At the cornerback position for the Kansas City Chiefs, the theme of this offseason was, “Ask and you shall receive — just a long time after you asked for it.”
For years, fans and analysts have been noting the team’s habitual lack of long-term investment in its cornerbacks. Instead, Kansas City has tended to rely on rookies and veterans on one-year deals.
There still isn’t a big contract in the position group — but in 2022, the Chiefs have attacked the room with numbers, selecting four cornerbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft: Washington’s Trent McDuffie in the first round, Fayetteville State’s Joshua Williams in the fourth and Washington State’s Jaylen Watson in the seventh. Another seventh-round pick — Nazeeh Johnson — was listed as a safety at Marshall, but has been practicing as an outside cornerback in training camp.
With that much youth, it’s important to get a good look at all of them — which means rotating them in and out of certain lineups. That’s one thing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo emphasized to reporters following Thursday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.
“[I want to] make sure that they’re all aware nothing is won right now,” he said. “Nothing is carved in stone right now in terms of who is playing where and what.”
That’s important to understand before noting one of this week’s biggest training camp takeaways: that Watson has been running with the first-team defense, playing the third cornerback position with McDuffie and third-year corner L’Jarius Sneed.
This doesn’t mean Watson is now a starter, but it has given Spagnuolo a better look at the seventh-rounder’s skillset.
“At any position, when you’re playing with the third group and all of those guys are young, it doesn’t go off quite as smooth,” explained the coordinator. “So sometimes, you put [him] with the first group to see how he functions, when everybody is functioning fast... that’s a reason why we put Jaylen up there a little bit.
“I thought he’s had two really good practices... He has come along. He was kind of a slow mover early, but he’s figuring out that doesn’t really work at this level. We have to practice everything fast.”
The speed of the game is something every to which every first-year player must adjust — which is why it was so impressive to see fourth-rounder Williams open camp as the third cornerback in the starting defense.
Among these rookies, he has the biggest leap to make, transitioning from defending Division II receivers to NFL playmakers like Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Spagnuolo shared that one of the ways Williams has impressed him is with his coachability.
“[Defensive backs coach] Dave Merrit and I both like the way he presses at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “He has really bought into the technique we use; it’s not comfortable for everybody... He’s trying to do things exactly the way we ask him — and if he keeps doing that, he’ll get better and better.”
The excitement for Williams’ potential has somewhat overshadowed McDuffie’s camp performances. While he doesn’t have the same length and size that Williams and Watson have, there’s a reason he was taken in the first round.
“I think he has done an outstanding job,” declared Spagnuolo. “We’ll probably move him around, too — but we need to get him settled in a spot eventually. I think he’s competed really well with a bunch of really good, veteran wideouts we have. The thing I like about Trent is when it hasn’t gone great for him, he’s not one of those guys that sticks his head in the sand. He bounces right back up. That’s a good quality.”
The opportunities are available for these young corners because of an unfortunate injury to last season’s returning starter Rashad Fenton, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery. During his three seasons in Kansas City, the sixth-round pick has played well enough to get his job back in 2022.
But that isn’t how the NFL works. Now in the last season of his rookie deal, he’ll have to once again earn that starting role when he returns to the field. Spagnuolo is ready to see him in that mix.
“He’s going to get right in there and compete with that same group,” he said. “He’s played some good football for us — especially on the outside. We just want to get him healthy and get him back out there; I’m anxious to get him back out there and rolling. I’m looking forward to it.”
If Fenton does return to the level of play we saw from him last season, it gives the Chiefs a very solid trio of starters — and a group of rookies who will have had the experience of working with the first team throughout training camp.
Either way, 2022’s cornerback depth is strong, (finally) indicating a positive long-term outlook at the position.