In the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s background as a defensive backs coach is evident. The unit relies on unpredictable coverage in the back end and those same secondary players being able to make plays around the line of scrimmage.
It’s a lot to ask of each individual, yet the Chiefs’ defense has flourished this season, still relying on youth in the secondary. That tracks to defensive backs coach Dave Merritt, who has had a hand in developing many talented players over his five seasons in Kansas City.
That includes rookie safety Chamarri Conner, who set a career-high for defensive snaps in each of the last two games. The injury to starting safety Bryan Cook forced a step up, but Conner was already playing a vital role in the unit. Merritt explained that on Friday during his press conference.
“He is a young man who has been playing multiple roles for us,” Merrit said of Conner. “I’m talking safety, free and strong. Nickel, Dime, he is probably the only rookie that I have ever had that has played four different positions... he is a super-smart young man. Quiet, but he has some bite to him. He is developing and growing where we would like for him to grow.”
Merrit’s status update on the rookie came after an anecdote about Conner being confronted by Merrit for mumbling under his breath. When asked to say it again, Conner repeated it louder rather than shying away from the confrontation.
The coach looked at that interaction with the soft-spoken Conner as a positive, and it likely helped build their relationship. Now Conner is playing so well, Merrit felt comfortable sharing his first-impression thoughts of the fourth-round draft pick from Virginia Tech.
“In OTAs, I was like, ‘This guys stinks. He can’t go in the slot,’” Merrit recalled with a laugh. “Then all the sudden, he just started climbing. I think it was once we started putting him in the game, he started feeling comfortable in the first part of the preseason games. Then you started seeing he had some explosiveness, he had some movement skills that can be used, so let’s see if we can use this.”
Conner’s early development may remind some of cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who is now four seasons into an ascending career. Despite playing different positions, Merrit found some connection between the two teammates in their early years.
“He came in here another quiet man,” Merrit remembered with Sneed. “Who was struggling to learn the system, where we had him playing the slot when he first got here because we had [Charvarius] Ward and [Bashaud] Breeland outside.”
“He has taken leaps and bounds the past year and a half, maybe the past two years that Spags and I thought he would take,” Merrit continued. “But this year, he is taking it up even another level. In my opinion, he is probably the best press cornerback in the league.”
“His ceiling is still so far ahead of him, and he has so much room to grow when it comes to zone coverages and things of that nature. He is doing a fantastic job.”
As a draft prospect, Sneed was considered a safety because he played that position during his final season at Louisana Tech. According to Merrit, it’s where the coaching staff picked up on Sneed’s physicality as a tackler.
However, Merrit believes one of Sneed’s most impressive traits is one you can’t see when you turn on the tape.
“What I didn’t see was his ability to be ready to bounce back from adversity,” Merrit reflected. “A lot of guys over the decades, if they get beat, they would go into a shell, and you have to help them out to bring them back out... LJ doesn’t do that. LJ bounces back right away. You make a catch on him, he gets pissed off. He is ready to now go back and challenge you again, to show everyone that it won’t happen again. His ability to bounce back is uncanny, and I haven’t had a guy like him.”
The development of a starter is only part of the process it takes to have the best 11 players on a field for a given Sunday. The Chiefs have also had a track record of not allowing injuries to affect the success of the team. Backup players seem well prepared, and Merrit says that isn’t by accident.
“The beautiful thing that we do here is we have walkthroughs, and we have two separate groups that are going at the same time,” Merrit explained. “A lot of times, when I’ve gone to places, you just have one walkthrough, and the backups are just sitting there watching. We don’t do that here. We have everyone working... it has allowed the next man to step up... having those two separate walkthroughs allow us to get more done, and backups are always preparing in practice.”
Details like that make the Chiefs a perennial contender, and coaches like Merrit are why the Chiefs can continue contending when talented players move on.
Whether it’s short-term development like Conner, or long-term development like Sneed, Merrit has been a critical part of the Chiefs’ defense progressing to this point.