When fourth-round cornerback Eric Murray entered the Chiefs’ locker room on Friday and saw the No. 21 jersey in his locker, he was surprised.
His teammates were, too.
“It was just there in my locker and I was surprised just like everybody else,” said Murray, who did not choose the number. “When you come in and you’re a rookie, you don’t really expect to get a good number. It’s always a surprise.”
Murray, by the luck of the draw, drew a number that is popular among young corners, largely because of Deion Sanders’ influence. Sean Smith said he switched from No. 27 to No. 21 two years ago largely because of that reason.
Smith is gone now, after leaving for Oakland in free agency — where he will also don No. 21 — leaving the treasured number to Murray.
Third-round cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who was selected 22 spots ahead of Murray and was assigned No. 26, wasn’t afraid to let him know that was some stroke of luck.
“He was like ‘Man, I’m going to have to fight you for that 21,’ ” Murray said with a laugh. “We’ve been arguing back and forth about that.”
Murray, Russell and the Chiefs’ other drafted corner in 2016 — sixth-rounder D.J. White, who was assigned No. 24, another coveted cornerback number — will be fighting for something more important over the next several months: playing time.
The departure of Smith leaves a large hole in the secondary, one that third-year player Phillip Gaines, second-year pro Steven Nelson and fourth-year veteran Marcus Cooper will also have a shot to fill.
Gaines and Nelson are former third-round picks with ability, while Cooper was the Chiefs’ rookie of the year in 2013. But Gaines is coming back from an ACL injury, Nelson is unproven and Cooper hasn’t matched his rookie production in the two seasons since then.
That’s where Russell, Murray and White potentially fit in. All should have an opportunity to compete with Gaines and Nelson as the No. 2 corner opposite Marcus Peters, the NFL’s reigning defensive rookie of the year. There is also playing time available at nickel corner, too.
Ron Parker filled the latter role admirably in 2015, but he’s a safety by trade, and he could be needed there now more than ever after the retirement of Husain Abdullah and free-agent departure of Tyvon Branch.
There’s also a chance for one of the recently-drafted corners to take some reps at safety, though the lead scout on all three said they all profile best as corners. General manager John Dorsey mentioned that Murray, who is listed at 5 feet 11 and 199 pounds, could play a “little swing inside safety.”
But first, Murray needs to focus on mastering his natural position of corner. On Sunday, day two of the Chiefs’ three-day rookie camp, White earned most of the first-team reps outside opposite Russell, while Murray primarily played on the second team.
However, the race for playing time among the three is far from over. They still have to go through 12 full-team practices, which will begin in late May and end in mid-to-late June.
Murray, for his part, welcomes the competition, and says his primary focus will be on training his eyes to read and react in off-man coverage.
“I didn’t do too much of it at Minnesota, so I’m really not that comfortable with it,” Murray said. “But I’m always open to learning, adding something else to my repertoire.”
Murray does have a lot going for him, though. In addition to his coverage skills, he is a willing and physical run support corner who Terry Delp — the Chiefs’ lead scout on Murray — said was widely regarded as the toughest guy on the team at Minnesota.
“I just don’t take any mess, I guess,” Murray said. “If somebody wants to get crazy, it’s fine … I feel like if you don’t do that, they think they can do whatever they want and they think they can get away with certain things.
“If you let them know early on (they’re) not going to get away with this today, then they’re going to have to come up with something else to do.”
That toughness, to be sure, will help him as he tries to separate himself from the pack over the next several months.
“I have to be sharper and I have to be better than anybody else I have to compete with,” he said.