Sam Mellinger

Trying to explain the post-Chiefs decline of Marcus Peters

The NFL personnel man thumbed on his iPhone and sent the text message early last week.

what if your boy just isn’t that good?

He was talking about Marcus Peters. He and I have talked a lot about Marcus Peters, and the conversation could generally be summed up by us agreeing Peters is a terrific player but disagreeing on whether he was ultimately worth the trouble.

The text was the first time in the conversation — a year old by now, in one form or another — that either of us considered the possibility that Peters is not one of the NFL’s best 20 or so cornerbacks.

more i watch more i think your team knew before everyone else. got out just in time

This conversation won’t leave my mind. The Chiefs traded Peters to the Rams in March for a second-round pick. They also swapped later-round picks, and from the second the schedule came out a lot of us had looked forward to the Monday night game next week in Mexico City as a chance to see who was right about Peters.

But already, the results appear to be in, and it’s a landslide.

Judging by statistics, analytics, and a general view from scouts, Peters has taken a stunning dive this season from first-team All-Pro to among the least effective men at his position.

What happened?

Peters became one of the most controversial athletes in Kansas City history. This happened fast, and it happened overwhelmingly. He is brash and unapologetic in an area of the country where people often pride themselves on humility and manners.

Racial undertones are impossible to ignore. If someone did a poll, Peters’ approval ratings would undoubtedly have followed racial and cultural lines. That was only amplified when he joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social inequality and police brutality.

“Once I put my fist in the air, oh, it’s different,” Peters said on a podcast with Logan Murdock of The Mercury News/Bay Area News Group. “You go out and you see those people, it’s, ‘Oh that’s the (expletive) right there.’ They don’t have to say that, but body language can tell you.”

Peters and the Chiefs clashed. Internally, the organization struggled for a solution. Chairman Clark Hunt has been clear about wanting players to stand for the national anthem, and met personally with Peters and others.

Midway through last season — coincidentally or not, beginning with the Salute to Service game — Peters stayed in the locker room for the anthem in a sort of band-aid solution. But that didn’t solve the underlying issue.

The organization felt stuck, which in turn left Peters wondering.

“Kansas City is one of those red states,” he said on Murdock’s podcast. “There’s certain (stuff) that ain’t going to be OK for it to be said out there. That’s OK, but at least as an organization, at least try to show some support for your employee in a way.”

The anthem protests are not why the Chiefs shopped and traded Peters. There were other issues much closer to football. Basic stuff, like relationships with coaches and reliability in meetings.

But Peters’ words with Murdock — a friend he’s known for years — make it seem possible that the drama and handling of the protests made him feel unsupported in a way that fed into the team’s more tangible issues.

When the Chiefs made the trade, they hoped it would allow a reset, and be part of a larger overhaul of the defense. Their star corner was no longer worth the trouble.

The Rams felt they were getting an elite cornerback on the cheap, with two years remaining on his rookie contract.

“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Peters told Murdock. “I was juiced.”

The Chiefs felt they could be better even without Peters, even while assuming he’d be better in a new place, particularly closer to home in California. They are correct so far on the first part, but could not have imagined they’d be this wrong on the second.

So, again: what happened?

Peters’ ineffectiveness is worth detailing. He has already given up more touchdowns than in either of his last two seasons in Kansas City. Entering last week’s game, quarterbacks had a 145.2 passer rating when throwing at him, according to Pro Football Focus. The worst he did in three years with the Chiefs was 67.1.

A second NFL personnel man — not the guy from before — said Peters can’t play in the slot, but the truth is he’s been awful no matter the alignment:

In each of the last two seasons, Pro Football Focus rated Peters as one of the league’s 20 best cornerbacks in coverage. This year, he’s last among the 72 corners who’ve played at least 50 percent of the snaps.

He sustained a groin injury in Week 3, limping after a play in which he had decent coverage but gave up a 42-yard touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball from Philip Rivers to Mike Williams. Peters returned, but three series later needed to be carried off the field.

He played again four days later on a short week, and you can basically view his season divided in two. The touchdown to Williams was the first on Peters this season, and he does not have an interception since. Before the Chargers game, he’d given up just four catches on eight targets for an average of 6.3 yards. After the Chargers game, he’s given up 28 catches on 36 targets for an average of 17.8 yards.

Maybe it’s that simple. But Peters has said he’s 100 percent physically, and our second personnel man is unconvinced, saying he doesn’t believe the injury is hampering Peters physically.

The bigger problem in his eyes is a lack of speed (Peters ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine, slow for the position) which requires help over the top both for support on deep balls and a safety net for the risks he takes for interceptions. Those problems are being amplified by teammate Aqib Talib’s injury, which means Peters is always on the opposing team’s best receiver.

Generally speaking, the Chiefs gave Peters freedom. He tended to play off the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to read receivers and hide his relative lack of speed. With the Rams, it appears he’s more often at the line of scrimmage, in press coverage. That’s where at least some of the big plays are coming.

Peters has always been aggressive. With the Chiefs, that meant giving up big plays on occasion. But he was always well-prepared, with both the mind and instincts to usually take the right risks.

That’s always been the crux of his football genius, but this season it appears to be failing him. You can see examples of that on tape, particularly in a Week 5 game at Seattle.

He was burned badly by Tyler Lockett on a relatively simple post pattern. It appears that Peters was expecting something underneath, but without safety help on the top was too slow to turn his hips.

A similar play happened later in the game. Peters lined up wide against David Moore, playing about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap. Moore took a step or two toward the inside, and Peters bit hard. Moore broke back toward the outside and had at least five yards of separation for quarterback Russell Wilson’s throw.

The Rams’ tape is full of plays like this, with Peters being overly aggressive without the same checks and balances he used with the Chiefs. There’s a familiar theme developing, of Peters biting on relatively simple fakes.

Against the Packers on a third-and-5, Davante Adams faked an underneath route and got behind Peters for 48 yards. But it’s not just the plays where Peters is likely hunting interceptions. Later in the Packers game, Equanimeous St. Brown beat Peters for 23 yards despite stumbling off his release.

Last week against the Saints, Peters gave up seven catches on nine targets for 146 yards and a touchdown. By those numbers, it was essentially identical to the week before against the Packers.

But in some ways it was the most descriptive of how far he’s fallen. He was called for penalties on the first two throws his way, which were both completed. Peters was targeted in coverage more than any other Rams defensive back.

Michael Thomas, the Saints’ star receiver, had more success against Peters than anyone else. After the game, Saints coach Sean Payton indicated that was a matchup they wanted to exploit. This after years of teams throwing away from Peters when he was with the Chiefs.

Peters responded to Payton’s words the way he responds to most everything — with aggression, brashness, and sincerity.

“Tell Sean Payton to keep talking that (stuff),” Peters said. “We going to see him soon, you feel me? Because I like what he was saying on the sidelines, too. So tell him to keep talking that (stuff).”

Peters has never lacked confidence, and until now he’s never lacked the tape to back it up. He remains wildly gifted and young, with every motivation to be great again. His next chance will be against the team that dumped him less than a year ago, a trade that so far is looking even better than it imagined.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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