Newcomer Kendall Fuller will be crucial element to Chiefs’ success on defense

“If they get me, I’m going to ask them a question” — Chief cornerback Kendall learning from everybody

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller talks about how he improves his game at training camp in St. Joe.
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Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller talks about how he improves his game at training camp in St. Joe.

The Chiefs didn’t just ship their franchise quarterback to Washington in the March Alex Smith trade. They made sure fans will likely connect cornerback Kendall Fuller with Smith throughout the duration of Fuller’s tenure in Kansas City.

Going into his third NFL season, the 23-year-old Fuller simultaneously became forever branded as “the return” in the trade of Smith, who was coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, as well as the replacement for a former All-Pro corner in Marcus Peters.

Asked if the trade and his role on the Chiefs defense altered his approach this offseason or during training camp, Fuller responded flatly, “No. I think I kind of had the same attitude with Washington. I felt like I was counted on a lot there, and same thing here. The approach is going to be exactly the same.”

Fuller immediately becomes a catalyst for the Chiefs’ defensive overhaul. The trickle-down effect of Fuller’s acquisition, along with paving the way to Peters trade, includes bumping Steven Nelson to corner full-time instead of splitting time between corner and nickel. Fuller projects as the starter at corner opposite Nelson in the Chiefs’ base 3-4 defense and will slide over to the nickel when David Amerson comes onto the field against receiver-heavy personnel groups.

“When I got to (Virginia) Tech, it wasn’t about slot, outside, even safety,” Fuller said. “You had to learn how to be a DB. Once we get to the NFL, then they kind of talk about slot or outside. I think it’s the same skill-set, you’re just in a different area of the field. Truth be told, I felt more comfortable at corner. That’s what I came in as, a corner. So, I definitely think I can easily step out there.”

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller recounts the night he and Alex Smith were traded.

Last season, while covering the slot, Fuller allowed the lowest passer rating of any defensive back in the NFL.

“When you’re out on a corner, based on the split of the receiver, a lot of times you can limit what route possibilities are or what major route possibilities are,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “When you’re inside, it’s a little tougher to do because they can do either direction.

“Two, you’re usually dealing with a different type of receiver. This is a crafty guy, great quickness, all that. A lot of the routes versus slot (defenders) are going off coverage leverage. There just going to run the route, kind of like (on a) playground. ‘If you’re out here, I’m going to run it here. If you’re in here, I’m going to go there.’ ”

Chiefs general manager Brett Veach credits a conversation with former NFL defensive back and assistant coach Todd Bowles, the current New York Jets head coach, for opening his eyes to the importance of finding the right defender to play the nickel position.

Washington will be sending cornerback Kendall Fuller to the Chiefs as part of the Alex Smith trade. These five Pro Football Focus stats show how well Fuller played in 2017.

As a young scout, Veach’s default for a defensive back he liked but who wasn’t 6 feet tall or didn’t run 4.4 40-yard dash was simply to project him as an inside defender covering the slot. That was until he sat down with Bowles while Bowles reviewed tape of prospects.

“We were watching tape and he said, ‘I laugh at evaluators because y’all evaluators think if a guy isn’t big enough or fast enough you throw him in a nickel,’” Veach said. “He said to me, ‘Do you know how hard it is to play nickel in the NFL?’ He said there’s so many concepts. You gotta be smart. You gotta be tough. You gotta be able to support the run. You gotta be able to mirror-match short receivers. You gotta be able to play the game from the inside out.”

Ever since that conversation, Veach’s thinking switched from looking at the position as a place to stick someone who didn’t fit outside to searching for guys with traits specifically suited for success playing inside.

“I think you can probably get away with more of the physical traits on the outside, more of the mental traits on the inside,” Veach said. “I think that’s probably the best way to put. Then you’ve got a guy like Kendall. He’s a sharp cat, and that’s why he’s been so successful. Not only does he have physical traits, but he has the instincts and the mental capacity to really analyze and process information very quickly.”

What Veach found in Fuller was an instinctive, tough, quick player with a competitive streak and knowledge of the game cultivated from the time he was a child thanks to three older brothers who each played in the NFL.

Vinny, the oldest, played seven years as defensive back for Tennessee and Detroit. The next oldest, Corey, spent four seasons as part of the Detroit and New Orleans organizations (active and inactive). The third of the four, Kyle, was a first-round pick of Chicago in 2014 and he’ll line up at cornerback against the Chiefs this preseason.

After being the fourth of the brothers to play at Virginia Tech (he started 28 of 29 games in three seasons), Fuller went 84th overall to Washington in the 2016 NFL Draft. He has started 12 games in two seasons, and his four interceptions last season made him the youngest player in Washington’s franchise history with four interceptions in a season since Sean Taylor had four at age 21.

The two main things Fuller said he took from his older brothers were their work ethic and their preparation. It started with Vinny, and he pushed himself because Corey looked on. Corey then had the same dynamic because Kyle watched him and Vinny; meanwhile, their youngest brother watched all three of them work their way up.

“So when I got to that level, I knew what it was supposed to look like,” Fuller said.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has already gotten a taste of Fuller’s fiercely competitive nature. Reid likes to “test” players during camp with pointed remarks — or as he playfully refers to it, “giving them the business” — in order to see how they respond.

“You get to this time in camp and you go, ‘Oh man, your legs look tired,’” Reid said of the barbs he has lobbed at Fuller. “He’ll come back, and he’ll make a play and go, ‘My legs look tired?’”

Fuller has enjoyed testing himself against the different challenges the Chiefs’ offense has thrown at him during camp with the likes of Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley and Travis Kelce. He’s also more than ready with a response to any trash talk his head coach wants to dish out.

“He’s great with it. He wants the challenge every play,” Reid said.