The youthful defense of the Kansas City Chiefs has been a major talking point throughout the entire season, so it's no surprise that as the team prepares for the Super Bowl, the "rookies who are no longer rookies" are getting their due recognition.
On Friday, seventh-round cornerback Jaylen Watson was asked about the first-year players shining in the most significant spots. He had two words for the media.
Those in the room laughed.
"It's a great feeling playing at the biggest stage our first year," added Watson. "But…this [is] what we all dreamed of since we were kids. We just take it one play at a time, don't get too high. Don't get too low."
Fellow rookie and the Chiefs 2022 first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie says that the tone was set during preseason organized team activities (OTAs) and has led to the "brotherhood" amongst the defensive rookies.
"I remember in OTAs there were so many days where at the end of the night, it was just all the rookies together," began McDuffie, "just going over and over and over [the] playbook, playbook language, cause to us it was all new, it was difficult, you know [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] playbook."
"I feel like it really just talks about just the character that all these guys have. Everybody kind of came in with the same mindset that you don't really get all the time. It was just like, 'You know what, we're here together, so let's go do this together,' and shoot, it's been working out really great for us."
According to McDuffie, the rookies took it upon themselves to organize those post-OTA meetups where they would discuss that day's practice, adding that players from all defensive positions collectively agreed to the meetings.
"Linebackers, D-line, DBs just coming together and being like, 'We gotta learn this before practice tomorrow, because practice was hectic [because] nobody knew what we were doing,' so we were like we gotta come together and figure this out before we go out there so we can actually do something for the team."
Watson said that the rookies have benefitted from being thrown into some critical moments of the game, especially if an injury occurs.
"All the rookies [have] been thrown into the fire pretty early in the season," he said. "The game is a lot slower to us; we've developed a lot [and] we've learned the playbook [and are] moving a lot faster."
Spagnuolo says that the team "didn't really know what to expect" out of this defensive rookie class and praises what McDuffie has accomplished despite his injury in Week 1.
"When you draft somebody in the first round… there's some higher expectations there," Spagnuolo acknowledged. "I feel like Trent has met them in what he's done, and we know he was out for a long stretch too…I always think that's pretty impressive – when you miss that much time as a rookie, and then you can get back in the swing of things."
Spagnuolo credits Chiefs general manager Brett Veach for his foresight into what has led to a successful first year for much of the starting secondary. Once the rookies were signed to their contracts, it was up to defensive backs coach Dave Merritt and safeties coach Donald D'Alesio to develop and mold the young talent.
"The other guys were a little bit unknown although what we liked about them and what Brett identified was the length and some speed and some traits," praised Spagnuolo. "I think the coaches have done — Dave Merritt and Donald have done a great job with those guys to get them ready to play, and so have the players. I mean they embraced it."
McDuffie says that the close relationship between veteran and rookie played a significant role in getting the team to where they are at the end of the year — the Chiefs are headed to their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
"Everybody also does a good job of just teaching each other, communicating," explained McDuffie. "A lot of the rookies asked a lot of questions to the vets and the coaches, and I feel like that really helped just overall development of the game."