Youth is serving Chiefs in their secondary
With four rookie defensive backs in Super Bowl 57, one would believe the Kansas City Chiefs have concerns. Instead, the youngsters have become a strength.
George Bernard Shaw once said youth is wasted on the young.
Shaw never got to watch the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs secondary.
Last offseason, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach took a wrecking ball to his secondary. He watched safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Dan Sorensen leave in free agency. Despite wanting to retain cornerback Charvarius Ward, Kansas City lost his services to the San Francisco 49ers.
In response to these departures, the Chiefs signed safety Justin Reid to a three-year, $30 million deal. Then Veach did nothing until the draft.
On those three days in April, Veach and his team got busy.
Using additional draft capital acquired in the deal sending star receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, the Chiefs traded up eight spots from No. 29 overall, selecting University of Washington corner Trent McDuffie. With his second pick of the second round, Veach again targeted the secondary, plucking strong safety Bryan Cook out of Cincinnati with the 62nd overall choice.
On Day 3, two more additions. Joshua Williams from Fayetteville State with pick No. 135. Then, in the seventh round, Veach used a choice initially owned by the rival Las Vegas Raiders to choose Washington State’s Jaylen Watson.
Exiting the draft, Kansas City believed it had an immediate starter in McDuffie, a rotational third safety in Cook, and a pair of developmental corners in Williams and Watson.
Instead, the Chiefs ended up finding four impact players as rookies. They’re the first team to arrive at the Super Bowl with four rookie defensive backs since the 1981 Niners, who rolled out safeties Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson, and corners Lynn Thomas and Eric Wright.
For Kansas City, the belief was its quartet of rookies would see time. But nobody saw this coming.
“It’s fair to say that,” Veach said. “I think we all high aspirations for Trent just given his background and obviously where he was drafted, we felt good about him. But the young guys, really since back in rookie minicamp and OTAs, they’ve done a tremendous job. That’s a huge tip of the cap to our coaching staff. … They’re playing their best ball when it matters most, and hopefully they’ve got one more game to show they can take this thing from start to finish.”
All told, the Kansas City rooks — or first-year vets as their coaches call them — have played a combined 2,415 snaps through Championship Sunday, led by McDuffie’s 808. Additionally, Cook, Williams and Watson have all been key special teams contributors, playing on coverage and return units.
While all four have been crucial in getting the Chiefs to their third Super Bowl in four years, the conversation must start with McDuffie.
After injuring his hamstring in Week 1 at Arizona, McDuffie missed the next seven games before returning in Week 10 against the Tennessee Titans. Since then, he’s seldom come off the field.
In the 12 games since McDuffie’s return, the Chiefs have played 730 defensive snaps. The first-rounder has played all but eight of them.
“That was my whole goal coming back,” McDuffie said. “… For me, it was making sure these vets understand that I’m here, and I’m here to help you.”
McDuffie’s presence has given coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ample freedom. With both L’Jarius Sneed and McDuffie able and willing to play both outside and in the nickel, the Chiefs can dictate matchups, playing both on the boundary in base, while playing one in the slot and one on the perimeter when in sub packages.
The results have been stark in contrast, as noted in Monday’s Stacking The Box column.
Without McDuffie, Kansas City allowed 313.3 passing yards and 25.1 points per game, 7.4 yards per attempt, and an average QBR of 61.5.
With McDuffie in the lineup, those numbers plummet to 211.6 passing yards and 19.8 points per game allowed, 6.1 yards per attempt, and an average QBR of 50.9.
But Kansas City’s successful youth movement in the defensive backfield is also about a burgeoning brotherhood.
Williams says most of their bonding time away from the field has been lounging at one another’s houses, occasionally playing video games. However, here’s where the stories diverge.
Williams claims dominance in this realm, stating he’s unstoppable in Madden whether playing with the Chiefs or other teams in the name of versatility. Yet Watson calls this a blatant lie, stating the pair only played twice in training camp and notes it was Madden 22. In Madden 23, Watson says “nobody on the team can touch me.”
McDuffie notes the diverse personalities of the group have also played a big role in their maturation. The first-round pick calls Cook is Mr. Positive, before saying Watson is the low-key, cool cat, while Williams is the brain of the operation. As for McDuffie? He’s just trying to vibe.
The other key component has been the coaching from vets and staff alike that was repeatedly brought up.
“Our coaches did a great job with the young guys, and also the leadership of the older guys, the vets,” Sneed said. “They showed them the way.”
Patrick Mahomes would agree. Mahomes has seen a change throughout the season, whether facing the group in practice or watching them work on Sundays from the sideline.
“They’ve done well at taking coaching,” Mahomes said. “I think you saw in training camp how talented they were. Obviously, Trent, he was like a veteran the day he stepped on the football field. I knew he was going to be a great player. But then you look at Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson, and Cook, and they have the talent, the physical gifts, but you knew it was going to take some refining. I think Coach (Dave) Merritt did a great job of helping teach them, the other veteran guys in our building helped teach them. … They’ve stepped up huge for us, and we need one more big game from them.”
After McDuffie’s Week 1 injury, Watson was pressed into duty as a boundary corner, with Sneed forced to kick inside. He played at least 68 percent of defensive snaps through the next six weeks before McDuffie’s return. In Week 6, Williams was also forced to start when veteran corner Rashad Fenton was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
While there were bumps at times, the rookie tandem proved so effective Veach sent Fenton to the Atlanta Falcons at the trade deadline.
“There’s a lot of things that went wrong, being rookies,” McDuffie said. “We came into a new program, didn’t know what was going on, learning new things, and honestly, we all stuck together. I’ve got to give it to the vets, the coaches for being patient and trusting in us. Just believing we could do it. Honestly, this group is something special, that we were able to do this.”
In the AFC Championship Game against the high-powered Cincinnati Bengals, the trio of rookie corners faced the ultimate crucible. On the night’s fourth play from scrimmage, Sneed was knocked out with a concussion. The tenderfoots would play the rest of the way.
For Williams, who only played five defensive snaps the week prior against Jacksonville, the moment could have been engulfing. Not the case.
“Luckily it wasn’t difficult at all because we do this at practice,” Williams said. “They always squeeze me in there. They always keep everybody prepared, it’s not like you’re just getting thrown in the fire. I knew exactly what the game plan was that week. … Like I said, the guys around you, they make it easier. You’ve got Juan Thornhill and (Justin) Reid calling the shots and Nick Bolton right there controlling the middle. A lot of stuff get easier.”
Spagnuolo started out playing almost exclusively zone coverage, providing support with veteran safeties Reid and Juan Thornhill. As the game wore on, Spagnuolo showed faith, going with more man coverage on star receivers Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.
In the second quarter, Watson was in tight coverage with Higgins before picking off Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow on an under-thrown ball. It was his second interception of the postseason, having notched a one-handed number against Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars one week earlier.
“I know my teammates and coaches need me, they are relying on me,” said Watson of his playoff performances. “The coaches have been doing a great job of putting us players in position to make plays. I can’t take all the credit. It’s just a confidence all the vets have instilled in me. You want to give your all for people like that. You want to battle for your brothers.”
Later, tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter, the Bengals twice had the ball. On the first occasion, Burrow threw deep down the right side for Higgins. The ball was knocked away by Cook and into Williams’ hands for Kansas City’s second theft of the night.
For his teammates, the play typified Cook’s increasing impact on the secondary.
“Bryan is a heck of a player,” Thornhill said. “He’s smart, very intelligent, has a lot of speed and can cover very well. He can do everything. He’s been a great addition to our team this year. … He always steps up and makes big plays. If you look at last week he had a deflection that turned into an interception. Bryan can step up and make a play at any time, and we’re excited to have him in our defensive backfield.”
On the Bengals’ final drive, Spagnuolo gave his youngsters a higher show of confidence, calling man coverage on almost every snap, eventually forcing a punt.
“It was extremely impressive,” Mahomes said. “The receivers that the Bengals have, it seems like they have number one receivers at every position. For them to step up against some of the best receivers in the league, and make enough plays to help us win when we were struggling as an offense, it was special. Hopefully, in these next couple years, we have one of those lockdown secondaries because we have young guys getting reps, making plays in big games.”
Only one year ago, this would have been outlandish even in a fever dream. Today, it has become an internal expectation, spurred on by the rookies themselves who pull confidence from one another.
“It’s kind of like a family thing,” Williams said. “We hang out outside of football, we do all kinds of activities together. These guys are more than teammates, these guys are lifelong friends. Guys I’ll never forget.”
Now, the Chiefs are one win away from winning their second Super Bowl of the Patrick Mahomes era. This is largely because a group of rookie defensive backs has surpassed all reasonable expectations.
Youth wasted on the young? Not in Kansas City.