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Steve Spagnuolo has unique plans for rookie safety Chamarri Conner

Kansas City’s versatile defensive back is quickly earning his way onto the field.

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

When the Kansas City Chiefs selected Virginia Tech defensive back Chamarri Conner in the fourth round April’s NFL Draft, he was announced as a cornerback — but the team officially listed him a safety. Now that we’re in the preseason, Conner is fulfilling a role as the nickel defender: a cornerback.

In Saturday’s 38-10 exhibition victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the rookie entered the game with the starting defense when it went to a formation with five defensive backs. He manned the slot, blitzing twice during his first four snaps. In the first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, Conner earned a sack while blitzing with the second-team unit.

If your head is spinning trying to keep up with Conner’s role in the defense, imagine how he feels. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo admitted that the 23-year old’s metaphorical plate is pretty full.

“We’re force-feeding him a lot of things; he’s in a lot of spots,” Spagnuolo told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “He has kind of earned it — and deserved it — with the way he has played in training camp. I think the veterans have some confidence in him.”

The coordinator has been impressed with Conner’s versatility.

“He has played safety, he has played nickel [and] he has played dime,” he noted. “That’s good to see from a young guy.”

Conner is just the latest of general manager Brett Veach’s Day 3 defensive back picks who have immediately impressed us. Late in last season’s draft, Veach found impact cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson — but neither possesses the versatility to which Spagnuolo was referring.

Conner’s best comparison is from the team’s 2020 draft class, when the team selected another defensive back whose position was not initially clear. L’Jarius Sneed — a safety in college — played cornerback before transitioning to a nickel role later in his rookie season.

Spagnuolo doesn’t usually make it a habit to put so much responsibility on rookies.

“Even back to Trent [McDuffie] a year ago, we didn’t play him at nickel right away,” he told his listeners, “because we wanted him to kind of get settled. Then he got hurt — and he came back — but he didn’t get force-fed [playing the nickel].”

Even in Sneed’s case, an injury during his rookie season played a role in moving him around.

“If I remember correctly,” said Spagnuolo, “he played corner. He got hurt, too. When he came back, we put him in nickel.”

Spagnuolo said that Conner — aside from the veteran Tyrann Mathieu — has been the only defensive back to get so much responsibility right after joining the team.

“Chamarri’s probably been the one guy [who’s done it],” he concluded. “Honey Badger did it when he first got here — but he was a veteran, you know. He played them all.

“It’s a real impressive thing for [Conner] — to have people have [enough] confidence in him that he can play a bunch of different positions.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Conner’s ascension may be as necessary as it is exciting. Sneed is still sidelined with knee swelling — as of Tuesday, he’d missed 13 consecutive practices — and that’s on top of the multiple injuries among reserve defensive backs like Nic Jones and Nazeeh Johnson.

Also on the table is whether Williams or Watson will become the third cornerback when everyone is healthy. Spagnuolo couldn’t provide much clarity on that.

“I don’t know. It goes like that,” he said — while representing a balance scale with his hands. “It went like that today: play-by-play. That’s kind of their M.O. — the two of them kind of battled all last year. We rotated them some — [and] we may still do the same thing — but once we get to the 53-man roster and know who we have (and who is healthy), we’ll put together something for Detroit.”

So in both good and bad ways, the defensive backfield is... unsettled. It appears that the team is just scratching the surface on how Conner can help the secondary — but until some defensive backs can leave their injuries behind, many questions remain unresolved.

But Spagnuolo — a great teacher and play-caller — can lend a hand. If his Kansas City resume tells us anything, he’ll be able to get everything his defensive backs are able to give.

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