Despite L’Jarius Sneed trade, Chiefs’ secondary confident coverage can be just as effective


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One repetition during last week’s voluntary OTA practice session led to a moment Trent McDuffie felt was rather significant.

McDuffie, the third-year cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs, described the play as one where the defense should’ve failed. Before the ball was snapped and quarterback Patrick Mahomes began surveying his options, McDuffie noticed the Chiefs’ secondary had made a mistake. There was an issue with either a pre-snap adjustment, an improper alignment or a bland disguise of their coverage, although McDuffie declined to specify what exactly the blunder was.

“Then, me and (safety Justin Reid) just played off each other,” McDuffie said. “I was like, Man, it feels good (that) three years into this, everybody knows what they’re doing.’ You don’t have to be out there worrying about who is doing what. We can just play fast.

“Going into this new season, I think that’s huge where we are starting off.”

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The Chiefs’ defense could struggle this season to replicate its impressive production from 2023 when it allowed the fewest second-half points (126) in the league and finished the regular season allowing just 17.3 points per game (No. 2 in the league). Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, linebacker Willie Gay and safety Mike Edwards are no longer on the roster; Chris Jones, the Chiefs’ best pass rusher, is getting older — he’ll celebrate his 30th birthday in July, and defensive end Charles Omenihu is still recovering after tearing his ACL in late January.

Where the Chiefs can hope to make up some of that lost ground, however, is in the secondary. For one, it’s the biggest position group on the Chiefs’ 90-man roster. The entire unit, featuring 18 players, participated in the Chiefs’ practices last week, a rarity for this time of year in the NFL calendar.

“We all love LJ,” McDuffie said of Sneed, who was traded to the Tennessee Titans for a 2025 third-round pick and a 2024 seventh-round pick swap. “We’re disappointed to see him go, but also excited for his new journey.

“For us, it just allows new guys to step up and take on a bigger role. I’ve got to step up and be more of a leader. That’s exciting for me. I’ve had to speak up a little bit, especially with the rookies coming in and trying to learn this playbook.”

Last season, the Chiefs defense featured the league’s best cornerback tandem. McDuffie was a first-team All-Pro who played on the perimeter and in the nickel, recording five forced fumbles, seven pass breakups, three sacks and nine quarterback hits. He led all defensive backs with 14 unblocked pressures.

Sneed, meanwhile, finished the year with two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. As the Chiefs’ shadow cornerback — the defender who covers the opponent’s best receiver — Sneed didn’t surrender a touchdown in coverage in the regular season on 90 targets. Quarterbacks completed a league-low 27.7 percent of their passes that traveled 10 or more air yards when targeting the receiver defended by Sneed, according to Next Gen Stats.

However, one major reason the Chiefs were willing to trade Sneed is because of their history of success in identifying talented cornerbacks in the draft. Without Sneed, the Chiefs still have three starting-caliber cornerbacks in McDuffie, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson.

“I don’t know if it’s a need, but it’s definitely something that, as a competitor, it’s 100 percent what I want to do, getting to line up against the best receivers each week,” McDuffie said of taking over the role previously held by Sneed. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

McDuffie, though, could fulfill his new responsibilities in a different way than Sneed.

Last season, Sneed started 900 of his 991 snaps as the perimeter cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. Although McDuffie spent most of his repetitions last week on the perimeter, he doesn’t expect to spend as much time out there this season as Sneed did last year. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will still want to feature his versatility to maximize the effectiveness of the secondary.

Already known for calling unorthodox plays that end up being as shocking as they are effective, Spagnuolo could deploy even more complex coverage and blitz packages in 2024 because he knows almost all his projected starters are entering their third year in his system together. Throughout last season, most opposing offenses knew where Sneed was going to line up. By having no such cornerback in his secondary this year, Spagnuolo’s coverage players could execute even more pre-snap disguises.

“We’ve got the greatest on the planet that we get to go against, and it makes us better,” linebacker Nick Bolton said of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “We’re talking about certain stuff (between repetitions) that he sees from us and whether he knows we’re bringing blitzes or certain disguises that aren’t very good and he can read them out. We’re growing in that department. Our backend is going to get tested every single (practice) and we love it.”

Almost half of Mahomes’ pass attempts during Wednesday’s practice, which was open to reporters, featured the ball traveling more than 20 yards downfield. Mahomes completed a sizable amount of his attempts, too, as he continued to build a connection with new speedy receivers in Marquise Brown and rookie Xavier Worthy.

“Man, I love it,” McDuffie said. “We’re rolling, and Patrick really has some weapons. When I think about last year during this time, I think the defense was low-key getting after that offense. But we’re battling this year. As a DB going against those receivers, it’s going to sharpen my tools even more.”

The theme for the Chiefs in this year’s draft was bolstering their offense. General manager Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid selected five offensive players in the team’s seven-man class. The two investments Veach and Reid made for Spagnuolo’s defense were selecting safety Jaden Hicks and cornerback Kamal Hadden. Hicks, a fourth-round pick, has the potential to be a more versatile replacement for Edwards, who joined the Buffalo Bills in free agency. A sixth-round pick, Hadden is a press-man cornerback in the mold of Williams and Watson.

Spagnuolo gave Hicks and Hadden plenty of repetitions in Wednesday’s practice. Whenever Hicks made a mistake, Spagnuolo was quick to accomplish two tasks: criticize the rookie and then demonstrate, in a very hands-on manner, how he should’ve executed his assignment.

“I take that type of coaching very seriously,” Hicks said of Spagnuolo earlier this month during rookie minicamp. “I love his energy. I love what he brings, so I think I’m going to fit right in with this defense.”

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Another positive for Spagnuolo’s unit last week was the return of safety Bryan Cook and cornerback Nazeeh Johnson to the practice fields. Cook sustained a season-ending injury to his left ankle in early December, and Johnson sustained his season-ending injury, a torn ACL in his right knee, early in training camp.

If Cook and Johnson are available for the Chiefs’ season opener, Spagnuolo’s secondary could include as many as nine rotational contributors.

“It’s exciting,” McDuffie said of practicing again alongside Cook, one of his best friends on the team. “Seeing somebody back out there smiling, having fun, running around, getting in and out of his breaks, you love to see when a guy gets to come back.”

Next to McDuffie, perhaps the most intriguing member of the Kansas City secondary is second-year safety Chamarri Conner.

In college, Conner played almost every position in Virginia Tech’s secondary. Dave Merritt, the Chiefs’ DBs coach, said last year that Conner was the first rookie he had had in his 27 years in the NFL who played four positions — free safety, strong safety, nickel and the third safety in the dime package.

Against the Bills in the postseason, Conner played 76 of the Chiefs’ 77 defensive snaps while replacing Edwards, who sustained a concussion on the game’s second play. Conner finished with 10 tackles and a forced fumble. In coverage, he allowed just 25 yards as the nearest defender, earning him a 90.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, the highest of any safety who played in the divisional round.

Based on Wednesday’s practice, Conner appears to be the projected starter at nickel. And if/when McDuffie slides into the nickel for a specific matchup, Conner could move to one of the safety spots or serve as a one-on-one matchup against the opponent’s tight end.

“I give big props to Chamarri,” McDuffie said. “They’ve got him playing nickel, (third) safety, dime and both safeties. I’m like, Yo, you got it … like, this is crazy.’ He’s one of those dudes who’s quiet but works really hard. He asks the right questions, and he’s very detailed.”

(Photo of Watson and McDuffie: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)





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