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Playoff X-Factors: Jaylen Watson regains starting role at cornerback

As Kansas City prepares for the postseason, the rookie seventh-round pick is under a lot of pressure.

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Who will be the Kansas City Chiefs’ third cornerback alongside L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie during the postseason? Your guess might be as good as mine.

Seventh-round rookie Jaylen Watson was unexpectedly thrust into a starting role after first-round pick Trent McDuffie suffered a hamstring injury in Week 1; during the six games McDuffie missed, Watson got most of the work. But since McDuffie’s return from injured reserve on November 1, the other rookie cornerback — fourth-rounder Joshua Williams — had been in for 52% of the snaps, while Watson had just 29%.

That, however, ended on Saturday. During the team’s 31-13 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, Williams had no defensive snaps, while Watson played outside as the third corner — mostly when McDuffie was lining up in the slot. That has been another recent change in the secondary. Up until three weeks ago, L’Jarius Sneed fulfilled that role. But now that Sneed is being used more often against an opponent’s best wideout, McDuffie is the one who sometimes moves inside.

While we can always be surprised by what Kansas City does in its secondary, it now looks like Watson will be the third corner in the postseason.

What has he shown on film to provide hope, worry or calm? Let’s see.

Film review

With a full regular season behind us, one thing seems abundantly clear: Watson is a more of a zone defender, while Williams’ physical presence makes him a better option in man coverage.

That’s tricky for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (and defensive backs coach Dave Merritt) to navigate. It’s not like the team can restrict itself to man coverage when Williams is on the field — or zone coverage when Watson is out there.

Several times on Saturday, Watson used a two-handed press jam technique at the line of scrimmage. Watson’s coaches are fine with this; otherwise, he wouldn’t be on the field. It’s likely the coaches believe that if Watson lands his punch, it will disrupt the wide receiver’s timing enough to make up for any man coverage deficiencies Watson might have.

But what if Watson misses with that aggressive jam? Unless there is safety help directly behind him, there’s a risk Watson could give up a big play. It’s also possible that this is a way to help prevent holding and pass interference penalties later in the rep. While it’s hard to be certain why he sometimes plays like this at the line, it does outline Watson’s biggest weakness: covering skilled wide receivers in man coverage.

On the other hand, when Watson can play simple zone coverages that allow him to be physical (with limited risk) at the line of scrimmage — while keeping his eyes on the quarterback — his strengths shine. He displays a strong feel for where to sit and drift within his zone to take targets away from the quarterback.

It appears that on the whole, the entire secondary operates more smoothly in these zone coverages. Starting safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill now have a good bead on what this defensive scheme expects from them — and while playing zone, there are fewer opportunities for penalties to be called in the secondary.

But a zone-heavy approach also requires the defensive line to consistently dominate their pass-rushing matchups. In recent weeks, the defensive line has played better — but it will be up to Spagnuolo to find the right balance in his play-calls against specific postseason opponents.

Watson — like all Kansas City’s rookie defensive backs have proven in 2022 — is a competitor who won’t shy away from battles.

Even against some of the best route-runners (and matchup problems) the league has to offer, Watson hasn’t gone down without a fight. Twice this season, he’s shown poise by the goal line. The first was against the Chargers in September, when he returned a game-winning pick-six the length of the field. Then on Saturday, he closed out a turnover on downs with a huge pass breakup.

The bottom line

It’s really difficult to have a true feel for what Spagnuolo and Merritt have planned for their secondary in the playoffs. There have been games this season when Watson played 100% of the snaps — along with games he barely touched the field while Williams got most of the playing time.

But one thing is clear: Sneed and McDuffie’s value cannot be overstated. This comes not only from their skills, but also the positional versatility they offer. They both have physical and mental traits that make them matchup solutions against many opponents. The defense needs these two guys to be at their best.

But it’s also true that whether it ends up being Watson, Williams or a rotation of the two, the third cornerback will need to be adequate during the playoffs. Since these are rookies going into their first postseason, we shouldn’t have our expectations set very high. But if these young players can provide a steady presence without committing a flurry of penalties, they will have fulfilled fair expectations.

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