During the 2022 offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs made a concerted effort to rebuild their secondary, replacing Tyrann Mathieu with former Houston Texans safety Justin Reid — and then in the NFL Draft, adding five young, cost-controlled defensive backs: Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson.
The moves were wildly successful. With the exception of Johnson, all of the rookies made significant contributions to the team’s Super Bowl championship. McDuffie looked like a budding star, Williams and Watson held down the second outside cornerback spot and Cook had an incredible postseason.
Now we see the other benefit from these moves: being able to build around them for years to come. With the exception of safety Juan Thornhill, every one of last year’s defensive backs is returning for 2023. Meanwhile, Kansas City has added veteran safety Mike Edwards and drafted defensive backs Chamarri Conner and Nic Jones.
What roles can we expect these players to fill in 2023?
Starting cornerbacks: L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie
When Kansas City is in its 4-3 base defense, the outside cornerbacks will be Sneed and McDuffie. This is how the Chiefs had the cornerbacks arranged when McDuffie returned from last season’s hamstring injury; it’s not likely to change this year.
Starting safeties: Justin Reid and Bryan Cook
While Reid started slowly last year, his play improved during the last part of the season. He spent more time in man coverage against tight ends — and played with more overall force. I expect him to begin 2023 as he finished 2022.
With Thornhill gone, Cook — in whom I am a huge believer — will become a full-time starting safety. His excellent postseason performances clearly show where he’s headed. His tackling ability, range and ball skills all flashed in the playoffs; I’m expecting all of that to continue in his larger role.
But the best thing about these two players is that they are interchangeable. Since both can play from range or in run fits, the Chiefs don’t have to give anything away in their play-calling. This is in contrast to last year, when Thornhill couldn’t be inserted into a run fit.
Nickel defensive back: Jaylen Watson or Joshua Williams
When the Chiefs go into their nickel defense, McDuffie will kick inside to slot cornerback — while either Williams or Watson will replace him on the outside. This is what Kansas City did during the postseason’s stretch run — and I expect no changes.
While I think Watson is a better player, we should expect the two of them to rotate. Which one sees the field in a given moment is likely to depend on which one of them is playing better or has a better matchup. Watson is a better zone defender and has better ball skills, while Williams has more speed — which will give him the edge in certain matchups.
Dime defensive back: Mike Edwards
When Edwards signed with the Chiefs, I immediately thought this jack-of-all-trades player would be an excellent dime safety. His value to Kansas City is that he can do anything. He can play the robber zones underneath and fly to the football. He’s a fantastic blitzer — which is something the Chiefs will have him do regularly. He’s also versatile enough to bail to a deep zone so that either Cook or Reid can take a turn as a blitzer — which is something we saw safety Daniel Sorensen do for years.
Edwards has a long injury history, so managing his snaps will be important — but I’m excited to see how he plays this season.
Chamarri Conner: backup dime defensive back
While Conner’s main value during his rookie year will be on special teams, I think he’ll eventually be taking Edwards’ role. The oft-injured 27-year-old veteran is on a one-year contract, so getting insurance (and a long-term replacement) was critical. Conner can provide that. While he doesn’t yet possess Edwards’ instincts or awareness, he’s a better athlete who has a ton of potential as a blitzer.
Special Teams/Backups: Deon Bush, Nazeeh Johnson and Nic Jones
We don’t know how many defensive backs Kansas City will keep. It now looks like four cornerbacks and four safeties are locked into roster spots, leaving only one or two places available. Bush, Johnson, and Jones can all present cases to make the team.
Bush has the experience to step in on defense if a safety is injured, but can also provide good special-teams play. A supremely talented athlete, Johnson is a second-year player the Chiefs hope to develop. Jones — a rookie — brings a lot of special teams experience to the room and has outside cornerback potential.
My guess is that Kansas City will go with Bush and Jones. If Conner isn’t ready to play defense right away, the team will need additional insurance if Edwards is injured. Bush can provide that. Jones has more potential as an outside cornerback, which will be critical in the event of an injury there. While Johnson could make another team, I think there’s a good chance the Chiefs could sneak him onto their practice squad.