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Steve Spagnuolo on second-year defensive backs: ‘They’re lightyears ahead’

The Chiefs’ young secondary is building off of the memorable rookie season they put together.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Coming up in the football-coaching world, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was usually working with defensive backs at his various stops. Whether it was Rutgers, Bowling Green or the Philadelphia Eagles, Spagnuolo’s path to his current role was paved by his work in the back seven of a defense.

That is bearing out with the Chiefs’ defense, a unit that depended on four rookie defensive backs last year on their way to a Super Bowl title. Spagnuolo’s trust in cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and safety Bryan Cook wasn’t truly justified until the AFC Championship — when all four helped step up for an injured L’Jarius Sneed.

Their in-season development naturally places high expectations on them for their sophomore season, and Spagnuolo didn’t do anything to slow that train down when he talked with reporters on Thursday.

He was asked about any growth from the four second-year defensive backs at these early stages of the offseason.

“I sat with them a week ago — they’re lightyears ahead,” Spagnuolo praised. “They feel it, and it’s different, and they’re confident... and I’m including Justin Reid in that; even though he’s a veteran, the system was new. Those guys, from a verbal standpoint, they’re gelling.”

That quote also comes after shouting out second-year player Nazeeh Johnson, who Spagnuolo described as “doing a great job.” Johnson also received praise from special teams coordinator Dave Toub on Thursday.

A step in development from these players would obviously be huge — but especially Bryan Cook, the one player of the four that will be forced to step into a more significant role than they had last year. Juan Thornhill signed with the Cleveland Browns, and the team isn’t beating around the bush about Cook stepping in as the direct replacement.

The second-round pick from last year was quiet in his on-field contribution as a rookie, but that might have been the only quiet part about him last season.

“Bryan is one of those guys; he’s a bold, vocal guy,” Spagnuolo explained. “Even last year, even though he was the third safety only playing in Dime, I was impressed with how bold he was. Some of these guys come in, and they’re in a position where they have to communicate, and they don’t want to make a mistake. They whisper, no one can hear them. The guys that will blurt it out loud and proud, whether they’re wrong or right, I like those guys. Cook was like that last year, and he’s kind of carried that into this year.”

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Cook’s vocal leadership will be important not only for the defense in general but also for the rookies he will share a position room with. Kansas City drafted two more defensive backs in the 2023 NFL Draft, not to mention a handful of undrafted free agents that could compete for a spot.

The highest pick of the group is fourth-round selection Chamarri Conner, a safety that stood out in Thursday’s practice, according to Spagnuolo.

“We’ve had Chamarri out there, slowly progressing,” Spagnuolo described. “He made a really big play today. Nic Jones, he’s playing some Nickel for us. He has done some good things coming from a smaller school, Ball State.”

The slow progression that Spagnuolo alludes to is natural, something that every wave of rookie players will go through. He typically throws a lot of the playbook at his players right now, then focuses it and narrows down the scheme as the season gets closer.

The veteran coach believes a practice like Thursday’s could be a minor turning point early in Conner’s career.

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“When it typically smooths out is when they make that first really good play; it gives them a little bit of confidence,” Spagnuolo preached. “I saw Chamarri make that today, I’m hoping that translates to him having a little more confidence. More than anything coming in here, gaining confidence is huge.”

As for Nic Jones, playing him in the slot could be a sneakily make himself valuable when it comes to cutdown day. The Chiefs have two players they feel good about manning the slot, but both can also play on the perimeter; Spagnuolo is seeking another player with the inside capability.

“I think that we would never give up on having Trent and [L’Jarius Sneed] ready to play in there,” Spagnuolo noted. “I’d love for another guy to surface so that when we want to keep [L’Jarius] and Trent on the outside, somebody can go in there. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know. If that doesn’t happen, then one of those two will be in there, and a little bit of it will be dependent on who we’re playing... We’re trying to find another one.”

Spagnuolo became well known for his ability to pressure quarterback Tom Brady with just four pass rushers, but his coaching resume was built by his work in the secondary. After winning with veterans to start his run in Kansas City, the development of young defensive backs has been phenomenal — and that starts with the head of the unit.

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