Image Courtesy of Peter Aiken - Getty Images
As the 2014 Kansas City Chiefs’ season came to a close, one of the bigger stories was the development of the NFL’s second rated pass defense unit: the young KC secondary. Many players got valuable experience while injuries and runs of bad-form struck the secondary, yet the team didn’t allow a 300-yard passer and averaged a suffocating 203.2 yards per game.
Sean Smith had one of his best seasons as a professional. Philip Gaines (PG-23, ya’ll) emerged as a starting caliber outside AND nickel corner. Jamell Fleming even had flashes of potential for future development. With this in mind, it may surprise you that I still think cornerback is a top-two need on this Chiefs football team.
In this post, I will review some Chiefs games and the tendencies Bob Sutton implemented last year, and then I will review some prospects to compare against those Chiefs tendencies. Grab a seat; it’s gonna be a long one.
The 2014 Kansas City Chiefs Secondary
I decided to pick out three Chiefs games from last year to watch over and tabulate. As always, I am simply a fan of the game, and I don’t know the called coverage scheme, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. I wanted to select games against quality quarterbacks, and I wanted to pick those games that Eric Berry was out and Ron Parker played safety to further match up with the projected 2015 CB options. This left me with Week 4 against New England, Week 7 against San Diego, and Week 13 against Denver.
I watched specifically coverage snaps, and marked whether the play was a positive, negative, or neutral for the cornerback. I also tabulated whether the CB was in press-man, off-man, or zone coverage, as well as what coverage scheme (cover 2, single high, etc) the secondary appeared to be called. Finally, I kept track of the number of targets each player had, and how many yards they gave up per target. The results are as follows:
Sean Smith - +19 Coverage Grade in 81 snaps. 20 targets, 101 yards, 5.05 yard average. Press-man coverage 77% of the time.
Chris Owens - +3 Coverage Grade in 43 snaps. 5 targets, 27 yards, 5.4 yard average. Press-man coverage 48% of the time.
Marcus Cooper - 0 Coverage Grade in 15 snaps. 4 targets, 32 yards, 8 yard average. Press man coverage 50% of the time.
Philip Gaines - +9 Coverage Grade in 52 snaps. 11 targets, 67 yards, 6.09 yard average. Press man coverage 54% of the time.
Jamell Fleming - +1 Coverage Grade in 31 snaps. 9 targets, 75 yards, 8.33 yard average. Press man coverage 52% of the time.
First and foremost, you can see that Sean Smith played lights out in these three games. The spreadsheet I used is full of positive rankings and notes about getting a good jam on the line, breaking on short passes, and blanket coverage. He also spent the majority of his time in press man coverage without much safety help. PG-23’s first game (vs. SD) was in the nickel CB role and scored out at a +6 rating over those 17 snaps. He played the majority of those snaps in off-man coverage. In the second game (vs DEN), he played outside CB and equated himself well against Denver’s WR corps in mostly press-man coverage, going step for step with Sanders and Thomas.
The rest of the group fared less than spectacularly and did not have the same impact, nor did they play well in the ways that Sutton repeatedly lined them up.
After watching the games, several traits stood out as important to Sutton. First, Sutton prefers to play a single high safety, doing it over half the time. The Chiefs aren’t lining up an all-world safety in the deep third, so deep throws to the boundaries are more than likely the CBs full responsibility. Speed and deep coverage ability are therefore very important. Sutton also wants his outside CBs to be able to engage the WR almost every play in press-man coverage, so the ability to get a good jam and throw off timing for a full game is very important.
On the flipside, Sutton’s defense in these games didn’t typically require its DBs to be excellent blitzers, or good zone defenders.
The 2015 NFL Draft Cornerbacks
The Chiefs appear to be ready to roll Sean Smith and PG-23 out as the starting outside CB’s for the 2015 season, so why would another high draft pick be warranted? Well, currently only Gaines and Cooper are under contract for the 2016 season, and if Smith plays another exceptional season in 2015, the Chiefs may find it very difficult to keep him, Justin Houston, and Dontari Poe.
Add to this the lack of a true nickel corner (playing half the defensive snaps), and lack of quality depth behind either player, and CB vaults to the top of the list of needs. Equipped with the same tabulation I used to measure the Chiefs secondary, and an idea of what Sutton would like out of his CBs, I went to the fine folks at Draft Breakdown and loaded up the 1-2 round CBs to see if I could find a good fit.
Marcus Peters - Games against Oregon and Arizona St.
+4 Coverage Grade in 37 snaps. 11 Targets, 50 yards, 4.54 yard average. 54% press-man coverage.
Peters was an interesting watch to start off with. Against Oregon he played a lot of off-man coverage and zone coverage, and he seemed almost…disinterested. He was inconsistent, grabby, and seemed downright lost in zone coverage and he struggled to judge the amount of cushion he needed to give in off-man coverage. However, when I flipped on the tape against Jalen Strong and Arizona State, he came alive.
Put more in a press-man coverage, he constantly disrupted Strong’s routes with a great jam and mirrored Strong very well for most of the game. Strong did beat him on a couple of opportunities where he gave too much cushion and couldn’t break quickly enough on the ball, but overall Peters came out ahead.
Pros: Good hands, quick, good mirror and back pedal, great jam
Cons: Grabby, inconsistent, lost in zone, struggles with cushion in off-man
Kevin Johnson - Games against Clemson and Florida State
+9 Coverage Grade in 37 snaps. 11 Targets, 42 yards, 3.82 yard average. 30% press-man coverage.
Johnson was a guy I’d heard a lot about, but hadn’t really sat down and watched him closely until this experiment. Consider me very impressed. He showed up everywhere in both games, and I noted many blanket coverages downfield. In the Florida State game he blew up a screen and had two PBU’s (one was a VIOLENT hit), and was targeted 7 times for 19 yards. However, he mostly featured in an off-man coverage role.
When allowed to play press-man, he had a strong jam at the line, and was able to turn and run with the receiver, but that wasn’t as often as he’d be asked to do the job in a Bob Sutton defense.
Pros: Closing speed, great mirror, good jam when allowed, flashes everywhere on tape
Cons: Can he play press all game? Lost on blitzing, handsy beyond 5 yards
Trae Waynes - Games against Oregon and Ohio State
+3 Coverage Grade in 30 snaps. 7 Targets, 14 yards, 2 yards average. 44% press-man coverage
Throughout both games, I watched him in solid coverage, tracking WR’s at all levels. He’s almost always around the receiver and is a real nuisance to offenses. However, in these two games, he reluctant to engage with the receiver he’s guarding, and wasn’t interested in jamming a guy at the line. He’s very fluid, and is able to flip and run with the competition well. He can run with blinders on, as he was easily removed from a couple snaps by pick plays. He may struggle with bigger WR’s who are going to out-muscle him to the ball.
Pros: Consistent in coverage, good mirror, blankets receivers, island corner
Cons: Poor tackler, can run with blinders on, inconsistent jam, easily moved out of the play
Jalen Collins - Games against Alabama and Wisconsin
-2 Coverage Grade in 32 snaps. 14 Targets, 69 yards, 4.92 yard average. 41% press-man coverage.
Collins has all the size, speed, and strength to make it as a prototypical NFL cornerback. I just didn’t really see the skill. Collins can easily run step for step with most receivers, and due to his speed and agility, is able to stick close in coverage for long periods of time. There were a couple of times that Collins was able to hang with Amari Cooper during the Alabama game. However, he rarely uses his size to jam in press-man coverage, he’s beaten very easily on slant routes, and he struggles when tracking receivers east/west across the field.
Worst of all, I noticed a bit of an inconsistent motor, not making plays on the ball when in his area. He was bailed out by several drops in the Alabama game.
Pros: Can run step for step, excels in coverage for long periods of time, good tackler
Cons: Does not use size to jam, beaten easily on slants, too much cushion in off-man, inconsistent motor
Ronald Darby - Games against Oregon and Miami
+1 Coverage Grade in 42 snaps. 8 Targets, 33 yards, 4.125 yard average. 30% press-man coverage.
Darby plays much bigger than he looks, and his motor is fantastic. Like Collins, Darby excels at sticking with his man for long periods of time. He breaks well on the ball when sitting in zone coverage, and he’s pretty quick. That’s what he is, though: a zone defender. When asked to play a tight man role, he struggles. He has very stiff hips, and struggles with his backpedal, sometimes flipping his hips immediately on snap. He doesn’t really have a jam to speak of, and against Miami, Phillip Dorsett beat Darby with good route running. He closes very well on screen passes and blew up a couple of them in these two games.
Pros: Plays to whistle, good in short zone (especially against screens), tackles well, quick
Cons: No real jam to speak of, not fluid hips, poor backpedal, had quite a bit of safety help
PJ Williams - Games against Clemson and Louisville
+5 Coverage Grade in 37 snaps. 11 Targets, 104 yards, 9.45 yard average. 64% press-man coverage.
Williams was a tale of two games. In the first, against Clemson, he exhibited a solid jam at the line and fantastic coverage in the first 5 yards. His only allowed completion was on a free release where he missed the receiver and mis-read the ball after catching up in pursuit. The rest of the game was played at a high level. Then came DeVante Parker and Louisville. Williams struggled mightily to get his hands on Parker at the line, and repeatedly reached and missed, giving the receiver a step advantage. He still had some good coverage moments on shorter yardage passes, but didn’t look good against an NFL caliber receiver.
Pros: Good jam when he gets his hands on WR, good short coverage, solid run defender
Cons: Shiftier/better WR’s will shake him, mis-reads balls in flight, poor in coverage east/west across the field.
Byron Jones - Game against East Carolina
+6 Coverage Grade in 25 snaps. 9 Targets, 31 yards, 3.44 yard average. 72% press-man coverage.
Unfortunately, Draft Breakdown only had one game of Byron Jones, but there were lots of coverage snaps. Jones rarely gives a receiver a free release and has a great one and two handed jam. After engaging, Jones has very fluid hips to turn and run with the receiver. When playing off-man, his backpedal and footwork are very good. He also played on an island with little safety help. He was a bit slow on comeback routes, with all three allowed completions on comebacks. He had a couple of plays that might have been called pass interference or defensive holding downfield, and the level of competition could have been better.
Pros: Rarely gives free release, great jam, good backpedal and fluid hips, island corner
Cons: Beat on comeback routes, handsy downfield, quality of competition
After going through and watching some of the games for these guys, there’s a few that stand out as potential “good fits” for the Chiefs. I’m a fan of Kevin Johnson, and I think he’s an excellent fit to come in at the nickel corner spot and refine his abilities as a press-man boundary corner. Byron Jones definitely has the tenacity and play-style that Sutton likes, and like Johnson, could be a nickel corner fit as he adjusts to the level of play. Marcus Peters is an obvious press-man boundary corner and could make for a really fearsome secondary with PG-23 running the slot, but comes with the highly publicized “character flaws”.
Williams is definitely a developmental guy, and I question his ability to hang with with the NFL receivers, but does have some of the attributes that could fit with the Chiefs. Collins and Darby both could fit well in an NFL secondary, but from what I watched, I think there would be quite a bit both would have to learn to fit in the Chiefs secondary at the picks it will likely take to get them. Trae Waynes is full of talent as an off-man CB, but I don’t feel he fits with the guys Sutton has looked at thus far.
I believe the Chiefs need an early round talent corner. I believe there are guys that can fit the mold that Sutton ran last year in these early rounds, and I really hope we get to see that strength become even stronger. Let me know what you think about what I’ve done here, if you agree/disagree, and I might see you guys back here with a similar post involving ILB’s.