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The Chiefs and NFL by beat writers Randy Covitz and Terez Paylor

Ranking the Chiefs’ 2014 training camp battles: No. 7 — cornerback

07/15/2014 1:38 PM

07/15/2014 5:29 PM

As a lead-in to the Chiefs’ training camp in St. Joseph, which begins when rookies report on July 20, The Star will rank the 10 most interesting position battles.

7. No. 2 cornerback

The Chiefs entered offseason training activities with a good idea of what they had at cornerback, but the month of June brought an interesting turn of events. First, veteran Sean Smith — who was signed to a three-year, $16.5 million contract before last season — was arrested for allegedly driving under the influence. A few days later, the Chiefs released Brandon Flowers, their other primary starter at cornerback last season, presumably for money reasons.

Thanks in part to both of these events — Smith was subsequently demoted to second team before he missed the team’s mandatory minicamp the next week due to an illness — the Chiefs got a chance to take a good look at what their top backups, Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker, could do for about seven practices. The results were mixed, as both were beaten a decent amount and saw a handful of passes go over their heads.

Still, the 24-year-old Cooper figures to be better after a rookie season that saw him unexpectedly crack the starting lineup shortly after the Chiefs scooped him up off the waiver wire before the season.

At 6 feet 2 and 192 pounds, the former seventh-round pick offers the size the Chiefs prefer at cornerback (unlike Flowers) and he also flashed some ball skills befitting a former college receiver, as he broke up 18 passes and intercepted three passes. He was benched for a game late last season against Indianapolis, but showed enough mental toughness to bounce back and log a number of snaps against San Diego in the regular-season finale and Indianapolis in the playoffs.

Assuming Smith, who played reasonably well for stretches last season, is able to earn his starting job back, I suspect Cooper will be the No. 2 cornerback. While he’s still a bit raw — teams took advantage of his technique and tendency to get caught peeking in the backfield — there’s still some upside here, because he’s only been playing cornerback for four seasons.

Of course, Cooper will still have to hold off Parker in camp, and that could potentially be an interesting battle. Parker, 26, is in his fifth professional season and on his fourth team. But at 6 feet and 206 pounds, he offers plenty of bulk, and he made the most of limited defensive snaps last season, logging a sack and two interceptions.

His performance against the Chargers in the season finale — when he started the game and logged six tackles, two pass breakups and an interception — impressed Chiefs coach Andy Reid. He’s displayed a knack for making plays when he gets the opportunity, but the former college safety needs to show he isn’t one of those guys whose penchant for making big plays dissipates when he gets more playing time (and opponents learn how to attack his weaknesses).

One way Cooper and Parker can surge ahead in this race is by limiting big plays. The Chiefs’ lack of vertical speed at cornerback haunted them last season, and the good quarterbacks — the Philip Rivers, Peyton Mannings and Andrew Lucks of the world — made them pay. That lack of speed is one reason the Chiefs took former Rice cornerback Philip Gaines in the third round of this year’s draft.

Gaines runs a 4.38 40-yard dash and also offers some intriguing cover skills. He’s also got adequate height (he was measured at 6 feet at the combine) and arm length (31 7/8 inches) for the Chiefs’ press-man scheme.

However, he has a bit of an injury history, he still looks a little slight (though he’s listed at 185 pounds), and he was also beaten deep a decent amount in OTAs. He will get better as the year goes on, but he will have to learn and improve quickly to start the season as the No. 2 cornerback.

There are several other corners on the roster, including veterans like Chris Owens (who is probably more of a nickel guy), DeMarcus Van Dyke, Justin Rogers and Kevin Rutland, and youngsters like Brandon Jones, David Van Dyke and Vernon Kearney. All will need a great camp to earn starting consideration, though the latter three are potential practice squad candidates.

Next up: Interior defensive end/tackle

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.

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