Pre-Camp Breakdown: Looking at the Chiefs' Young & Talented Group of Defensive Backs – chiefs.com

Chiefs Reporter
Quarterbacks and rookies report to training camp later this week, and with the annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph nearly here, we’re in the midst of examining every position group on the roster in anticipation of the 2022 campaign.
Here’s a look at every other position that we’ve covered:
Quarterback | Running Back | Tight End | Wide Receiver | Offensive Line
Defensive Line | Linebacker
We’ll wrap up this series with defensive back, where the Chiefs currently feature 18 players: Zayne Anderson, DeAndre Baker, Dicaprio Bootle, Deon Bush, Bryan Cook, Brandin Dandridge, Rashad Fenton, Nasir Greer, Lonnie Johnson, Nazeeh Johnson, Devon Key, Chris Lammons, Trent McDuffie, Justin Reid, L’Jarius Sneed, Juan Thornhill, Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams.
Here’s a closer look at each defensive back on the roster, segmented into cornerbacks and safeties. Those two positions are often interchangeable in Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, but the groupings below reflect how each player was primarily utilized last season (or how it has been indicated they’ll be used in 2022).
Cornerbacks (listed alphabetically)
DeAndre Baker
A former first-round pick of the New York Giants (No. 30 overall in 2019) who joined the Chiefs late in the 2020 campaign, Baker is entering his second full year with Kansas City in 2022. He appeared in eight games (1 start) last season, recording the fifth-most defensive snaps (212) among Chiefs’ cornerbacks.
Still a young player at only 24 years old, the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Baker will have an opportunity in camp to capitalize on the immense potential that made him a first-round selection only three short years ago.
Dicaprio Bootle
Bootle, who signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent last offseason, bounced between the practice squad and the active roster in 2021. He ultimately saw action in three games (Week 4, 15 and 16) while contributing primarily on special teams, but he did earn the opportunity to play 38 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps in Kansas City’s victory over Pittsburgh in Week 16. Bootle recorded a team-leading seven tackles in that game.
The Chiefs signed Bootle to a “Reserve/Futures” deal early in the offseason.
Brandin Dandridge
Another “Reserve/Futures” signee, Dandridge – a Kansas City native – tallied four interceptions for the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League in 2021. Dandridge went to nearby Blue Springs South High School and played his college ball at Missouri Western State University, making for a fun story up at camp this year.
Rashad Fenton
The 25-year-old Fenton put together a breakout season of sorts in 2021, earning the top PFF grade among all Chiefs’ cornerbacks while tallying a career-most 531 defensive snaps. In fact, among corners with 500+ snaps last season, PFF’s grading scale ranked Fenton as the fifth-best performer in the league. Specifically, his tackling grade led all corners and his coverage grade ranked sixth. Fenton recorded five passes defensed and didn’t surrender a single touchdown on the year, holding opposing receivers to just 293 yards in his coverage.
It’s worth pointing out that Fenton’s snap total was significantly smaller than some of his counterparts in that group of top performers, but the point remains that when given an opportunity, Fenton often impressed in 2021.
The three-year veteran will certainly be in the mix for a sizable role heading into this season and will look to build on last year’s success. Particularly, it will be interesting to see where Fenton lines up schematically. He spent the majority of his time (411 snaps) as an outside cornerback last season after splitting time evenly between the slot and outside corner in 2020.
Lonnie Johnson Jr.
The Chiefs acquired Johnson in a trade with the Houston Texans in early May, adding a former high draft pick who could potentially benefit from a change in scenery.
Johnson was the No. 54 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, making him the eighth cornerback taken that year. He went on to appear 44 games during his career with 19 total starts, amassing 172 tackles, 13 passes defensed and three picks. Most recently, Johnson appeared in 14 games (7 starts) last season, recording six passes defensed and a career-high three interceptions.
The 26-year-old Johnson has manned a variety of roles during his brief career, serving primarily as a wide corner during his rookie season (419 snaps) before transitioning to free safety in each of the last two years. He handled a bit of a hybrid role in 2021, logging the majority of his snaps at free safety (317) while also recording some time (148 snaps) at wide corner.
Johnson checks in at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, making him the third-tallest cornerback currently on the roster. It’s not just height, either, as Johnson also has long arms at 32 5/8 inches.
His addition continues a recent trend for Kansas City of acquiring longer boundary defenders, as the only cornerbacks taller than Johnson currently on the roster are rookies Joshua Williams (6-foot-3) and Jaylen Watson (6-foot-3). By comparison, only two corners (L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward, both at 6-foot-1) logged snaps for the Chiefs last season at 6-foot-0 or taller. Kansas City didn’t have any corners who checked in at 6-foot-2 or taller last season, and now they employ three.
Chris Lammons
The Chiefs re-signed Lammons this offseason after the 26-year-old defensive back appeared in 12 games last season, primarily in a special teams’ capacity. In fact, Lammons’ 219 special teams’ snaps ranked sixth on the team last year and second among returning players.
He also saw some brief action on defense, recording 13 total snaps across two games.
Trent McDuffie
The Chiefs selected McDuffie with the No. 21 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft after the 5-foot-11, 195-pound defensive back completed one of the best seasons for a corner in all of college football last year.
The 21-year-old McDuffie allowed only 16 receptions on 36 targets for a grand total of 111 yards – the fewest yards allowed among players targeted 30+ times – across 11 games last season. He yielded an opponent passer rating of just 52.0 while playing 296 total coverage snaps, allowing a mere 3.1 yards-per-target (also the best mark in the FBS).
It was just a continuation of what turned out to be a stellar career for McDuffie, who surrendered just two “deep” receptions – which are passes of 20+ yards – during his three years in school. Additionally, McDuffie didn’t allow a touchdown reception in each of the last two seasons.
He was the No. 11 overall player (and No. 2 cornerback) available in this year’s class according to Pro Football Focus, and while he’ll need to earn his time on the field, McDuffie has a great opportunity to make a significant impact right away.
L’Jarius Sneed
The Chiefs’ leader in total defensive snaps (918) among corners last season (and No. 2 overall among all defensive players, trailing only former safety Tyrann Mathieu), Sneed recorded eight passes defensed and two interceptions across 15 starts last season. The Louisiana Tech product was primarily a slot corner (a team-leading 543 snaps) for Kansas City last season, notching the 12th-most snaps at slot corner of any player in the league. He also spent some time on the boundary (225 snaps) as well.
That extended time in the slot often allowed Sneed to show off his abilities as a blitzer, which is one of the best elements of his game. He racked up eight pressures last season, ranking sixth among all corners.
Sneed is now one of the most tenured members of the cornerback group – trailing only Fenton in terms of service time – and projects to be one of Kansas City’s most significant defensive contributors this season. Barring injuries, he’ll likely be among the team-leaders in terms of defensive snaps yet again.
Jaylen Watson
Another rookie, Watson was the No. 243 overall selection in this year’s draft after starting 15 games for Washington State over the last two seasons. He tallied 44 tackles, seven passes defensed and two interceptions during his time with the Cougars, earning All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention recognition in both of his years on campus.
One intriguing aspect of Watson’s game is his impressive size. He stands at 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, possessing exceptional height and size for an NFL cornerback. Lance Zierlein from NFL.com noted that Watson used that size to be “physical in bullying the release from press” and to “overwhelm the catch point on contested catches.”
He’s still a raw player, but The Athletic’s Dane Brugler believes that Watson has the physical tools to stick around. Here’s more from Brugler’s draft guide:
“He is a good-sized athlete with the speed, strength and swagger that NFL teams covet at the position…Overall, Watson has only played 15 games at the FBS level, and it shows at times with his missteps, but his raw traits and instincts are enticing starter traits. He will be appealing to NFL teams that value big press corners.”
Joshua Williams
The Chiefs’ fourth-round selection (No. 135 overall) in this year’s draft, Williams – a two-year starter at Fayetteville State – was the first alum of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to be drafted since 2020. He recorded nine passes defensed and three interceptions in nine starts last season, earning first-team all-conference honors.
Williams stands at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, possessing outstanding size for a cornerback. Here’s what NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote about Williams, who has a chance to earn significant playing time with a strong camp:
“Small-school cornerback with big-school traits and talent. Williams is long-limbed with the versatility and talent to play in any coverage. The footwork in press needs to be cleaned up and he allows some separation at the break-point against quicker targets, but his above-average foot agility and speed are the key to his ability to recover and recalibrate positioning. On the flip side, his size, length and ball skills stand out on tape and make it easier to project success as a competitive, downfield cover man in time.”
Safeties (listed alphabetically)
Zayne Anderson
An undrafted free agent signee last offseason, Anderson spent time on both the Chiefs’ practice squad and active roster in 2021. He appeared in a total of four games, serving exclusively in a special teams’ role (62 snaps).
The 25-year-old Anderson was a versatile player in college, recording snaps at safety, cornerback and linebacker during his career. He has good size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and has a shot to make the team with a strong camp.
Deon Bush
A six-year veteran, Bush signed with the Chiefs this past offseason after spending the 2021 campaign with the Chicago Bears. He saw action in 14 games for Chicago last season (4 starts) and set career-highs in numerous areas, including defensive snaps played (377), passes defensed (5) and interceptions (2).
Bush also contributed on special teams, recording 203 total snaps while earning the best special teams’ PFF grade of any player on the Bears (min. 100 snaps).
Bryan Cook
The No. 62 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Cook started 14 games for the University of Cincinnati last season while earning First Team All-AAC honors. He racked up 96 tackles in his lone season as a starter for the Bearcats, tallying five tackles-for-loss, a sack, 11 passes defensed and two interceptions.
Cook is a true hybrid player who garnered experience in coverage and as a run-defender at Cincinnati. In fact, his snap counts last season were split almost exactly down the middle. He recorded 451 snaps in coverage, where he forced the ninth-most incompletions among all safeties (7), and 444 snaps against the run, tallying the eighth-most run stops (25) of any safety. He was one of only four defensive backs in the FBS to tally 95+ tackles and 10+ passes defensed in 2021.
The 6-foot-1, 206-pound Cook is also a sure-tackler. Here’s what PFF wrote about Cook:
“Cook is one of the most assignment-sure safeties and won’t be missing many tackles. He whiffed only seven times on 100 attempts in 2021.”
Nasir Greer
An undrafted free agent signee, Greer played in 33 games during his career at Wake Forest, tallying 141 tackles, five forced fumbles and three interceptions in that time. He made six starts for the Demon Deacons last season, recording 18 tackles and a pick.
The 6-foot-0, 201-pound defensive back battled injuries over the last two years, but he’ll now have a chance to show what he can do in Kansas City.
Nazeeh Johnson
The Chiefs’ final draft pick at No. 259 overall, Johnson is an experienced player who started 45 games during his career at Marshall University. He played five seasons for the Thundering Herd, rotating between nickelback and free safety. He racked up 302 tackles, 26 passes defensed, seven interceptions and five tackles-for-loss in that time, earning All-Conference USA recognition in each of the last three seasons (Second-Team in 2020, Honorable Mention in 2019 and 2021).
The 5-foot-10, 199-pound defensive back is explosive and showed off good speed at his pro day, running the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Here’s more from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler:
“Johnson plays with outstanding balance in coverage with the athletic twitch to mirror and make sudden start-stops (his elite testing numbers match his athleticism on tape).”
Devon Key
An undrafted free agent signee last season who often impressed in training camp, Key spent the 2021 season on Kansas City’s practice squad. The former Western Kentucky product – who stands at 6-foot-1, 204 pounds – will now have another shot to make the Week 1 roster this time around following a full year in the building.
Justin Reid
One of Kansas City’s high-profile free agent acquisitions this offseason, Reid enters his first campaign with the Chiefs as one of the top young safeties in the game.
Originally a third-round pick (No. 68 overall) in the 2018 NFL Draft, Reid appeared in 57 games (53 starts) for Houston over the last four seasons. He immediately established himself as one of the better safeties in the NFL during his rookie campaign, ranking sixth among all players at his position in passes defensed (10) while recording three interceptions. Reid took one of those picks 101 yards to the house.
Reid then followed that up with a strong sophomore season, earning the 12th best Pro Football Focus grade among all safeties in 2019 (min. 900 snaps). Remarkably, it was later revealed that Reid posted that strong performance in 2019 despite playing with a shoulder injury throughout the season. His determination to play through the injury led to his teammates naming him the Texans’ “Ed Block Courage Award” recipient following the year.
He went on to start 26 games for Houston over the next two seasons, compiling the second-most tackles (145) of any player on the Texans’ roster. Overall, Reid recorded 304 tackles, 23 passes defensed, 11 tackles-for-loss, seven interceptions, six quarterback hits and two forced fumbles during his time in Houston.
Additionally, Reid – who stands at six-foot-one, 203 pounds – was touted as one of the most athletic players in the 2018 Draft following a strong combine in which he showed off impressive speed, explosiveness and agility. Reid ranked third among all safeties in the 40-yard dash (4.40), third in the three-cone drill (6.65 seconds) and fifth in the broad jump (128 inches).
That athleticism allowed the Texans to deploy Reid in a variety of ways. Just last season, he logged snaps at free safety (540), in the box (147), at slot corner (65), along the line of scrimmage (21) and at wide corner (7). He also contributed on special teams, recording 59 snaps on punt coverage.
Juan Thornhill
One of the familiar faces remaining in the Chiefs’ secondary, Thornhill is entering his fourth season with Kansas City in 2022. He appeared in all 17 games last year (12 starts) while recording the third-most defensive snaps of any player on the team (850). He tallied 64 tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble in that time.
Thornhill was tremendous as a rookie in 2019, earning a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team following the season. He ran into some bad luck when he tore his ACL in Week 17 of that year, but to his credit, the former second-round pick fought through his rehab and made it back for Week 1 of the 2020 campaign.
He’s now two full years removed from the injury, and at 26 years old, the best could very well be yet to come for Thornhill.
The Bottom Line
This group features a handful of players who enter camp as unquestioned starters, including Sneed, Reid and Thornhill. Many of the others, however, will be fighting for a spot on the team. Kansas City infused an abundance of talent and youth into its secondary this offseason, adding 10 players who weren’t with the organization last season. The reality is that some good players will likely find themselves on the outside looking in following roster cuts due to the sheer volume of competition, which is a good problem to have from a team-building perspective.
The Chiefs have kept 10 defensive backs on the active roster in each of the last three years, providing a solid indicator of how many the Chiefs may keep for the 2022 season. That leaves room for just over half of this current group to make the team, and with several intriguing players on the roster bubble, there should be ample competition for the final three to four spots.
In terms of specific camp storylines to watch, the progression of McDuffie and Cook will be particularly intriguing because of their status as high draft picks. Each of those players will likely be given an opportunity to earn a significant role on defense early on, but it will be up to them to capitalize on it.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo often fields three safeties at once. Former safety Daniel Sorensen, for example, tallied 699 defensive snaps last season in that role. That means that while Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill enter the season as the Chiefs’ starting safeties, there’s plenty of reason to watch if Bryan Cook – or another player, such as Deon Bush – can seize that coveted third safety spot.
There’s also the matter of replacing the production left by former cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was on the field for 751 defensive snaps last season. It’s reasonable to assume that Rashad Fenton and Trent McDuffie are candidates for that role, but it’s also possible that a player such as Williams – who impressed during Organized Team Activities – could earn himself some snaps. Others – including DeAndre Baker, Lonnie Johnson and Dicaprio Bootle – may be in the mix, too.
Simply put, the Chiefs feature a bunch of talent at defensive back heading into 2022, and while this is a very young group, it will be fun to watch them grow as a unit during camp.
For more information or to attend Chiefs Training Camp, click here.
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Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones
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