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Training camp notebook: Chiefs feeling good about the back end of the defense

It’s another year for McDuffie, Watson, Williams and Cook.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Early in its training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, the Kansas City Chiefs were missing critical pieces in its defensive line. Chris Jones was (and still is) amid a contract holdout, Turk Wharton started on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and Mike Danna suffered an early-camp calf injury.

In recent days, Wharton and Danna have returned to the field, but the front will still need reps to meet the level of play the rest of the defense has reached — particularly at the back end, where the Chiefs return nearly every starter from last season.

The second year in the system for players such as Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson means greater hopes for their 2023 production.

“The expectations for the guys that have been here is that they would take this thing up a notch and wouldn’t make those same mistakes they made last year at this time,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Tuesday. “For the most part, that has happened, but there have been some guys where focus wasn’t great — and I look at [them], and I say, ‘You made that same mistake last year. You shouldn’t be making that now.’ That’s that group. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good.”

The expected starters at cornerback are McDuffie (in the nickel), L’Jarius Sneed and Watson, with Williams earning looks in Watson’s role depending on the game and situation. Watson and Williams gained top-team reps together the past two days, with Sneed continuing to be sidelined with knee swelling.

“At times, it’s up and down, but [Watson and Williams are] lightyears ahead of where they were last year — so that part’s good,” said Spagnuolo. “In the midst of training camp, everybody has an off play here or there, but the expectations for them are so much higher now than they were a year ago — and we try to keep that expectation up high.”

McDuffie, Watson, Williams, cornerback Nazeeh Johnson and safety Bryan Cook make up the “Fab Five,” a nickname given to the quintet by defensive backs coach Dave Merrit during training camp last year. The five defensive backs were each selected by Kansas City during the 2023 NFL Draft.

Of the five, McDuffie has proven to be an excellent first-round selection. Johnson’s season, however, has ended following an ACL injury. The other three, including Watson, are expected to take the next step in 2023.

Having gone through a 20-game season (including the playoffs) helps.

“Everything just slows down in the process, just seems a lot slower than it did last year,” said Watson. “Everything’s happening so fast in the offense, moving so fast. Now that I know what I’m doing and the guys I’m playing next to, I can move more fast and be more comfortable.”

A key cog in the performance of the unit as a whole will be the performance of Cook, who goes from being a backup behind established veteran Juan Thornhill to being the guy. To Spagnuolo, it’s been so far, so good in what he has seen in Cook.

“Bryan’s really got to become the quarterback of the defense — him and Nick [Bolton] — especially the quarterback on the back end,” he said. “One good thing about Bryan is he’s always looking for feedback. He came the other day wanting to do some more drills. That’s one thing that he’s got. We saw that when we were looking at him out of Cincinnati. He’s working, loves football, [is] passionate about football — and we’re banking on him in that regard.”

As safety Justin Reid spends time in the box or defending the slot, it will now be the 23-year-old Cook setting up the defense and making the calls. Now that Thornhill has moved on to the Cleveland Browns, several players have complimented Cook on his enthusiasm as the new starter.

“Bryan’s always been a person who has always been in the playbook, knows what he’s doing back there,” said Watson. “He stayed loud and confident last year behind Juan as well, so we knew if he went down, Cook would be the next man ready. He’s just continued to do that this year. He’s been a leader putting us in the right positions, and he’s doing a great job.”

Cook weighed in on his broadened role when he spoke to the media in late July.

“At the end of the day, [in] the position of safety, my object is to get everyone lined up and ready to play,” said Cook. “Honestly speaking, I’m the last line of defense, so if I’m confused back there, and I don’t know what’s going on that’s a very big problem — especially for the guys in front of me. So my objective is to be as confident — be as ready — as I can be. That way, the 10 (or the nine) that’s in front of me — because I know we got J. Reid next to me — [can] be playing as fast as we possibly can.”

Spagnuolo added that the primary goal of Kansas City’s first preseason game on Sunday will be sound tackling. If the goal is not met, the defense will be back to the basics next Tuesday.

Having been around the block once, the defensive backs earning the top reps are well aware of the drill.


You can find my complete observations from Tuesday’s practice here.

Post-practice chat and press conferences

If you can’t see the above (Apple iTunes) embed, click here. The press conference is also available on Spotify.

Injury report

  • Did not practice (due to injury): RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (sick), TE Jody Fortson (right shoulder injured on 7/28), CB L’Jarius Sneed (knee swelling on 7/31), WR Kadarius Toney (knee injured on 7/23)
  • Limited: RB Isiah Pacheco (hand, labrum)
  • Returned to practice: WR Cornell Powell

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Tuesday’s tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

Good eyeballs on friend-of-the-site Matt Derrick.

Quote of the day

Linebacker Nick Bolton on whether he is ready to hit someone in a game: “Yes, ma’am. It’s been long overdue.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs return to the field on Wednesday morning for their 15th full-team training camp practice. It is a “Season Ticket Member Day,” which is not open to the public.

The workout begins at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time, and it leads into a day off on Thursday. Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy will address the media following the practice as the entire team signs autographs. Here’s the complete 2023 training camp schedule.

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