Eric Berry cannot even feign surprise at the impact cornerback Marcus Peters has had on this year’s Chiefs. Turns out Peters, the club’s first rookie Pro Bowler since Berry in 2010, predicted his success in August.
“He was just telling me everything he was going to do for the team,” said Berry, the Chiefs’ emotional leader and starting free safety, “and how he was going to come out and perform.”
Ordinarily, a veteran like Berry might be inclined to bring the rookie back down to earth. Yet, there was something about the way Peters spoke that made Berry believe every word.
“Because he has a lot of passion,” Berry said. “You can see it in his eyes when he talks about football and what he wants to do on the field.”
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Passion has long been the defining trait for Peters, who is widely believed to be the odds-on favorite to win the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year award. Not only has he intercepted eight passes this year, tied for the league high, he has done it with a style and flair rarely seen out of veterans, let alone rookies.
Peters intercepted three passes during his first padded practice in August. On the first snap of his first regular-season game in September, he intercepted Houston’s Brian Hoyer. A few days later, in the first half of his first home game — on a Thursday night — he intercepted Peyton Manning for his first pick-six. And Peters made game-changing interceptions in wins over the Raiders, Ravens and Browns.
When it comes to confidence and competitiveness, some teammates see a little Darrelle Revis in Peters. When it comes to ball skills, another teammate put Peters in a class with Richard Sherman. And when it comes to instincts, the names of Asante Samuel and DeAngelo Hall were thrown around.
Which is all funny, because when Peters was drafted by the Chiefs, he was asked who he patterns his game after, and his answer was — as it is now — himself.
“Those words are never going to come out of my mouth,” Peters said. “I play the game for me, and how I play is my style of football.”
That style has won over his teammates to the point they’ve raised their expectations for Peters.
“It’s not fair,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said, “but he’s not a rookie to us.”
Jason Avant is a 10-year pro who has carved out a respectable NFL career by using his brain to make up for his lack of speed. After Peters was drafted with the 18th overall pick in May, Avant could tell from watching his highlight package that the Chiefs had something special.
“I saw two plays that he made in college,” Avant said, “and the first thing I thought was — ‘That’s Asante Samuel.’ ”
Samuel, who made four Pro Bowls and led the league in interceptions twice from 2003 to 2013, was lauded for his off-man coverage. In his prime, few corners broke on the ball like Samuel, who understood route concepts, had good transitional quickness and always had an eye on the quarterback.
Avant said Peters shares many of those traits, especially the ability to diagnose routes. Corners can predict a receiver’s route based on formations, field position and receiver splits. While it takes many young corners a long time to learn these nuances, Peters — the son of a high school football coach — came in on an advanced track.
“If he sees it a couple times,” Avant said, “you can best believe he’s going to get you if keep going there.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton agreed, noting that Peters’ instincts are simply “God given.”
“He’s got a very high football IQ — very high,” Sutton said. “I think he understands offenses, for a young guy, very well.”
But that hasn’t kept Peters from accepting tips from the veterans, either.
“He never questioned anybody,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “Whatever you had to say, he took it in stride and learned from it and kept it going.”
Jeremy Maclin knew right away that Peters loved football.
Almost every time the Chiefs’ new $55 million receiver would line for one-on-one drills vs. cornerbacks, there was No. 22, lined up across from him, just itching to test himself and get better.
“You know how they call basketball players gym rats? He’s a field rat, you know what I mean?” Maclin said. “He loves the game, loves to play, and the sky is the limit for him.”
Peters’ competitiveness is also the trait that makes him similar to Revis, at least according to defensive end Mike DeVito, who was a rookie on the New York Jets in 2007 with the seven-time Pro Bowler.
“I was looking at him and he was like a seasoned vet, and I see the same thing in 22,” DeVito said. “That’s what allows you to play fast and make those plays.”
It has also allowed Peters to bounce back with regularity after getting beat. According to Pro Football Focus, Peters has been targeted more than any other player this year.
But as a corner, Peters understands allowing big plays is going to happen. The key, he said, is how you respond, something Peters, an Oakland native, says he learned by spending years watching future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.
“I think that’s been one of his best assets,” Sutton said of Peters. “Here’s the thing about Marcus that maybe people don’t appreciate — highly competitive. He’ll fight you ’til the end of the world, now. I mean, he’s not going to let go.”
Even on the practice field, apparently, his competitiveness and eye for the ball stand out daily, drawing a comparison from Maclin to Richard Sherman.
“And Sherman was an ex-receiver,” Maclin said.
Peters’ penchant for creating turnovers has boosted a defense that somehow recorded two fewer interceptions, six, in 2014 than Peters has recorded all year.
“The number of times he touches the ball in practice is incredible,” Sutton said. “He gets his hands on more balls than most people.”
Peters did the same in college, which is why the Chiefs were inclined to take him in the first round despite his troubles at Washington, where he was dismissed from the team his senior season because of repeated clashes with the new coaching staff.
He expressed contrition during the predraft process, but Peters knew there would be questions about how coachable he’d be as a Chief. So he set out to win over his coaches and teammates with an approach he learned from his parents.
“Man, I’m just being myself 24/7 — that’s all I know how to do,” Peters said. “There’s no fitting in for me. If I don’t fit in with how I am, then I don’t belong.”
The way the Chiefs’ locker room is set up, Peters is surrounded on all sides by veteran leadership. Berry, Houston and Smith sit in front of Peters, so they can talk to each other without raising their voices.
“He’s not a guy who is scared to ask questions, who is scared to speak his mind,” outside linebacker Dezman Moses said. “He’s trying to get all the information he can.”
Running back Knile Davis, who sits two stalls down from Peters, agreed.
“He’s a good dude — you can talk to him,” Davis said. “He’s approachable. He’s trying to learn.”
Peters said his approach with the veterans has been simple.
“I just respect them, and they give it back,” Peters said. “For me, I had a whole lot to prove. For them, it looked like ‘Man, we’re getting this rookie who has been in all this trouble. But they say he can play ball, so we’re going to see how he can play.’ ”
His teammates have. And they hope to keep seeing the same flashes of greatness from their young corner throughout the playoffs, and beyond.
“He always comes up with a big play for us,” Sean Smith said. “I don’t know why he doesn’t play the lottery, this guy. It’s going to happen every game.”