSD5gq3
Despite having many more reps in the slot, Fenton impressed me most as an outside corner, where he showed great patience and physicality. When he wasn’t being asked to get up into a receiver’s face and press them at the line of scrimmage, he did a good job staying patient and square — forcing the wide receiver to show his hand.
On this play — without taking a step in the wrong direction or tilting his hips — Fenton is able to break inside with the receiver and stay in phase through the whole route. When the wideout flashes his hands, Fenton gets his eyes on the ball and is able to undercut him, doing a great job hooking — but not turning — the wide receiver so that he can propel himself into the ball’s path.
Fenton looked very comfortable in trail technique when playing on the outside. He didn't panic trying to catch-up and trusted his help over the top & staying on the WR's hip— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 22, 2020
A good initial jab off the LoS helps & the patience shows again as he doesn't bite on the inside move pic.twitter.com/V5g2WFVS6f
Some cornerbacks only feel comfortable when they’re in direct contact with a wide receiver, which allows them to get a hand on them to slow them down. But Fenton looks plenty confident when playing a trail technique.
Here we see that right off the line of scrimmage, he gets his hands on the receiver just enough to force him to widen his angle upfield, slowing him down and allowing the help coverage to get over the top. Knowing that he has that help over the top not only demonstrates Fenton’s understanding of the scheme, but also that he can play it perfectly. Playing in trail, Fenton does a good job reading the receiver’s hips— and doesn’t take the bait on the wideout’s inside move, allowing him to stick with the receiver on the break outside.
As long as he understands the techniques, Fenton’s patience and physicality at the line of scrimmage make him a viable option as an outside cornerback in Steve Spagnuolo’s system.
As the year went on, Fenton's comfort in the new system became evident. From dropping into deep half coverage from the slot or replacing the S on a cut call, he looked to "get it".— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 22, 2020
Good initial press and leverage, S is cutting on anything inside, and Fenton replaces over the top pic.twitter.com/oVtky1TyTq
Fenton showed obvious signs of picking up the system — and later in the year, really understanding it.
Here, we see that he is playing his leverage hard, forcing players into help or working through him. When a special call is made — such as the cut call on this play — he knows where to fill in.
If Fenton can continue to show this understanding of the scheme — while maintaining his patience and his ability to play multiple techniques — he could start to play a lot more snaps.
Being able to come downhill and breakdown in space to make tackles is something outside CBs will have to do for Spags' defense.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 23, 2020
Fenton is working out of the slot here picking up a swing
route and does a good job reducing the angle and breaking down in space limiting it to 1 yard pic.twitter.com/LWaQUl1YCq
While the Chiefs don’t utilize their outside cornerbacks much in their run fits, they will be placed on islands against quick passes, forcing to make tackles underneath. Whether that’s on a screen play or a checkdown to a running back, the corners have to be competent in the open field — and here, Fenton is pretty stout.
Working from the slot, he’s able to quickly pass off the initial wide receiver to the inside and break on the late swing route. The angle to the ball carrier is good — as is the break down for the tackle.
One thing that makes me a little hesitant with Fenton as a nickel CB is moderate foot quickness and hip fluidity. The physicality off the snap is good but when faced with two way goes or hard breaks.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 23, 2020
Fluid WRs with quick feet can eat up space if he doesn't have hands on em pic.twitter.com/XV5V2YpL5t
Most of Fenton’s 2019 snaps were as a slot corner — and while it’s certainly possible that’s how he’ll be used in 2020, I have just a few reservations.
While his patience on the outside is extremely helpful, that patience — when paired his with stiffer hips — can be a liability when defending two-way go routes from the slot. When you add in his moderate foot speed, there are times when Fenton can be left in the dust on hard breaks. His physicality, effort, and knowledge allow him to make an impact in the slot, but sometimes an offense can attack his limitations.
Expectations in 2020
Rashad Fenton may the trickiest player to predict for 2020 — simply because I think he should see a position change.
Tyrann Mathieu is the team’s primary slot corner, which leaves only a few snaps per game for Fenton in that role. But he is arguably better suited to play as an outside cornerback. Given Breeland’s probable suspension early in the season, Fenton has a good chance to earn some extra playing time on the outside.
But if Fenton can take the next step as an outside corner, he could share some time with Charvarius Ward and Breeland — even when the entire roster is available. There were times last season in which both starters could probably have used some time off. Hopefully, that will be Fenton’s floor.
The other option would be for Fenton to play a role similar to Fuller’s before Juan Thornhill’s injury: a second slot corner who can be dropped into deep coverage and utilized somewhat like a safety.
So while it’s hard to pinpoint what his usage is going to be in the coming season, I think his skill set can be maximized as either an outside corner or as a hybrid cornerback/safety.