It has become a common theme when describing Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo: he doesn’t like to play rookies, so veterans will get the benefit of the doubt.
Noticeable examples have included rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who had to sit behind veteran Anthony Hitchens until there was an injury last season. Or more recently, reserve defensive end Mike Danna starting over first-round pick George Karlaftis — or even linebacker Elijah Lee getting the nod as the starting SAM linebacker over rookie Leo Chenal.
While meeting with reporters before Monday’s practice at the Truman Sports Complex, Spagnuolo was asked about this tendency.
“I don’t know where that comes from,” he said bluntly.
While it’s easy to simplify it to the narrative it has become, Spagnuolo insisted it’s about which player truly earns the job through impressive practices and game tape.
“Here’s my thing with anybody and anything,” he said. “Take the rookie off of it. I believe you have to earn anything you get. Whether that’s rookies, whether that’s a new guy coming [in], whether it’s a new coach, you’ve got to earn [it]. That’s what this league is all about: you earn what you get.”
“You could earn it in a week because you dominated for a week — but [in] this business, you have to earn it. [In] any mentoring situation, things should be earned.”
The one rookie who has earned a starting role is first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie. In Saturday’s 24-14 victory over the Washington Commanders, he was joined by veterans L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton as the starters in Spagnuolo’s nickel defense — but Fenton’s injury in that game has thrown a wrench into that plan.
The coordinator said that Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson will be the next men up.
“We’re going to have dings, bumps, and bruises along the way,” he said, “and guys are going to have to step up. We might have to move things around depending on how the injuries fall... Right now, Jaylen and Joshua would take the bulk of [Fenton’s] reps.”
When training camp began, Williams was Fenton’s initial replacement while the veteran was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Since then, Watson has made the case to be in that mix, getting some time with the starters in camp — and then impressing during preseason games.
One of the two will earn Fenton’s spot — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a smooth transition. Spagnuolo said that until you see them in real game action, it’s hard to know exactly what you have in a first-year player.
“We’re hopeful in certain areas [that] when we get a certain guy, we get a guy,” he noted, “But I’m always starting from ground zero, building from there and trying to get them from point A to point B. And some of those guys are getting there quicker than others, you know? But that part of it’s never going to stop. You’re more hopeful when you get new guys, in my opinion. In some regards, you never really know what you’re getting.”
The plethora of rookie defenders is certainly exciting for fans who are thinking about their long-term potential, but there might not be immediate results. In fact — regardless of experience — Spagnuolo’s defenses have tended to start seasons more slowly than they finish them.
And in 2022, there will be a lot of lessons to learn from the first stretch of regular-season games.
“You spend the first quarter of the season figuring out what you have, who you are, and what you’re going to do,” explained Spagnuolo. “You can’t figure it all out [when you’re] going through one type of offense — and this is a unique offense that we go through from OTAs to training camp. Then we see some different things along the way and you have some figuring out to do. We have some new guys that we’re not really sure where their strengths and weaknesses are, so we’re trying to figure it out.”
Week 1 is only a few weeks away, but that doesn’t mean the 53-man roster is set in stone. There are still some ongoing position battles — including the group of defensive tackles that have all shown something this preseason.
“That whole group in there is in a pretty good battle, all of those tackles in there,” observed Spagnuolo. “They’ve all shown signs of playing pretty good football... I’m big on block destruction, tearing off blocks, going back to all the basics with guys that are producing. I think all those guys have done a little bit of that.”
Khalen Saunders, Taylor Stallworth and Danny Shelton are all part of that competition. All of them have made their cases to earn a spot on the team when the calendar turns to September.
That’s all their coordinator wants: for players to earn their roles. With all the turnover on this year’s unit, there are many opportunities for individuals to earn their way to playing time — whether they are a veteran or a first-year player.