Kansas City Chiefs first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie hurt his hamstring in the team’s Week 1 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The injury was serious enough to land him on injured reserve, meaning he will miss at least the next four games of the season.
In the NFL, the next-man-up pecking order does not always necessarily follow the draft order. Look no further than defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo replacing McDuffie with the team’s seventh-round pick out of Washington State: Jaylen Watson. During the Cardinals game, Watson had 33 snaps to fourth-round cornerback Joshua Williams’ 15.
“I thought he did a nice job,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “[That seventh-round] pick doesn’t matter now, right? It’s a matter of how he continues to up his game with the things that he’s seeing there. That’s the important part — and focusing in on the game plan and being able to execute that absolutely (the) best he can. There’s a lot to do when you start getting ready for these things — especially a Thursday night; you don’t have the whole training camp to get ready for it.”
Shortly after Watson entered the game, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury had quarterback Kyler Murray challenge him by throwing to wide receiver A.J. Green down the right sideline.
Using his helmet, Watson registered a pass breakup.
Chiefs rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson, in for Trent McDuffie, registered a PBU against Cardinals wide receiver AJ Green. pic.twitter.com/G5VU43gr8T— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) September 14, 2022
“The coaches did a great job preparing us,” said Watson. “Third down, we knew A.J. was their big third-down guy — especially with single-high — so I knew the ball was coming. I just played the ball, made a play.”
But Watson was so thrilled and caught in the moment that he forgot a key part of making the big play.
“I usually do a celebration,” he said. “I forgot to do my celebration. I just gave my teammates a high-five and went to the sideline.”
Watson said he likes to bow in celebration after a pass breakup or interception... and why is that?
“Giving the fans a show, yup,” he smiled.
Spagnuolo was smiling after the game, too.
“[I] was really happy with how Jaylen went in there and did what he did,” said the defensive coordinator. “They challenged him right away, which is what real good teams do. And he made that play down the sideline, which was good to see.”
Now the attention shifts to Thursday Night Football, when Watson is expected to start outside in the nickel opposite Rashad Fenton, with L’Jarius Sneed on the inside. As a seventh-round pick, he will have no shortage of motivation to prove that he is up to the task.
Watson says that when he awakens on game day, he is ready to take the field immediately. Thus, kickoffs with a 7:15 p.m. start time can prove challenging.
“I try not to come in too early because when I wake up, I just want to play,” said Watson. “There’s nothing like when you wake up and it’s game day. We got to be at the stadium two hours before kickoff, so I’ll try to come as late as possible, so I don’t have to sit around and just wait.”
Watson explained that the Chiefs have a morning meeting, then he will pass the time until it’s time to head to Arrowhead around 5.
“Then I’ll listen to music, stretch, then go out and warm up — and it’s kickoff.”
Watson will take the field on the first defensive drive next to safety Justin Reid and the other members of the Chiefs defense. Reid has watched Watson closely during the offseason and training camp — and what he has viewed is a player who is up for the challenge.
“[I’ve seen] the growth that he’s had [since] when he first came in,” began Reid, “picking up on the defense, which really is not an easy defense to pick up on — because mentally, we throw a lot at these guys. Myself being [a] veteran, I’ve seen some defenses — and I even have to take a couple hours a day to study my playbook. What I’ve seen is how well the rookies as a whole — safeties, cornerbacks — have taken to the playbook. And when they really got the hang of it, their confidence has grown. [It] really allowed their natural abilities to show.
“Jaylen has things you can’t coach: he’s a long corner [and] he has a physical mindset. He’ll come up in run support, he’ll make tackles — and you’ve seen that growth throughout training camp, so he’s going to step in there and be fine.”
As the Chiefs take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night, watch out for No. 35, who is likely to be tested by quarterback Justin Herbert early and often. Even though Sunday’s opportunity came as a bit of a surprise, Watson succeeded even as he was thrown into the fire.
This time, he’ll be in early, ready for the opportunity and cognizant of the moment — bow and all.