The recent history painted the Chiefs a pretty clear picture. And after staring at it for the past four seasons, right in front of their eyes, they made a requisite decision.
They ignored it.
Basically pretended they never saw it.
The Chiefs selected cornerback Trent McDuffie (Washington) in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday — traded up to do it — and while I like the player, which we’ll get to, I’m first applauding what it represents:
A willingness to adapt, when presented the opportunity.
In an offseason defined by required shifts in their roster building — at times, uncomfortable alterations — the Chiefs made an important revision Thursday in the way they define their secondary. More like an about-face, really.
They have built a capable cornerback depth chart despite spending less than nearly all teams on the position — both in terms of draft capital and actual finances. They plucked L’Jarius Sneed in the fourth round, a year after grabbing Rashad Fenton in the sixth, a year after they traded a backup lineman to acquire Charvarius Ward. All the while watching their competitors unload money and top draft picks to occupy the same position.
It would have been easy to have been swayed by their own diamond-in-the-rough success. Would have been easy to let ego take over and think, well maybe we just identify and coach these guys better than everybody else. Let’s keep doing that. And easy to turn a few good examples into a grander strategy.
They passed on that.
And that’s a realization that will prevent others from passing them. Those who adjust before it’s obviously necessary are those who rarely play catchup.
The Chiefs needed a cornerback. That’s not a secret. Ward departed for the 49ers in free agency last month. There’s not an obvious replacement on the roster. But there were options in how to find that replacement. They ventured toward a path they had not taken since 2015, when they selected Marcus Peters No. 18 overall, also from Washington.
In the previous four drafts, the Chiefs had taken four cornerbacks but none earlier than Sneed in the fourth round (138 overall).
Yet their corners graded as better than league average. Yes, even last year. Among those who played at least 20% of their teams snaps, Rashad Fenton had the seventh best grade among all cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Among those who played a minimum of half the snaps, Ward ranked 19th of 77, and Sneed was 37th. The system, in other words, worked exceedingly well for a team in close proximity with the salary cap.
Why change now? Because it’s not a sustainable model over the long-term. Even as the success has covered four-plus seasons — the time elapsed since they traded Peters — it still represents a small sample size. The Chiefs have been the outlier, not the norm. And that’s the part that would have been easy to ignore.
The move Thursday to go get McDuffie is acknowledgment that a lot can go wrong when you use lesser resources to address one of football’s most important positions — even if so much has gone right in the past.
To that end, this is less about the whom and more about the what. But let’s move to the player. Because there’s a lot to like there, too.
McDuffie doesn’t represent a prototypical cornerback in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system. After all, he’s just 5-foot-11. Spagnuolo prefers taller, longer players in a press-coverage scheme. Who doesn’t? Maybe that’s why he fell to 21.
But McDuffie’s ability to track the football receives a lot of praise and can erase some of the height disadvantage. And the actual numbers are tough to write-off as some sort of fluke. According to PFF, McDuffie allowed all of 16 catches for 111 yards last season, despite being in coverage on nearly 300 snaps.
The bottom line: They don’t even bother to throw at him.
PFF ranked him as the 11th best player in this class. Dane Brugler, who produces “The Beast” for The Athletic, rated him No. 12, ahead of Derek Stingley Jr., who was taken third overall by the Texans. ESPN’s Todd McShay had him at 16.
The Chiefs were stunned McDuffie fell to 21. They had gone through a jillion draft-night scenarios as practice exercises, but those did not include a McDuffie fall. They did not bring him to Kansas City for a pre-draft workout, assuming he would be gone by the time their original picks (Nos. 29 and 30) arrived. When he fell to 21, they pulled the trigger, moving picks 29, 94 and 121 to obtain the pick from New England.
They adapted their big-picture approach to the position, and then they adapted, unexpectedly, on their feet Thursday night.
And in the process, one of their greatest needs this offseason has an answer.
Live NFL Draft updates: KC Chiefs trade up, pick UW corner No. 21, edge rusher No. 30