Another football season is nearly upon us — and in Chiefs Kingdom, that means another preseason where fans question the talent among Kansas City Chiefs cornerbacks. Since Marcus Peters was traded in 2018, many fans have felt that general manager Brett Veach has not properly prioritized investing in the position.
Yet under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, cornerbacks coach Sam Madison and safeties coach Dave Merritt, Veach’s roster construction strategy has paid off quite nicely. Clearly, the primary decision-makers have believed they can invest few resources into the position and still trust the coaching staff to get great returns. So far this preseason, we’re seeing much of the same.
Let’s look at some specific themes we saw on film in the second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals on Friday night.
The biggest of these themes was the cornerbacks’ willingness — and ability — to tackle in the open field. While it isn’t their primary responsibility, it shouldn’t be undersold, either. Cornerbacks need to be capable tacklers — especially in a conference like the AFC, which is full of physical teams that run the ball.
L'Jarius Sneed's experience playing safety helps make him a very capable player as a slot CB within physical scrums, but he is also fearless and willing to partake in the run game consistently. Teach tape! pic.twitter.com/ZzsIruaTpy— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Charvarius Ward has also only gotten better when it comes to getting ball carriers on the ground. Second clip is especially impressive given that he slips on the poor surface and recovers quickly to allow minimal gain to the RB. pic.twitter.com/E263POL0fC— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Deandre Baker looks rather healthy coming off of that severe leg injury last season. In these two clips, you see how adept he is at taking (and maintaining) appropriate leverage when squared up against the runner. This stuff matters when they play physical teams, esp late season. pic.twitter.com/YTw3bKG1UN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Tackling like this could mean one less yard or one less first down — or even a few fewer points — on any defensive drive.
One of the greatest benefits in having second-year player L’Jarius Sneed remain as the team’s slot cornerback is that he can pick right up where he left off as a blitzer in 2020.
Sneed will rack up a handful of sacks this year at least if he remains healthy. Murray gets away here as arguably the most elusive QB walking the planet, but the play is still greatly impacted by Sneed. His combination of athleticism/IQ/relentlessness is great for this slot role. pic.twitter.com/i44NtZEaNa— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
But it hasn’t just been Sneed making these plays in the preseason. Undrafted free agent rookie Dicaprio Bootle has also gotten in on the action.
Rookie UDFA slot corner Dicaprio Bootle got a couple free rushes at the QB on back-to-back plays near the end of the game, and he made the most of the opportunities. Very efficient path taken to the QB on his upfield shoulder. pic.twitter.com/LYAxlZZvqR— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
In man coverage, Chiefs cornerbacks are frequently asked to press tight against receivers at the line of scrimmage — and it is easy to see why so many of these players are getting better and better at it. In particular, patient eyes and feet have allowed Deandre Baker to maintain great positioning on the primary receivers he’s pressed. Wideouts who possess elite long speed could present some issues against Baker — but otherwise, he is really going to excel in press coverage.
Baker (top of screen) is very patient with his eyes, feet in press coverage. It looks comfortable to him. A good start to the rep, and something he did repeatedly throughout the game. pic.twitter.com/AAdOiyjfCt— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
On the back end of plays, cornerback Mike Hughes had some impressive ball skill reps, where he significantly helped to cause incompletions that ended Arizona drives. Quality work with his eyes (and feet) put him in position to make these plays at the catch point.
Mike Hughes showed some really good things in terms of ball skills Friday, and did so from press man where his back was originally turned to the QB. First player is reminiscent of Tyrann Mathieu's all-time pass breakup against Denver's Courtland Sutton in 2019. pic.twitter.com/FwjRiK9i4W— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Areas for improvement
While there weren’t a whole lot of negative plays among Kansas City’s cornerbacks on Friday, there is always some room for growth.
(1/2) Arizona got theirs some too Friday ~ 3rd-and-2, Chiefs CBs are 1-on-1 with the receivers across from them. Bootle (slot, bottom half of screen) gives the WR inside leverage prior to the snap. Possibly expected more help from the middle hole defender (Anderson, #6), but pic.twitter.com/LcfW4FZfZk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Hughes definitely appears to be expecting more help inside from Anderson (#6), but by the time Anderson slips, the work is done and its an easy 3rd-and-7 conversion for Arizona. pic.twitter.com/81MaDCRuEg— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
Ends up being high-quality ball placement with the throw outside for a completion, but Baker is a little behind in his recognition covering the flats here. Eyes end up back and forth between the receiver and QB, makes it tough to pick up the football. pic.twitter.com/PWUE4ZPSkT— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) August 25, 2021
No recurring negative trends were seen throughout the group — which is certainly a good thing. But no matter how well a defense executes, offenses have the advantage; through the course of a game, they’re going to get a few solid plays.
The bottom line
As the Chiefs move to Arrowhead Stadium for their last preseason against the Minnesota Vikings, we will look to see if the secondary can build on these two strong performances against the Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers.
While these games do not count toward the standings, technique, awareness, and the ability to play in-sync as a collective unit can certainly transfer to meaningful games. Which Kansas City cornerbacks will step up (or back) in the final exhibition game?
Cornerbacks play one of the NFL’s most challenging positions — one in which performances can be very volatile. But for right now, the arrow is pointing up for the Chiefs’ corners. Let’s hope we see that continue.