When Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt spoke to the media before practice on Thursday, the reporters’ preferred topic was (unsurprisingly) rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson. A week removed from Watson’s game-changing 99-yard interception return in last Thursday’s 27-24 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, Merritt had plenty to say about the reigning AFC defensive player of the week.
“I’ll tell you: I was so proud of him,” Merritt boasted, “and at the same time, I know how hard the young man has worked. And to be able to step in there as a seventh-round pick and step in for [injured Chiefs cornerback] Trent McDuffie and be able to make that play for us? I was thrilled like a father watching his son return something in Pop Warner football. So it was awesome seeing it.”
Merritt shared when he realized what he might have in the young defensive back.
“We were practicing in the indoor stadium up at training camp,” he recalled. “Just one day, I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to throw him out with the ones — and see if he can go and hold his own.’ I threw him [in] at left corner. He got in a fight. That’s when I knew that, ‘OK, he may have a little something.’
“Then he covered another guy — and [then] he covered another guy and made two plays on the ball. At that point in time, I knew that this kid had no fear in him. So that helped him out as far as where we’re sitting today.”
Watson’s moment to hold his own came earlier than anyone expected. coming after McDuffie — a more heralded first-round rookie cornerback — injured his hamstring in the season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. Merritt said he is impressed with the quality of opposition Watson has faced early in his career.
His first opportunity came against Cardinals wide receiver A.J. Green — a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who was also twice named a second-team All Pro. Merritt said that against Green, Watson demonstrated the techniques he had been taught during the week.
“Being able to go against A.J. Green — who possibly can be a Hall of Famer?” marveled the coach. “And to make that play? It was great to see.
“Last week, of course, playing [Chargers WR] Mike Williams, he used the same technique. Mike had some great catches on not only this young man Jaylen, but also caught one on L.J. [Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed]. But the fact that [Watson is] executing the technique the way I ask him to play is very promising for him.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also discussed Watson’s now-legendary moment on Wednesday. The coordinator made certain to credit all of the moving parts on defense that made the play possible — particularly the play of linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and the communication between Watson and safety Justin Reid.
“I was fired up about that,” Spagnuolo declared. “Willie made a really good play on that — if you see him, he beats the back and he kind of gets in the sight line of the quarterback — which helped.
“And then for Jaylen to react the way he did. They went fast — no huddle. We always get accused of not being ready. I would say we were ready on that one. Part of it was what Justin Reid and Jaylen did in talking and communicating together. And Willie coming, forcing the quarterback to be off a little bit and get a big play. It was huge.”
Throughout his tenure running NFL defenses, rookies have had a notoriously difficult time earning Spagnuolo’s trust. The coach explained that the 243rd selection of the 2022 NFL Draft has followed the same path as anyone else has to get on the field: by earning it with his play.
“I’ve talked about this before,” Spagnuolo explained. “You’ve got to earn where you are. I think you all asked me about that. You all accused me about not playing rookies. You got to earn it, right? And he earned it... he earned it. He played good for us last week.”