The Chiefs Are Ready for a Cornerback Cage Match

The Chiefs put a clear focus on retooling their cornerback room this offseason. They have more depth and talent at the position than they’ve had in years.

The Kansas City Chiefs heavily addressed the cornerback position this offseason. They selected four cornerbacks in the draft, traded for another, and signed more to provide competition. There was a clear emphasis on retooling the cornerback room while getting younger. As a result, the Chiefs’ most experienced cornerback is entering his fourth year. With all the new additions, let’s sort through the Chiefs’ crop of corners to find out how they fit on Kansas City’s retooled roster.

Base Starters: L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie

L’Jarius Sneed has been a high-level player and the Chiefs’ best cornerback since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Largely an unknown coming out of college, Sneed joined a Chiefs team coming off a Super Bowl victory. The expectation was he would develop throughout the year. However, when starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland was suspended, Sneed was thrown into the fire. He started in his first NFL game and has held that position ever since. In base defense, Sneed plays on the outside, but when the Chiefs go into sub-packages, they kick Sneed inside. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo trusts Sneed to play anywhere on the field and erase his man. Entering his third season, Sneed should continue his growth and solidify himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

The Chiefs traded up for Trent McDuffie in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He will be expected to come in and not only play immediately but start immediately. McDuffie is traditionally undersized. He only stands at 5’11” and had the shortest arms of any first-round cornerback over the last few years. Where McDuffie excels is with his instincts and intelligence. Throughout the first few days of training camp, he has been great in coverage. McDuffie is sticking with receivers and preventing them from making a play, something he excelled at in college. He has struggled against receivers with size, but that is expected and something he will have to continue to work on. McDuffie will have his moments during the season. He is too smart of a player not to get his hands on the ball and make impactful plays.

The young duo of McDuffie and Sneed gives the Chiefs two cornerbacks who are excellent in coverage, versatile, and physical. The Chiefs hope they will be the long-term solution at the cornerback position.

Jul 27, 2022; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide cornerback Trent McDuffie (21) poses for a photo with fans after training camp at Missouri Western University. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

CB3, For Now: Rashad Fenton

Rashad Fenton is in an interesting spot. On the positive end of the spectrum, he is coming off his best season as a professional and was the highest-graded Chiefs cornerback last season, according to Pro Football Focus. When Fenton first came out of college, he was primarily a slot corner. As he has developed through his career, he has become a solid corner no matter where he is lined up. Due to injuries, he was asked to play a lot of boundary corner last season and played it at a reasonably high level.

On the opposite end, Fenton had shoulder surgery this offseason. He has yet to participate in any offseason activity and is currently on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). The team hasn’t shared much regarding Fenton’s injury, so it is hard to tell when he’ll return to action. He should have the inside track to be the third cornerback on the depth chart, though if he continues to miss time, someone else may pass him up.

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Rashad Fenton before Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Rising Star(ter): Joshua Williams

Joshua Williams could be the player who passes Fenton on the depth chart. All indications are that Williams is ahead of schedule. Many people, including myself, believed Williams had all the talent to play at the NFL level. Still, it would take time as he transitioned from a lower-level college program (Fayetteville State) to the NFL. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

He has been getting first-team reps during the early stages of training camp. Not only has he been getting the reps, but he is impressive. Williams has a unique body type that contributes to his play. He is exceptionally long and uses his length to break up passes and jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. Williams could be another of Brett Veach’s cornerback steals that start from the jump for the Chiefs.

Wild Cards: Lonnie Johnson and Dicaprio Bootle

Lonnie Johnson was drafted into the NFL as a cornerback, but the Houston Texans moved him to safety, which wasn’t a fun experience for Johnson. After being traded to Kansas City in May, the plan is for Johnson to return to his original position. Johnson possesses the length and athleticism to be a solid cornerback in the NFL. However, with this being Johnson’s first time primarily playing cornerback since his rookie season, he is truly a wild card. He could return to the player he was coming out of college, or he could be the player the Texans were willing to have change positions. Either way, we will know more as training camp ramps up and preseason games start.

Though not as well-known as other names on the depth chart, Dicaprio Bootle was a member of the Chiefs last season. He was between being on the practice squad and the active roster. He mostly played on special teams, with his only appearance on defense being against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He came in after the game was decided and played prevent coverage, so there isn’t much to take away from that. Though Bootle is entering his second season in the NFL, he has a lot of experience playing at a high level. He played all four years at Nebraska before signing with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. During training camp, the Chiefs have used Bootle as the second team’s slot cornerback. When Sneed went out for a few plays, Bootle took his spot with the first team.

Johnson and/or Bootle could make this team and contribute more than anyone could have expected back in the spring. But, on the flip side, neither could make the team, and their hype could be for nothing. Only time will tell.

Long Shot: Deandre Baker

Outside of Sneed, Deandre Baker is the only cornerback with experience playing in Spagnuolo’s system. Experience is typically positive in these positional battles, but it is a disservice to Baker. Last season, the Chiefs chose to continuously play Mike Hughes and other cornerbacks instead of putting Baker on the field. As a result, he is truly on the outside looking in. Unless he impresses in a big way during training camp and the preseason, it will be nearly impossible for Baker to crack the roster.

Dec 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Deandre Baker (30) celebrates after a play against the Denver Broncos during the second half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Developmental Rookies: Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson

Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson were selected in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Watson played his college ball at Washington State. He is long, athletic, and physical, fitting the mold that Spagnuolo typically looks for with corners. Watson is still a project, though. He needs to work on the technical side of playing cornerback, but all the physical traits are there. His contributions this year should be primarily on special teams and as a depth piece in the cornerback room in a pinch.

Johnson was drafted and announced as a safety, but all indications are the Chiefs are moving him to cornerback. During training camp, Johnson has been going through the drills with the cornerback and playing boundary corner during team periods. As a cornerback, Johnson is one of the most athletic prospects coming out of college. The Chiefs hope he shows elite explosion and speed that he can harness and translate to the NFL game. Johnson is definitely a project, but one that can better a real hit for the Chiefs if it works out.

Watson and Johnson will be fighting for a spot on this roster. To differentiate themselves, they must show out in the preseason and on special teams. The Chiefs will assuredly want to keep both of them around, whether on the active roster or practice squad. As both are on cheap multi-year contracts moving forward, they have time to develop to help the Chiefs on the field.

Playlist