Chiefs

The Chiefs still have work to do at cornerback, but here’s why that’s OK

Less than a week into training camp, one moment revealed the Chiefs’ most significant defensive weakness.

It didn’t come on a touchdown throw by Patrick Mahomes or a blistering run by wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Instead, it came as Keith Reaser laid on the field, surrounded by athletic trainers on Monday afternoon. Quickly, a cart was waved over, and the cornerback was helped into the back of it.

Soon after, coach Andy Reid announced Reaser was suspected to have torn his Achilles, a severe injury that’s capable of keeping a player out for the entire season.

Reaser, the former Alliance of American Football (AAF) standout, wasn’t a projected starter, but he was tracking toward making the 53-man roster as the fifth or sixth cornerback.

Now, the Chiefs’ insurance policy needs its own insurance policy.

With the injury, an already tenuous cornerback situation became even more dire, operating on a razor-thin margin less than a week into training camp.

The first line of cornerbacks is solid: Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland on the outside, complemented by Kendall Fuller in the slot.

Fuller lined up in the slot for 70% of his defensive snaps a year ago, per Pro Football Focus, and a year earlier in Washington, he played in the slot for 88% of his defensive snaps. Even before Spagnuolo confirmed Fuller would be used primarily at nickel, the Virginia Tech product knew he’d be covering the slot no matter what.

“I mean, for me, it’s really exactly the same,” Fuller said. “It might be a couple games where you might have a little bit more base than normal, but whether I’m inside or outside, 90 percent of the time, I’m in the slot.”

But after the trio of first-string corners, the depth chart gets a little murky.

When Breeland left the first practice early with a thumb laceration, former practice squad player D’Montre Wade stepped in to take his first-team snaps. Wade held that spot until Tuesday’s practice when Breeland returned with a heavily bandaged thumb Breeland also left briefly in Friday’s practice and appeared to be evaluated for a concussion. In his absence, Wade again took first team reps. Breeland eventually returned to the field, narrowly avoiding further catastrophe to the position group’s depth.

Though Wade entered training camp as an under-the-radar player, he made the most of his unexpected first-team reps by picking off Mahomes in Monday’s practice.

“I’m just trying to be consistent,” Wade said of his goals the rest of camp. “Make plays, do what I’ve got to do, pray I stay healthy the whole time.”

He’s not the only one praying for health.

That’s all the rest of the Chiefs’ brass can do for the remainder of camp for the entire cornerback spot.

“You look at your phone, and it’s not even August yet and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got another month of this to hold your breath,” Veach said.

Though the cornerback position is unstable, it’s not entirely unexpected.

The Chiefs could’ve fortified the spot in the first round of the draft by taking Byron Murphy, Rock Ya Sin or Greedy Williams, all who would have been available at the Chiefs’ No. 29 drafting position. Instead the team included its lone first-round pick in a mega-deal for defensive end Frank Clark.

“When you watch the college guys that came out there in the draft, you watch the tape, and it’s good,” Veach said. “But then you watch Frank Clark’s pro tape, and it’s even better than that college tape. This guy has already done it. … When you turn his tape on, he’s different than anybody else that we watched because he does it every single play. Every. Single. Play. His motor just doesn’t quit.

“So we got that. But there’s always give and take in life. You do that and that means you sacrifice a young corner.”

In executing that deal, the Chiefs prioritized getting to the quarterback over defending the back end — a move that fits with the philosophies of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and echoes strategies used by the late Jim Johnson, Reid’s most prolific defensive coordinator in Philadelphia.

Johnson, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2008, emphasized blitz-heavy defenses to pressure the quarterback, loading up on the defensive line at the expense of the secondary. Sometimes that meant average or sub-par cornerback play at one of the outside spots.

Spagnuolo is just as blitz-happy as Johnson, and his management of the remaining healthy cornerbacks in camp gives a glimpse into how he plans on using them in his schemes.

In Wednesday’s abbreviated indoor practice, Fuller lined up on the edge in the slot on the left side before running untouched to collect a would-be sack of Kyle Shurmur.

Fuller wouldn’t mind doing more of that in the regular season.

“Anytime you get some sacks, I know DBs always love getting some sacks,” Fuller said. “But it’s not like you’re going to be blitzing every play. Still going to have to cover, still going to have to drop in some zones, disguising and things like that.

“The one thing that (Spagnuolo) asks the nickels to do is be well rounded, do a lot of different things. Be a football player. That’s something I enjoy doing.”

The Chiefs know they have to fortify the group, but the free-agent market for cornerbacks isn’t robust. A trade with another team wouldn’t likely materialize at least until after the second preseason game, allowing other teams to evaluate their own injury situation and take stock of their strengths and weaknesses by position group.

A similar situation played out last year at the same spot when the Chiefs finalized a trade with the Cowboys for Ward after the final preseason game.

Expect the Chiefs to be on a similar timeline this year to add cornerback help, either through a trade or a somewhat significant free agent signing. Until then, the Chiefs will fill out the cornerback group with minor free agent signings.

Before Wednesday’s practice, the Chiefs signed Michael Hunter, a 2016 undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State who spent time with six different clubs and their practice squads.

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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