Trent McDuffie and the Chiefs' Not-Rookie CBs
NFL Super Bowl - Don’t call first-year Kansas City Chiefs cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson or Joshua Williams “rookies.”
“At this point, I feel like we consider ourselves first-year vets,” Williams said during Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday.
“The coaches say they don’t hold us to any rookie grace or anything. They treat us exactly like all the other pros are treated. They expect us to get our jobs done.”
“We were all thrown in the fire pretty early,” Watson said. “Our coaches told us once the playoffs started: we’re not rookies anymore. We’re ready. We were made for this moment. This is why they drafted us.”
“I never felt like a rookie,” demurred Trent McDuffie, one of the Chiefs’ two first-round picks. “I just always walked into the building and felt comfortable.”
“I came into this thing knowing: as long as I’m me, and do what I have to do, I will be OK.”
Well, that settles it: the Chiefs don’t rely on three rookie cornerbacks (plus safety Bryan Cook, who bristled at the "rookie" label last week) in the secondary, but a group of battle-hardened veterans who just happened to be born right around the turn of the millennium.
Even defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo agrees, right?
“I think they’re still rookies,” Spagnuolo laughed.
“I’m glad they say that though,” he added. “You want them to mature quickly. You want them to be ready. And they’ve got a lot of plays under their belt, so they’re getting there.”
Spagnuolo may be consciously pumping the brakes on any They’ve Arrived narratives surrounding his young secondary. The Chiefs pass defense ranked 20th in DVOA during the regular season. Watson, in particular, got scorched noticeably early in the year, and McDuffie was unavailable in the first half of the season.
On the other hand, the Chiefs pass defense has posted better-than-average DVOA in every regular season and playoff game since Week 16. Some of their performances have been impressive from both a raw statistical and analytics perspective: DVOA of -32.4% against the Seahawks in Week 16 (200 passing yards allowed, one interception), -18.8% against the Jaguars (205 passing yards, a Watson interception) in the divisional round and -24.7% against the Bengals (238 passing yards, interceptions by Williams and Watson) in the AFC Championship. So a little enthusiasm is warranted.
McDuffie’s return from an early-season hamstring injury helped spur the turnaround on pass defense, and McDuffie said he gained a new perspective while missing several games. “I came back a little wiser, for sure,” he said. “The injury made me step back a little bit, look at the full team, look at the game and process things differently.
“When you’re playing, things come quickly,” McDuffie continued. “You have to forget what happened last week, because you have to game-plan for this week. When you are hurt, you are not in that realm where each and every week is something new. You are able to study a little more, listen a little more.”
McDuffie, the 21st overall draft selection from Washington, entered OTAs as the most polished and accomplished of the three rookie cornerbacks. But that didn’t necessarily make him the leader of the fab freshmen.
“All of us, in our own unique way, are leaders,” he said. “We each bring something new to the table. We each have something that the others can learn off of.”
“Trent’s super smart, so he would help us,” Watson said. “And we all have our strengths and weaknesses. So we sat in a room during training camp, all the rookies together, and got the playbook down together.”
Each of the three Chiefs youngsters shared tales of study sessions during OTAs, during which they (along with Cook and other newcomers) would quiz one another for hours and share the elements of the playbooks they understood best. Like students assigned different roles for a group project, each of the novice defenders seemed to master a separate element of the Chiefs defense, which he then brought to the group.
Watson found the collegial approach beneficial. “You aren’t just going in by yourself, being the only one in the room confused and not knowing the playbook,” he said. “We didn’t know it together, so we helped each other.”
“I think there’s some merit in that,” Spagnuolo said of having so many rookie defensive backs learning collaboratively. “As opposed to being the only young guy in a room full of veterans, they can go back to their rooms and talk about what they heard. So I think there’s some uniqueness to that.”
It certainly helped Williams, a fourth-round pick from Fayetteville State who rarely played early in the season but was called upon for 59 snaps against the Bengals. “Man, I could probably write a book on the things that I know now that I didn’t know four months ago,” he joked.
Spagnuolo praised all the Chiefs first-year defensive backs as “high-character guys,” and that was obvious when speaking to them. So was the mutual respect and trust that has grown among them. “It’s a family thing,” Williams said. “These are more than teammates. These are like lifelong friends.”
Character, camaraderie and an emerging understanding of Spagnuolo’s defense among Chiefs cornerbacks bodes well for a team that will need to field a quality, affordable defense to sustain the Patrick Mahomes era over the next few years. But intangibles and good vibes aren’t enough to cover A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. The Chiefs’ Three D’Artagnans need another performance on Sunday like the one they produced against the great Bengals receivers, and they may not get as much help from their pass rush this time.
That’s probably why Spagnuolo is being so cautious with expectations for the youngsters. “They’re still rookies in Super Bowl games,” he said.
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