When the Chiefs spent the 74th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to select cornerback KeiVarae Russell, they seemed to project him as something of a can’t-miss prospect.
For one thing, as demonstrated by his reinstatement at Notre Dame, he had been repentant and atoned for his role in a plagiarism scandal there.
Any character questions, the Chiefs would tell you and Russell would show you, would only be answered in the affirmative after that terrible lapse in judgment.
Meanwhile, general manager John Dorsey used one of his highest forms of tribute to describe Russell, who ran the 40-yard-dash in 4.4 seconds at his pro day despite a strained hamstring and healing tibia.
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“He likes the game of football ... ,” Dorsey said, later adding, “I would put him at a red-level, A-score guy, meaning that he has a lot of (physical) attributes.
“You combine that with his toughness, his competitiveness ... Any guy that can fight through a stress fracture and play through that and practiced through that on a daily basis is pretty mentally tough to me.”
So even if it was clear through training camp that Russell wasn’t adapting nimbly — he was surpassed by sixth-round pick D.J. White on the depth chart, and the Chiefs felt a need to trade for another cornerback, Kenneth Acker — the fact the Chiefs waived him on Wednesday was somewhere between baffling and bizarre.
Somehow, someone whose fundamental story was one of redemption essentially became irredeemable in a football sense.
“We felt that that was the best thing to do for the Chiefs right now” was about as in-depth as coach Andy Reid would take it, and the Chiefs declined to make Dorsey available for comment.
But particularly coinciding as it did with the Chiefs restructuring Justin Houston’s contract to free up $6 million in salary cap room for 2016, the abrupt divestment three days after Russell was inactive for the Chiefs’ opener is open to any number of interpretations and questions that may or may not get answered publicly in the near term.
Even if it ultimately becomes evident this is all part of marshalling financial forces toward a free agent or extending a current player’s contract, though, it doesn’t explain how someone drafted in such a prominent spot so rapidly became expendable.
Especially when other players such as De’Anthony Thomas and Knile Davis, who’ve been given more time to emerge, continue to have limited roles because their talents just don’t distinguish them enough or are redundant compared to others ahead of them.
While this isn’t like squandering a first-round pick, Russell was the second Chiefs’ pick this year — and at such a high-leverage perch in the draft that he’s believed to be the first player chosen so high this year to part ways with a team.
For a sense of what the third round can mean, consider that the Chiefs roster includes third-round picks Dustin Colquitt, Jamaal Charles, Allen Bailey, Justin Houston, Travis Kelce, Phillip Gaines and Chris Conley.
So assuming no off-field issue arose, as Reid assured, we can only surmise something went awry with the Chiefs’ evaluation process.
Maybe Russell didn’t just love football the way Dorsey thought he did — or that was implied by Russell’s overwhelmed reaction the night he was drafted, crying hard enough to choke up during a conference call about the second chance he’d been given in life: When asked about Russell’s attitude towards special teams play, for instance, Reid offered a tepid he’s “OK” there.
Maybe as smart as Russell is, obvious when speaking to him and in terms of the 3.7 grade-point average he says he had in high school, the fact that he was struggling with basic terminology spoke to an improbable football IQ issue.
Maybe it’s just the way the numbers shook out with the Chiefs having six cornerbacks and needing more depth at outside linebacker in the form of Dezman Moses, whose addition evens up the number of OLBs with corners.
Maybe we could simply see all this as affirming evidence that the Chiefs are a meritocracy and always seeking to better themselves even if it’s at the expense of their credibility in the draft:
At least at a certain baseline, they haven’t missed much in the draft in the Reid-Dorsey era. All but one of their first 23 draft picks have made it at least one season with the club, per research by The Star’s Terez Paylor.
But even with some combination of all those possibilities in play, it’s still perplexing how the Chiefs vetted and invested such a crucial draft pick in someone they came to have such little conviction about.
For his part, Russell posted this on his Twitter account:
“I ain’t dead yet like I’m Bruce Willis” — presumably a reference to Willis in the “Die Hard” movies.
It’s true that an NFL career may still await him, with Reid even suggesting he could end up back here one day — perhaps even with the practice squad if he clears waivers.
But until further notice, there is a void in this peculiar development: Something doesn’t meet the eye, and one way or another the Chiefs need to solve where they failed along the way so they don’t waste another pivotal pick.