Enter the rookies; Reviewing every snap of Trent McDuffie and Joshua Williams vs the Bears
How did the Chiefs rookie corners in "starting" roles fare when looking at every snap?
This article on Trent McDuffie and Josh Williams has been unlocked for anyone to read. If you want more content like this, you can subscribe for $12 a year (the price of a single movie ticket gets you a full year’s subscription) forever by clicking the link below. You’ll be able to read similar reviews from Saturday’s game on George Karlaftis and Skyy Moore, with a lot more in the archives and to come this season. Hit that button so you don’t miss out!
The rookies are coming.
The motto of the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs when it comes to their cornerback situation, at least so far, appears to be “let the kids play.” The departure of Charvarius Ward (along with Mike Hughes, who did see over 500 snaps last year) has left a gaping hole at the position, exacerbated by an injury to Rashad Fenton.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they spent the 2022 draft loading up at the cornerback spot, drafting Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, and Jaylen Watson in the 1st, 4th, and 7th rounds respectively. I reviewed the college film of both McDuffie and Watson following the draft (you can find those reviews by clicking their names), but Williams’ film was a bit more scarce (what was out there was impressive, but not quite enough for a full-fledged review). What I did know about all three of them was that there were some impressive traits, and that all 3 showed promise. McDuffie, in particular, has strung together multiple straight weeks of impressive reps at training camp.
The Chiefs seem to believe in that promise as well, with McDuffie in particular being slotted in early as a presumptive starter (he saw snaps exclusively with the 1st team defense on Saturday). Williams, with the injury to Fenton, was given the nod as the 3rd CB (with L’Jarius Sneed sliding inside to the slot when Williams came on the field), which in the modern NFL is a starting position.
It’s McDuffie and Williams where I want to focus my attention for now, given the fact that they are being thrown into the fire early (as much as I like Watson and believe his film was much more 4th-rounder than 7th-rounder). The Chiefs have shown the ability multiple years in a row under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (and defensive backs coach Dave Merritt) to get early contributions from young players at cornerback, and both McDuffie and Williams are as talented a pair as the defense has seen. If they’re able to get significant contributions from both, it could help the defense execute its youth movement much faster and more successfully than I’d feared.
So how did McDuffie and Williams perform in their first pro action? As ever, one can’t just know from highlights or lowlights. It’s (say it together now) what happens on a snap-by-snap basis that matters most in gauging a player. And so, I went back and re-watched every snap from both in Saturday’s game, charting their successful/failed coverages and looking to see what traits they showed as they got an opportunity to show out in a real game situation.
Let’s look at the numbers, then talk about the tape each put on display.
It’s worth noting, again, that McDuffie came off the field with the first team. If there were any doubt that he’s the presumptive Week 1 starter, it’s been all but laid to rest at this point. Because of that, there are fewer snaps of his to review, but all against Chicago’s first team. Let’s start with him, then discuss what Williams’ film looked like.
Look, it’s still preseason. One game into preseason. And VERY limited snaps in that one game. It’s far too early to be making genuine prognostications about a player. It really is.
That said, I am almost frighteningly convinced that Trent McDuffie is going to be a good cornerback in the NFL. And not in the distant future, either.
Why do I say that? Well, in terms of him as a prospect I could talk about the fact that he’s a high-level athlete whose speed, acceleration, and agility all show up on tape repeatedly. I could talk about his about his intelligent approach to the game that was discussed by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. I could talk about how physical he was as a tackler in college, etc.
But the thing that sold it for me Saturday, small sample size be darned (sorry, language), wasn’t what WAS on film. It’s what wasn’t, which was a mistake of any kind. Like, ever. McDuffie was constantly in exactly the right place at exactly the right time with good leverage and in perfect control of his movements. Here’s his first 3rd down as a pro.
Perhaps this rep isn’t a show-stopper, but it’s demonstrative of McDuffie’s awareness of the route vs the coverage. He knows that the safety is playing the deep ball and will close from inside if it’s a go, and what he does in response is steal outside leverage to protect from any sideline throw, keeping his eyes on the QB as long as he can. He turns and runs with the WR only once it’s clear that there’s not a cut coming, and the receiver is perfectly bracketed as he utilizes his second gear to start closing the gap.
Perfectly in control, which describes McDuffie’s game Saturday. Whether he was playing man coverage or in zone, McDuffie consistently had excellent positioning and put himself in a spot that there wasn’t a real throwing lane available to be attacked for receivers who were either covered by him or coming through his zone. His hand usage and feet were solid and allowed him to be sticky when asked to play man coverage.
Here, McDuffie waits for the receiver to make the first move, then stays unaffected by the swipe from the WR and stays in his pocket heading down the field (he’s got the fluidity to turn and run easily). When the receiver cuts, he feels it and makes the cut with him, only moving away when he sees the ball thrown elsewhere. It’s a great rep that creates a situation the quarterback can’t really throw it his way, given McDuffie is basically sewn into his jersey.
McDuffie also showed patience at the line of scrimmage and the ability to keep from getting swayed by fakes as receivers tried to get a clean release. He showed more physicality than he gets credit for on routes, which he’s comfortable utilizing to jostle receivers while he stays on their hip. He’s stronger than one might think for a CB with average size, and between that and his athleticism he never had a problem staying stride for stride on routes.
One partial game against a weak WR group doth not a star cornerback make, and as a rookie McDuffie is basically certain to go through rough patches this season. Heck, he may even go through one in the 2nd week of preseason. But his performance Saturday was a (very brief) showcase in the same things he’s been displaying in camp with his feet, understanding of leverage, surprising strength, and athleticism.
We’ll see how it goes moving forward, but it was a perfect start for McDuffie.
If you’ve read this far and aren’t a subscriber yet, just know you’re missing out. But you don’t have to be! Here’s that link for subscribing at $12 a year forever. Smash that button like McDuffie smashed expectations Saturday.
McDuffie is a tough act to follow, especially considering Williams played quite a few more snaps and therefore had more chances to show some flaws on tape.
That said, Williams (who is seeing a drastic uptick in competition) acquitted himself very nicely in his first NFL action, though not as perfectly as McDuffie. On the plus side of things, Williams displayed the advantage of being a massive cornerback with superb length.
Williams demonstrated early on that he’s more than willing to use his exceptional length/size to dominate routes early, getting his hands on receivers and throwing off their timing by slowing them and forcing them to alter their trajectories. He’s able to get his hands on early with some frequency, and even at a “lean” 200 pounds (when you’re 6’3” it’s easy to be lean) he’s got good strength to prevent receivers from pushing off/away.
What can help separate Williams from other oversized cornerbacks is that he’s not a subpar athlete. His testing in that area showed him to be a solid athlete overall in terms of movement/explosion, and while he’s not a high level change-of-direction guy the way McDuffie appears to be, he’s not below average there either. And when you’re Williams’ size, being even an “average” to a little above-average athlete is a very different story from when you’re undersized or even average-sized.
The reason for that is Williams is able to create automatic advantages for himself with his size in the form of highly physical coverage that will do more to hassle receivers than a smaller CB. However, most bigger CB’s trade this trait with significantly reduced agility and recovery speed, so they’re more at risk of giving up a big play if they’re not able to win with physicality. Williams, on the other hand, has the athleticism to recover and close. Watch him at the top of the screen here (on the Karlaftis sack).
Williams misses on his attempt to hit/catch the receiver initially, as his opponent does a nice job delivering a quick fake and swatting at his hands. That leaves Williams flat-footed with the receiver accelerating down the field. For most larger corners this is where they give up massive separation, as they need more time to gear up to top speed. Williams, however, has good acceleration/explosion that allows him to make up the ground quickly and stay on the receiver.
Williams isn’t a terrific athlete, but he’s not a limited one either, and that sets him apart in those situations and allows him to have a higher ceiling in terms of usage, consistency and matchups than many other larger cornerbacks.
Overall Williams played well against the Bears, with only a single play that I would have to definitively call a “failure.” Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the play he gave up a big catch, as the coverage was there and he was just victimized by an absurd catch on a ball placed where he didn’t have a chance. The process was good.
Williams gets hands on the receiver early on the route and manages to slow him despite the dipped shoulder (a benefit of length). He then stays in contact as the receiver starts to look for the back shoulder throw and slows himself, mirroring the movement of the receiver. He doesn’t let himself get too jostled by the receiver pushing off, and is in good position to try and contest the throw coming in. He perhaps mis-times his jump by a hair, but that’s really a nitpick. His coverage was good enough to require a terrific throw and catch both, and that’s generally all one can ask for from an NFL corner.
The fact that he gave up a catch here prevents me from charting it as a “success", but I can’t chalk it up as a failure either when the coverage is good just because the other guy makes a tremendous play (otherwise I’d have to call plays where the coverage was poor but the receiver dropped the ball a “success,” and that defeats the entire purpose of going beyond the box score. But I digress).
In terms of play awareness. Williams did a nice job against a levels concept when he was stuck in no-man’s land in zone, staying just deep enough to protect the intermediate route and then closing quickly when the quarterback went to the RB in the flat (the ball was dropped, but he was in position to stop it for a relatively short gain). He also looked generally comfortable executing the assignments Spags threw at him, with a few exceptions.
Williams did get lost in what I THINK (him getting lost on it made it tough to say) was a zone coverage assignment where he started to follow his receiver as though he were in man. He also (as is typical of bigger, physical corners) showed a tendency to get a little too grabby at times, risking holding penalties. It’s a fine line to walk, but he’ll need to be careful with these sort of snaps. Watch for the final “grab” at the receiver after they’ve broken contact.
That quick tug on the receiver once he’s no longer “even” with Williams is something that he did several times. It’s a pretty common technique at the pro level as cornerbacks try and keep receivers from leaving them behind, but it can definitely be risky depending on the officiating crew that day. Williams had a few “grabby” moments like this on the day, and it’s something he’ll continually need to be cautious about and vary on a game by game basis depending on how it’s getting called.
A final issue for Williams is that he did allow himself to get washed out of plays a few times by blockers in a way that shouldn’t happen for an NFL corner, especially one with his size. It’s interesting, because of the two of them, McDuffie was the more consistently physical player when facing blockers.
Overall though, Williams was impressive for a 4th-rounder seeing his first pro action, especially one seeing such a huge jump in competition level from college. He has more rough edges to iron out than McDuffie by a fair amount, and he didn’t show the same change of direction and feet, but it was very clear why the Chiefs seem to believe he’s a player who could see snaps this season and hold his own.
We’ll see what Saturday holds for both McDuffie and Williams on Saturday, but it’s hard to not be excited for the future of the cornerback position in Kansas City. Williams shows the tools to be a solid player with the potential to be more as he gets experience under his belt. And McDuffie is another strong performance from me dropping even the appearance of objectivity and going full swoon in anticipation of what his future could look like.