Whether it’s how the offense uses wide receiver Skyy Moore and running back Isiah Pacheco — or evaluating how the team’s many first-year defenders are playing — rookies have been the subject many storylines about the Kansas City Chiefs this season.
The only rookie who hasn’t been at the center of these discussions is the highest-profile player of the bunch. Cornerback Trent McDuffie was the 21st overall selection in last spring’s NFL Draft — and was immediately named a starter at Kansas City’s training camp.
But the hype surrounding him was abruptly interrupted when he left the Week 1 game against the Arizona Cardinals with a hamstring injury.
“Going out the first game is always pretty frustrating— and pretty disheartening,” McDuffie shared with reporters during a press conference on Wednesday. “You have all these goals. You have this plan that you set in place — and it doesn’t go that way.”
His hamstring injury was more than just a tweak. Just days later, McDuffie was placed on the team’s injured reserve list — and was held out of the team’s next six games. The rookie’s day-to-day priorities quickly changed, but he tried to maintain some level of normalcy as he went through the recovery process.
“I was able to take a step back, work really well with the trainers and the coaches,” McDuffie explained. “[I] set this system like I was going to play every week — then [I would] sit out the game. I kind of kept this system so when I did come back, it wasn’t anything that I wasn’t already doing.”
McDuffie finally returned to the field in Week 9, starting in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans and playing 96% of the snaps. His “system” helped prepare him to come back seamlessly; he didn’t allow a reception on 24 coverage snaps, denying a completion on each of the two targets thrown his way.
McDuffie said that his smooth transition back into the game-day roster can be credited to one word: patience.
“I was always trying to come back quick,” he said, “but my body said, ‘Not yet.’ [I was] being patient, listening to my body, listening to my support system, my family — and just hearing everybody tell me, ‘It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to really let it heal.’
“It is a long season — and I’d rather look towards the future.”
McDuffie said it was the longest he has ever had to sit out with an injury — which came on top of making another difficult transition: to life as a professional athlete.
In the meantime, it helped that he was able to watch his rookie teammates make plays. Seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 2, while fourth-round pick Joshua Williams nabbed his first career pick in Week 7.
“It’s always huge when you can see another rookie — who has gone through the same process as you — go out there and make plays on a big stage,” McDuffie acknowledged. “We’re always together; we’re in the same room. I have confidence in [Watson], I have confidence in Joshua Williams, anybody who goes out there... There’s confidence in knowing the next person is going to be able to do their job.”
McDuffie is now that next person, getting up to speed as the Chiefs cornerback with the least experience this season. He and his fellow rookies will have to continue their development — now without the help of a veteran teammate who felt like family.
“It’s always a disappointment seeing somebody go,” McDuffie said of the team’s decision to trade cornerback Rashad Fenton to the Atlanta Falcons. “We always called him ‘Uncle Fenton’ — because he is that dude who taught all the defensive backs. He was one of those dudes I looked up to. [He] really taught me this system and how to play defensive back here. Seeing him leave was disappointing.”
But In the same breath, McDuffie recognized the message that the team is sending by moving on from a veteran player with starting experience.
“It just comes back to us,” he noted. “The coaches [have] full faith in the rookies. We have to go out there and produce. The same way they look at us, we have to give it back to them. We have to make sure we’re accountable — [so] they can trust us on every single play.”
While its first-round pick was on the sideline, the team showed it will trust Watson and Williams. But McDuffie had earned that trust long before the season began. Now he finally gets to show us why that happened.