The Kansas City Chiefs' defense battled through the vast majority of the first half of their season without the team's top 2022 draft choice: cornerback Trent McDuffie.
It was certainly worth the wait. Yes. After an extensive, patient (and wise) approach to McDuffie's rehabilitation — he's back and better than anyone could have expected through his limited amount of games.
In this review, we will take a closer look at some of the tremendous things the 22-year-old is doing for this defensive backfield.
Some who follow football closely would say there's no more difficult position to play in the modern NFL than cornerback. The wide receivers, quarterbacks and offensive schematics the players have to contend with make for sometimes undeniable challenges.
One way this presents itself most is through basic, deep passes. It takes an innate amount of patience combined with thousands of repetitions to have a chance at being a good defender in those situations. The receivers are too big and fast, and some quarterbacks can place throws in spots that are nearly indefensible.
McDuffie is proving to be much more the exception than the rule in that he checks so many boxes a defensive coordinator would want — all besides length and overall size. He shows the necessary foot speed to compete, and the internal instincts that made him such a fun watch through his college film continue to pop.
The Chiefs haven't had a CB this poised defending downfield throws since....? pic.twitter.com/2GmFodgXav— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
McDuffie has a knack for— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
1) getting his eyes back and UP when the ball is in the air
2) using his core and body weight to impact WRs at the catch point rather than grabbing with hands pic.twitter.com/6kdLZlPgC8
So often, when these defenders are running downfield, and the ball is in the air, they lose focus and either panic, causing a penalty or allowing the catch to be completed due to inadequate ball skills. McDuffie has shown that far more often than not, he won't let these explosive catches, nor will he utilize pass interference-worthy technique.
This isn't to say the young budding star won't give up some plays here and there — he did in fact do so against the Jacksonville Jaguars on one occasion:
The one JAX got him on: it's really a perfect spot to throw this ball and the WR caps it with an excellent catch. Gonna happen sometimes, and not much you can do about it. pic.twitter.com/zfkyEDGuv9— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
McDuffie doesn't necessarily do anything wrong within the play above.
He's in a good position, pressing the receiver's near hip pocket as they run upfield, and he gets his eyes back and up toward the sky to see the path of the football. Unfortunately, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. simply made an incredible connection, and it goes back to the original point discussed — this cornerback stuff is awfully hard in the National Football League.
Known for more than just his ability to stick closely to receivers as they run routes, McDuffie leverages his natural gifts to also maintain excellent position when playing zone coverage schemes. Even when the offense has plays made in such a way to expose zone coverage dialed up, McDuffie often executes his assignment perfectly, making each potential throw look challenging for the quarterback.
There are a lot of defensive backs in the NFL who are athletically fast enough to close throwing windows from the zone. There aren't nearly as many who are also instinctively aware of where to place their body to best give themselves (and their team) a chance to make stops. McDuffie is clearly one of these types — not all that dissimilar from Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu during his prime years.
The Chiefs haven't had a CB who is smart/instinctive/quick enough to consistently squeeze multiple routes in Zone like this since...? pic.twitter.com/QRBJk55VE2— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
If you weren't excited enough already, it pays more dividends that McDuffie is an explosive presence as a tackler near the line of scrimmage. It's part of what made some evaluators say he could play safety as well — and I'm certain he could.
McDuffie; also a fun watch as a tackler. pic.twitter.com/M1BAtwFRFA— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
If there's any one area to pick on right now based on the film from the Jacksonville contest, it's more of a collective secondary gripe. Late in the game, the Jaguars had a wide receiver short motion into a bunch formation, as seen in the next clip:
This is one to circle for future weeks -- teams are going to test the communication of these young DBs with similar motions week after week. pic.twitter.com/GD7g7eMd0M— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) November 15, 2022
The cornerbacks aligned over this bunch — McDuffie, fellow rookie Joshua Williams and veteran L'Jarius Sneed — were slow to adjust to this motion, and it created an opportunity for the offense to spring open the targeted receiver.
When this team takes the field in the weeks ahead, more offensive coordinators will test this unit out by incorporating various motions into clustered formations as well. Especially considering the youth of the group, it's one way opposing offenses could take advantage of what otherwise looks like an immensely fast secondary.
The bottom line
The sample size remains quite small, and some of McDuffie's greatest challenges are coming at him and the Chiefs' defense very soon.
This coming Sunday night, the Los Angeles Chargers, led by big-armed quarterback Justin Herbert will be the best pure passer McDuffie has faced yet this year. The Chargers could also have wide receiver Mike Williams back from injury — a player who has the size to pose problems and has really dominated his matchups against Chiefs cornerbacks lately. A couple of weeks from now, the Cincinnati Bengals will be on deck with some of the best wideouts in all of football.
The fact remains that McDuffie — regardless of competition — is displaying all the necessary traits to develop into an elite-caliber player very quickly. Needless to say, I'm not backing off my prediction from back in April that McDuffie would one day be a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs.
Injury may have prevented it this year, but bigger team goals will have to do in the meantime.