When Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid took the podium on Friday afternoon, his first injury update of the 2022 season wasn’t a good one for cornerback Rashad Fenton.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid says Rashad Fenton (shoulder), Lucas Niang (knee) and Justyn Ross (foot) all had surgery and won’t be practicing to begin camp.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) July 22, 2022
Fenton had been expected to be a Week 1 starter alongside fellow cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and first-round draft pick Trent McDuffie — and while that could still happen, rehabbing an injury at the start of training camp is far from ideal.
Still, after coming off the best season of his young career, we expect Fenton to play some kind of a role in 2022’s Kansas City defense.
So let’s examine Fenton’s 2021 film, showing why he should be ready to command a top-three slot on the Chiefs’ cornerback depth chart.
Fenton doesn’t have the typical physical measurements of a great NFL cornerback. He is below average in both height and recorded foot speed. Relative to historical averages, his arm length, hand size and explosive athleticism is marginal. Yet ever since his rookie season in 2019, he has been getting the job done in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit.
Fenton's approach alignment-wise is somewhat rare, but it just works for him. Sticky in covg. regardless of opponent. pic.twitter.com/zuMQsxWRKn— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
The first thing we notice is Fenton’s interesting (if not unique) approach in aligning himself. At the snap, he is typically three or four yards away from the wide receiver — a range that for many cornerbacks can be considered no man’s land. Other Kansas City corners (and others throughout the league) tend to line up one or two yards away — unless the situation calls for them to line up seven (or more) yards away.
Despite the irregularity of this approach, Fenton displays a strong comfort level with it. Early in the rep, it prevents exceptionally long-limbed or laterally-quick route runners from gaining great position to win downfield. Within a couple of seconds, Fenton can consistently be in a receiver’s hip pocket — where he can squeeze pass-catchers toward the sideline or snap down on route breaks while maintaining tight coverage.
In '21, it was slant routes that gave Fenton the most fits; especially when executed by big, lengthy wideouts. pic.twitter.com/vXO7W1c87z— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
It’s rare to see Fenton struggle in coverage. But in 2021, slant routes gave him the most trouble — especially when executed by very big, lengthy wideouts. Sometimes it was due to his unusual alignment providing quick receivers a smidge too much room to maneuver prior to breaking inside. Other times, it was simply a matter of not being quite as strong or long-armed as the receiver, making it harder for him to execute an impactful jam at the line of scrimmage or break up a catch.
Even w/ that being said, it still often takes exceptional throws from the QB. pic.twitter.com/M3lgOEDpxL— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
But even in these instances where Fenton’s inside leverage has been surrendered, he often finds a way to compete through the whistle, making catches challenging to finish. Once he recognizes the route break, he shows zero hesitation. He just attacks.
Timing at the catch point is generally a major strength for Fenton. pic.twitter.com/HPCYWTSoEh— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
To that point, we can highlight one of Fenton’s bigger strengths: his timing (and finish) at the catch point. This isn’t to say he has tremendous ball skills — in 2021, he was unable to corral a single interception — but knocking down passes (or otherwise being a pain to receivers trying to secure the football) is something at which he excels.
More than anything else, this is probably the skill that has allowed Fenton to exceed post-draft expectations. He is a confident player who has a natural feel for when to time his physical maneuvers downfield. In a league that has made it incredibly hard for cornerbacks to play without being penalized, that’s highly commendable.
Zone coverage and tackling
While he has mostly played outside during his two seasons in Kansas City, Fenton has also been used in outside lane/perimeter and slot alignments.
To my eye, 27 shows lesser degree of comfort in the slot than he does on the perimeter. pic.twitter.com/I1u7WbNpY7— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
When he did play in the slot last season — often filling in for L’Jarius Sneed — Fenton looked a little less comfortable and confident. Naturally, playing in the slot can be more difficult because of the field dimensions; wide receivers have plenty of space to go in several directions without slowing down very much. Natural instincts become more important. Fenton — who is not an elite-caliber athlete — likes to use the sideline to shrink the space in which receivers can work.
Couple of great zone coverage reps from Fenton. Acceleration + spacing + leverage all on-point. pic.twitter.com/gcXsQYbFfA— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
While Fenton spent many of his 2021 snaps in man coverage, he has shown the ability to adequately handle zone coverage — especially when aligned wide. He has a solid feel for spacing and offensive route concepts — and his ability to get ball carriers on the ground makes him an ideal fit to play in shallow and short zones.
Fenton's tackling technique in the flat Offseason shouder surgery pic.twitter.com/z6doQbmgJx— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
It should be noted that for a cornerback, Fenton does a good job of finishing tackles; only rarely do we see a ball carrier break past one of his tackle attempts. However, his technique leaves something to be desired — especially when coming downhill near the sidelines.
It’s unknown if the shoulder injury for which he recently had surgery is from a tackle. But throwing a shoulder into a strong, heavy player — like he so often did in 2021 — couldn’t have helped his cause. Unfortunately, this is a hard thing to correct — especially outside of the padded practices that will soon be occurring at training camp in St. Joseph.
Eye's stuck in the backfield = opportunity for an offense. pic.twitter.com/3i3HTi4seN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 22, 2022
Like so many other corners, Fenton’s occasional lows in zone coverage come when his eyes get locked on the quarterback for too long; it’s incredibly hard to process what the quarterback is doing while maintaining ideal leverage on routes. If Fenton’s eyes are elsewhere once the receiver is even with him at full speed, his coverage suffers.
The bottom line
In 2021, Rashad Fenton proved himself capable of maintaining a starting role in this season’s Kansas City defense — but injury might impact how that plays out.
Recently acquired players such as Lonnie Johnson Jr., Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson — along with fourth-year corner Deandre Baker — will all be trying to secure the position alongside Sneed and McDuffie.
If Fenton can get back on the field prior to the season opener, he is a safe bet to lock down the job. While earning a contract such as the one signed by former Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward with the San Francisco 49ers this past March is unlikely, Fenton will be looking to put together a very strong season in the always undefeated contract year. The next step toward that goal will be adding some ball production to his reliably tight coverage.