The early returns on the Kansas City Chiefs' 2022 draft class have been fantastic, especially in the defensive backfield. Five total were drafted at those positions, and four have already carved out roles in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's system.
They've all made plays and done good things, but there is still much to learn about the rookies. Sunday night was a good test, facing the Los Angeles Chargers with quarterback Justin Herbert and their top wide receiver back: Keenan Allen.
The active rookie of the secondary group with the most to learn about is safety Bryan Cook, who typically only plays with the starting defense in Dime personnel — bringing three safeties onto the field at once. However, Spagnuolo got an unexpected chance at a closer look on Sunday night — when starting safety Juan Thornhill left the game with a calf injury.
Spagnuolo overshadowed the negativity of the Thornhill injury with praise for the second-round pick that stepped in.
"Bryan's (Cook) been one of my favorites since the beginning," Spagnuolo admitted to reporters during a Zoom conference on Tuesday afternoon. "I told him way back in training camp that I'd like to have more guys like him."
"He's a – I've said this before – he's a cerebral player – and I love those kinds of guys. In the position he plays, you need that. He's smart on the backend. He's a communicator. I think after a week of practice where he's getting all the reps, I think he'll be even smoother. He was a little bit rusty, (he) had to knock the rust off in the game this past week. But, we have a lot of confidence in him."
Cook played 57% of the defensive snaps, earning three tackles while playing the second-most snaps he has in any game this season. Spagnuolo hinted at Thornhill's injury lasting through the coming week, giving Cook an even better opportunity to prove something in Week 11.
Thornhill had been excellent in the back end this season, leading the team in passes defended (6). However, the game's first drive featured a 50-yard touchdown pass where Thornhill was the closest defender.
Cornerback Joshua Williams was in the area too — but jumped to cover a route underneath him. Spagnuolo was ambiguous about which of the two made an error.
"On the first one, we just needed to play it better," Spagnuolo reflected. "Our guys needed to be deeper... One of the defenders on the back end should have played it a little bit differently. We clean that up and we'll be okay, but it wasn't a communication issue; it was eyes more than anything else."
If it was Williams, it wasn't his only learning lesson of the evening.
On the Chargers' late-game touchdown drive, wide receiver Keenan Allen ran vertically against Williams on third and 18. The rookie cornerback kept tight coverage until the catch point, then Allen accelerated to the ball for a 46-yard gain.
Spagnuolo had coaching points for Williams but emphasized that there were positives on the snap.
"The biggest coaching point is that he had great coverage," Spagnuolo began. "He was stride for stride with him, and at that point, he has to become the receiver. What I mean by that is he has to find the ball just like [Allen] did, just go play the ball. He got caught playing the man, and at that point late in the down, at the top of the route where that thing developed, he should have just become the receiver. He'll learn that; I think he'll learn and get better at that."
Williams and Cook's improvements will be important because both are technically starters in the Nickel and Dime defensive packages. Rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson does rotate in with Williams, but Williams has out-snapped Watson 96 to 42 since rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie returned to the starting lineup.
McDuffie didn't stand out Sunday, casually allowing two catches for 16 yards on three targets. For the season, McDuffie has surrendered only eight catches on 13 targets, allowing a low rate of 9.4 yards per reception with one pass breakup in 129 coverage snaps.
The entire rookie class of defensive backs has been impressive — but there are still plenty of ways to improve. The Chargers game was an example of that, but it all works out when those lessons learned come in wins.