When Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt addressed the media from the team’s training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph a year ago, his remarks focused heavily on the progress of five then-rookie defensive backs selected in the 2022 NFL Draft: cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson — and safety Bryan Cook.
All five played important roles in delivering Kansas City its second Super Bowl in four years. But when Merritt returned to the podium in St. Joseph after Wednesday’s practice, the biggest question appeared to be whether Williams or Watson will emerge as the better third-cornerback option to complement McDuffie and fellow starter L’Jarius Sneed.
“I hope one of the guys steps up and takes the job,” said Merritt. “Until the consistency is shown on a day-to-day basis — which is one of the things the young guys have to learn in the NFL: every day you step on the field, you have to prove you belong.
“Until one of them steps up and takes the job, we will continue to rotate them. Hopefully, that will iron itself out over the next two weeks.”
The Chiefs, however, might need Williams and Watson to step up simultaneously — because Sneed missed his 11th consecutive practice as camp closed on Thursday. But Merritt did not appear concerned about the fourth-year player’s availability or readiness.
“He’s been in every meeting,” the coach said of the Louisiana Tech product. “Sneed has done a great job of being in every meeting [and] every walkthrough we have. Mentally, he’s staying involved. He’s staying on top of what the calls are and what the scheme is telling him that he’s going to have to do when he comes back.”
While Watson and Williams continue to sort out their respective roles, there are no questions regarding where McDuffie and Cook will play this season.
McDuffie will be a starting cornerback. Merritt is high on his ability both to play outside and cover the slot.
“Trent is a smart, smooth athlete,” he observed. “[McDuffie’s] a guy who is not a repeat offender — so, if Trent makes a mistake once, it’s not too often that he’s going to have that same mistake that’s going to show up. That’s just one of the things that Trent brings to the table: the fact that he’s able to comprehend what you’re trying to teach and then go out and actually perform it.
“I like where he is. He’s playing a lot outside as well. He’s progressing the way I would like to see him progress.”
Cook appears to have made significant strides in the mental aspect of being an NFL safety.
“Cook has done a great job,” Merritt declared. “He’s a vocal guy — a high-energy guy. One of the things that we’ve been working on [with him] is basically understanding splits and formations — and understanding that as a post safety [or] as a strong safety, [that when you’re] in the center of the field, you have to make sure you and the quarterback are battling one another... He’s gradually getting there; he’s doing a good job.”
Although they do not carry the weighty expectations of last year’s group, the Chiefs also have a number of intriguing rookie defensive backs to sort through between now and the August 30 roster cutdown. Merritt is high on 2023 draft selections Charmarri Conner and Nic Jones — along with undrafted free agents Ekow Boye-Doe and Kahlef Hailassie. Now that Johnson has been lost for the season after tearing his ACL early in camp, one of the rookies could find an opportunity.
“Chamarri? He has done a great job,” said Merritt. “We’re using him in a couple of different spots — whether it’s nickel, whether its dime, whether it’s safety. So he’s done a great job.
“Then, of course, Nic Jones came in. He’s a quick-twitch athlete — [and] has done a good job for us as well, playing in the slot. This new group is stepping up.
“Ekow [is a] young guy that’s outside out of [Kansas State]. Kahlef — another young guy that’s outside — he’s doing a great job.
“[There’s] fresh blood is in the room — so it’s been good.”