When Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merrit spoke about the rookies in his group a week ago, he lit up — comparing the 2022 draft to opening Christmas presents and referring to his new players as the “Fab Five.”
Cornerback Trent McDuffie, safety Bryan Cook — and cornerbacks Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson — have all shown some level of promise during training camp practice and Saturday’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. All are contending for spots on the 53-man roster — which became more obvious when veteran corner Lonnie Johnson Jr. was cut on Monday.
Watson seems to be on the right side of the bubble right now, but there are no guarantees until cutdown day. While it’s every man for himself, Watson doesn’t have that mentality. He confirmed that when speaking to reporters after Monday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.
“Me and the rookies — ‘Fab Five’ — we’re super close,” Watson shared. “All five of us. We’re just blessed to be here. [We] come in every day and work hard; just try to stack the days and get better. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, so we’re coming in hungry — trying to do our best to make this team.”
Watson was a seventh-round selection — the third-to-last cornerback taken in the entire draft. He was also out of football as recently as the 2019 season. Yet he has impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a first-team look for at least one training camp practice.
Reflecting on those moments, he has learned he’s capable of meeting them.
“I deserve to be here,” he said, “but it’s all just a blessing. I thank God to be able to still play football. A lot of people’s dreams got cut short after college — so I’m just blessed.”
Merritt had noted that every member of his Fab Five was a “sponge.” Watson agreed, showing appreciation for what the older players have done to help acclimate the young group.
“That’s just a huge shoutout to the vets,” Watson declared. “They’re doing a great job coaching up us younger players. We’ve got a huge group of DBs — rookie DBs, a big draft class. But they’re just so open to helping us. Anytime we have a question, we can just pull them to the side and they’re always there to help us.”
Watson identified one veteran who has been particularly helpful to him.
“I’m one of the most outgoing DBs,” he explained. “So whoever I’m around, I just talk to [them]; all of them are there to help. I talk to [L’Jarius Sneed] the most because he’s my locker mate. [I’m] always trying to pick his brain because he’s a fast thinker.”
With expectations building from his training camp performance, there were a lot of eyes on Watson during the preseason opener. In the 32 snaps he played, Watson totaled three tackles — but more impressively, didn’t allow a reception on four targets.
“The players are a lot faster, but the pace is slower,” observed Watson of his first NFL game action. “College, you’ll get a lot of no-huddle teams, trying to get you tired. The NFL is more skilled and schematic. Players are a lot faster and bigger, though.”
Jaylen Watson had a near INT on Saturday. Bottom of the screen— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 16, 2022
"It was a slant, I was playing inside leverage... I broke on it, it just got tipped... I was like ‘ahh goodness.’ I wanted it." - Watson on Monday
Playfully blamed Mike Rose for tipping it away #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/riqAxDVQiA
During the game, Watson nearly earned the first interception of his NFL career, playing a slant and jumping on the target towards his receiver — but rookie linebacker Mike Rose was active in the throwing lane and tipped the ball away.
“It was Rose, man,” laughed Watson. “If he would just get his hand out of the way!”
But then Watson grew more serious.
“I can’t blame him for making a play on the ball,” he said. “It was a slant, I was playing inside leverage... I broke on it, it just got tipped. I was like, ‘Aahh, goodness!’ I wanted it, but you can’t blame your teammates for making plays on the ball.”
There was another play where Watson stood out — but unfortunately, it was in a negative way. An outside run to his side turned into a big gain because he failed to make the play in open space.
“I missed that tackle,” Watson recalled. “I want to show them I can make open-field tackles. I want to continue [to] get better in my man and zone, show that I’m a fast thinker on the field as well.”
He’ll have those opportunities in the next two preseason games. To ensure a roster spot, he’ll need to maintain his hot start in camp. There is still a lot to be decided between Watson, Nazeeh Johnson, veteran Chris Lammons and even second-year cornerback DiCaprio Bootle.
Still, Watson now looks like the front-runner — and he has the right mentality to stay in that spot as the team inches closer to the final cutdown before Week 1.