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Chiefs Draft Profile: Trent McDuffie is now a cornerstone player in the secondary

Taking an in-depth look at what Kansas City’s top draft choice can bring to their defensive backfield.

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you have been living under several rocks since Thursday, you’re familiar with the name of the Kansas City Chiefs’ initial first-round draft selection by now:

University of Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie

Not only did the Chiefs select him 21st overall, but they also traded additional third and fourth-round picks to move up and acquire him.

McDuffie pops off the screen with his skill in about any game he’s in — but the specific traits that make this the case is what we will dive into here in this profile.

Background

Trent McDuffie will turn 22 years old on September 13 — right around the very start of the NFL regular season. He measures in at 5 feet 10-inches, weighs 193 pounds, has extremely short arms at 29-and-three-fourths inches, and ran a very fast 40-yard-dash at 4.44 seconds.

Despite his smaller stature, McDuffie displays exceptional burst and physicality on the field. He also lined up close to the line of scrimmage pre-snap more than the vast majority of highly-ranked cornerbacks in this year’s class — something defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is sure to ask of his corners.

Now, let’s turn to the film to see what kind of impact player the Chiefs are ultimately getting:

Film evaluation

First, we should designate a difference in physical, hands-on press coverage and soft press technique. McDuffie’s length is not conducive to being an aggressor at the line of scrimmage, and it shows in his approach. He is much more likely to rely on his footwork and patience to mirror the release of wide receivers than any sort of hand usage. At Washington, he also liked to half-turn inward after the snap in zone coverage, keeping his eyes on the quarterback with leverage on top of the wide receiver as he processed route concepts in real-time.

If a player has the skill to do this at a high level, it can be a great thing for a cornerback’s upside, as someone with McDuffie’s approach is much less likely to be called for pass interference/holding penalties in the NFL.

One of McDuffie’s primary strengths is his football intelligence — he keeps himself in good position to take away options from the opposing quarterback very consistently. This could mean pre-snap leverage on a receiver’s inside shoulder or having good zone spacing in between two routes to make it difficult to fit a pass in toward either offensive player. In critical situations, he knows the proper techniques to utilize that give him the best chance to succeed.

In off-man coverage — something he chooses to execute more often in third- or fourth-and-long situations when it is clear how far the offense needs to move the football to keep a drive alive — he displays exceptional comfort, foot speed and ability to get out of breaks very quickly.

He is what I would call a get-your-defense-off-the-field type of player — meaning whether it be via tremendous coverage/body positioning, closing speed and effort when pursuing ball carriers, or the ability to get hands in the way of the football and make a play when targeted — he is going to be a contributing reason why the defense can finish drives and force punts or turnovers in key situations.

The acceleration, quick twitch and competitive effort in his game make for a rangy player that can legitimately go sideline-to-sideline and finish plays off.

Even though ball production in college was limited with just two interceptions in 27 games, this appears to be more due to a lack of targets than it is McDuffie not having the skills to attack the football well.

He flashed the ability to go up high and snatch the ball out of the air, force fumbles or simply knock down passes when opportunities were presented. He logged six pass deflections during the 2021 season alone and forced three fumbles during his tenure as a Washington Husky.

Perhaps his lack of length will make matchups against very big receivers more challenging moving forward, but the Chiefs will likely try to avoid putting him in any tough positions without at least providing some semblance of safety help.

Overall, this is a cornerback who brings the coverage skills necessary to keep quarterbacks from finding easy, open targets nearby in the first place. If we just look at some of the collegiate production — or lack thereof — McDuffie allowed from opposing receivers, it becomes pretty clear that he was maybe the best cover corner in all of college football last year.

The bottom line

McDuffie immediately provides the Chiefs a day one starter at the cornerback position — in the outside lane or in the slot. He has the positional versatility that teammates like L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton share.

Head coach Andy Reid has already provided a hint about where we can expect to see McDuffie align when training camp begins:

If things aren’t going as well for McDuffie on the perimeter, he can undoubtedly kick into the slot and be very effective. McDuffie, Sneed and Fenton all combine to create what should be a very sticky starting coverage unit at the cornerback position. While the latter two players have already proven themselves at the NFL level, it is McDuffie who has the most significant overall upside.

As a corner who didn’t elect to use his hands at the line of scrimmage much in college, it will be interesting to see if his approach changes at all. It should be viewed as unlikely — but if he does, it could signal a slight shift in Spagnuolo’s approach to coverage as well. Only time will tell.

On the night of the draft, I graded the pick of McDuffie an ‘A-’ and predicted he would have Pro Bowl selections coming in his future. Following further review, nothing about these thoughts has changed.

With a slew of young, fast, explosive talent now injected into the Chiefs’ secondary — McDuffie can start to build a résumé as an on- and off-field leader of one of the NFL’s most athletic defensive back groups — a stark change from what has been the case the past few seasons in Kansas City.