In the Chiefs’ locker room on Wednesday, the faces of the rookies said it all.
When asked for their initial response to the release of third-round draft pick KeiVarae Russell, their reactions mixed surprise that the Chiefs would move on from a fellow draft pick within five months, and acceptance.
If these young men fresh out of college didn’t know that football was a business, they certainly do now after Russell was released to clear space for the re-signing of outside linebacker Dezman Moses.
“Anyone can go at any time,” said fourth-round rookie guard Parker Ehinger, a starter. “It’s all based on performance and how you handle yourself inside the locker room and outside. People are going to come and go; no one is guaranteed another day.”
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Ehinger, speaking before practice, said seeing this happen to a fellow rookie hurts — “I’m becoming good friends with him,” he said. Other first-year players agreed.
“You’re still co-workers, but you hate to see that happen to anybody,” said sixth-round cornerback D.J. White, who essentially beat out Russell for a job. “You definitely feel for him.”
The release of Russell is certainly a surprise. He admitted to having difficulty picking up the Chiefs’ terminology, saying recently, “It’s been tough, mentally. ... It’s not as easy as people think.” But the current regime had built a track record of sticking with its draft picks for at least a year.
“We felt that that was the best thing to do for the Chiefs right now,” coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a good young man, and I think he has a good future. For right now, that’s what we needed.”
Since Reid and John Dorsey arrived before the 2013 season, all but one of their 23 draft picks from 2013 to 2015 have made it at least one season with the club, with fullback Braden Wilson, the team’s sixth-round pick in 2013, being the lone exception.
Reid called the move a “football decision,” adding that it had nothing to do with Russell’s mentality on or off the field.
“I think he’s a smart kid,” Reid said. “I didn’t think that (the terminology) was a problem — he seemed to handle it. But if he said that, then it probably had something to do with it. But again, this was just a matter of, for right now, this is the best move to help us out with where we’re sitting right now. It’s that simple.”
Reid said the Chiefs wanted to add additional depth at outside linebacker, where Justin Houston will miss at least the first six weeks of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Only four players (Tamba Hali, Dee Ford, Frank Zombo and Dadi Nicolas) at the position dressed Sunday for the Chiefs’ 33-27 win over San Diego, and the Chiefs typically kept five of them active last season.
The 6-foot-2, 249-pound Moses, a fifth-year veteran, was released on Saturday to clear a roster spot for Eric Berry. Moses has logged both special teams and defensive snaps for the Chiefs in the past.
“It gives you another pass rusher — somebody that knows the system,” Reid said. “Positive. Good special-teamer.”
Russell, meanwhile, appeared to be the last cornerback on the six-man depth chart. White played ahead of Russell, who showed competitiveness during training camp by jawing with his receiver teammates but was not consistent in the preseason.
White said that mentally, the progression from playing in a college defense to the Chiefs’ playbook is “definitely a jump.”
“It’s something where you have to really study, pay attention to what they’re showing you and then really put in time after practice and stuff because it’s different,” White said.
The club also recently added depth at the position by trading for veteran Kenneth Acker. Both Acker and Russell were inactive for Sunday’s season opener against the Chargers, and with Acker likely being the next man up in the event of an injury — Reid said Russell was “OK” on special teams, while general manager John Dorsey has trumpeted Acker’s special-teams value — it appeared that Russell wouldn’t be seeing the field soon.
Still, it’s unusual for an organization to give up so early on such a high draft pick. What’s more, the Chiefs passed on a lot of talented players to select Russell. They traded their second-round pick to Tampa Bay to move down 15 spots, where they selected Russell No. 74 overall, ahead of at least three other players who went in the top 100 and started Week 1 for their respective clubs: Buffalo defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, New England guard Joe Thuney and Arizona cornerback Brandon Williams.
Top 100 picks are valuable, of course, and history says that some of the other players the Chiefs passed on will end up becoming starters. Key former third-rounders on the Chiefs’ roster include running back Jamaal Charles, linebacker Justin Houston, defensive lineman Allen Bailey, tight end Travis Kelce and punter Dustin Colquitt.
“Listen, it happens,” Reid said when asked how difficult it is to move on from such a high pick this soon. “I don’t sweat over it either way. I mean, it happened. We’re going to be OK.”
Promising play by White helps ease the sting. During his lone play on Sunday, White read a screen and tackled the Chargers’ receiver, Travis Benjamin, for a 2-yard loss.
“Twenty-four (D.J. White), he’s been playing pretty good, so that’s a positive thing,” Reid said. “Every one of those (picks), they kind of balance out and you go from there.”
Reid reiterated that there are no hard feelings toward Russell from the team’s point of view. He even left the door open for a return. As a rookie, the 22-year-old will be eligible for the Chiefs’ practice squad if he clears waivers.
“I wish him the best of luck,” Reid said. “I mean, he’s a good kid. And you know never know. In this business, he could be back here. So we’ll see.”
Ahead of Russell
By trading out of the 59th spot overall and selecting KeiVarae Russell with the 74th pick of this year’s NFL Draft, the Chiefs passed on a handful of rookies who went in the Top 100 and started in Week 1 for their respective teams. Here’s a list.
Second round, 62nd overall: CB James Bradberry, Samford (Carolina)
Third round, 78th overall: G Joe Thuney, NC State (New England)
Third round, 80th overall: DT Adolphus Washington, Ohio State (Buffalo)
Third round, 92nd overall: CB Brandon Williams, Texas A&M (Arizona)