The Curious Case of the Kansas City Chiefs' Cornerbacks

How do the Kansas City Chiefs value cornerbacks? They have employed a unique strategy at corner the last few years, and despite being unconventional, it's working.
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Kristian Fulton was dropping.

During the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, many in Chiefs Kingdom were excited to see Fulton, the talented cornerback prospect out of LSU, dropping in the first round. He was projected by many to be a first-round pick, safety Tyrann Mathieu talked up his fellow LSU alum all year, and he would have fit the Chiefs' system very well.

Except when the Chiefs drafted at pick 32, they took a different LSU player: running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Despite many in the NFL Draft community and Chiefs fandom believing that the Chiefs' primary weakness heading into the draft was at cornerback, the Chiefs passed on a cornerback over the first two days of the draft. The first cornerback taken by the Chiefs was Louisiana Tech DB L’Jarius Sneed — the 138th pick, coming late in the fourth round.

The draft was a good microcosm of how the Chiefs have viewed the cornerback position while Brett Veach has been the team's general manager. The Chiefs invest very little capital in the position. So little, in fact, that they are dead last in the NFL.

Going into the 2020 season, the Chiefs are currently spending the least amount of money at the cornerback position according to Spotrac, as of the publishing of this story. If we look at the projected starters, then the Chiefs are spending the 29th-most at the position.

Since 2018, when Brett Veach became the Chiefs' GM, the Chiefs have rated 26th, 17th, and 29th in salary cap spending at cornerback. In that time, the only cornerbacks drafted by the Chiefs in the NFL draft have been:

1) Tremon Smith - 6th round, 2018

2) Rashad Fenton - 6th round, 2019

3) L’Jarius Sneed - 4th round, 2020

4) Thakarius "BoPete" Keyes - 7th round, 2020

So while the quantity is there, there has been a concerted effort to not spend a premium pick at cornerback.

The Chiefs have also been committed to not spending big in free agency at cornerback either. While many quality corners have hit free agency in the past few years, the Chiefs haven't really seemed to consider pursuing one. The Chiefs even let Kendall Fuller leave Kansas City to go back to his original team in Washington to earn $40 million over four years. The only marquee cornerback signing in free agency for the Chiefs has been Bashaud Breeland, who has now signed two one-year deals with the Chiefs for a few million dollars each. 

Perhaps the biggest find at cornerback by Brett Veach has been Charvarius Ward, whose emergence as a starting boundary cornerback has given the Chiefs wiggle room at the position and has kept them from absolutely needing to invest heavily in rookies or in free agency. Veach acquired Ward in a crafty trade in 2018 in which the Chiefs sent backup guard Parker Ehinger to the Cowboys for Ward. Ward was just a player who had shown promise in training camp as an undrafted free agent at the time, but this small gamble paid off big. This trade was still a small investment at cornerback, all the same.

This type of team-building strategy is an odd one, considering that the Chiefs' defense pairs up with a high-flying, explosive offense on the other side of the ball. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Chiefs invest heavily in pass rushers along with cornerbacks, which are seen to be the two premium positions on defense. The Chiefs have certainly invested in their pass rushers by trading for defensive end Frank Clark with premium draft capital and giving him a $100 million contract and then giving defensive tackle Chris Jones a new $85 million deal.

And while the investment at cornerback has not been there for the Chiefs, there is one player that must be mentioned when talking about the position.

Tyrann Mathieu was paid a pretty penny to come to Kansas City in the 2019 offseason, and one of the main reasons for that was his versatility. Both Steve Spagnuolo and Brett Veach talked about how they loved that Mathieu could play any secondary position and do it well. This was on full display in 2019, especially at cornerback. Mathieu’s most-played alignment on defense was actually at slot cornerback, with 457 of his 1062 snaps on defense coming in the slot. So while Mathieu is a Swiss Army knife that moves around the field, a lot of his time is spent playing cornerback. This is pretty much the sole example of Veach investing in a player who plays cornerback in his three years as Chiefs GM.

It’s hard to tell why the Chiefs have invested very little in the cornerback position in the last few years. Was it because they planned on doubling down on the investment along the defensive line in Frank Clark and Chris Jones? Were they fine covering for cornerbacks with investments in versatile safeties with free agent Tyrann Mathieu and second-round pick Juan Thornhill? Are they confident in their ability to develop young, toolsy cornerbacks into something greater than their draft selection would indicate? It might be a combination of all of that, or it could just be that the cards never fell the right way to draft or pay a cornerback.

However, it's hard to argue with results. Over the last few years, the Chiefs' pass defense has definitely outplayed their perceived talent. In 2018, the Chiefs' defense was 12th in the league in passing defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. In 2019, the Chiefs' defense improved even more and ended at sixth in the league in passing defense DVOA. With little invested at cornerbacks, these types of results are very impressive.

Whether Brett Veach and the Chiefs invest more in cornerbacks going forward will be an interesting subplot to observe as the Chiefs' roster with Mahomes changes. After the current collection of players cycle out and the only thing in common between this current Chiefs team and the Chiefs teams of the future is Patrick Mahomes, will the Chiefs still be employing this team-building strategy at cornerback? The answer right now is unknown, but the past few years have been a curious trend to witness.