The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t addressed the cornerback position much under General Manager Brett Veach. There are a variety of reasons to explain why the team has chosen this strategy, such as the theory that the Chiefs need cornerback less than many other teams, the theory that Veach values the cornerback position less than many other positions, or the theory that the Chiefs may just be happy with their current group of cornerbacks. Regardless of the true logic behind the moves, cornerback Charvarius Ward will be the player who can validate the Chiefs' choices.
Ward was an undrafted free agent in 2018 coming out of Middle Tennessee State University, signed initially by the Dallas Cowboys. Ward’s preseason in Dallas went well, particularly in his last game vs. the Arizona Cardinals. In that game, Ward played 22 snaps, had pass breakups both times he was targeted, and received a 90.6 PFF grade. Shortly after, Veach pulled off one of the best value trades of his tenure. Veach got Ward in a trade with the Cowboys, sending guard Parker Ehinger in return. Ehinger never played a snap with the Cowboys, and Ward has become a building block of the Chiefs' defense.
In the 2018 regular season, Ward sat on the bench until the Chiefs’ Week 16 game against the Seattle Seahawks. This game was interesting for Ward, as he rarely got burned, but he still allowed five catches for 110 yards. This could be blamed somewhat on Ward not getting his head turned around, but also because Russell Wilson is the best deep-passer in football.
After Week 16, things went much smoother for Ward. In Week 17 and the postseason, he finished with the best PFF grade (77.2), passer rating (74.5), pass breakups (four), yards allowed (105) and yards per reception (8.1) among Chiefs cornerbacks. He allowed fewer than 50 yards in all three of these games and just 20 yards in the AFC Championship loss vs. the New England Patriots.
This rightfully gave Chiefs fans high expectations on Ward’s future. I thought those expectations became too lofty, but in 2019, he proved me wrong.
In the 2019 regular season, 40 cornerbacks played at least 800 total snaps. Among them, Charvarius Ward had the fourth-lowest passer rating when targeted (67.3), trailing only Tre’Davious White, Richard Sherman and Stephon Gilmore. Ward was also ahead of Gilmore and close to White in yards per coverage snap, with White finishing at 0.97, Ward finishing at 1.00 and Gilmore finishing at 1.08. Now I’m not saying Ward was as good as White and Gilmore in 2019, or anywhere close, but I am saying that the numbers that Ward put up in 2019 were quite astounding and an uncommon sight for a cornerback that went undrafted. The only cornerback I can think of that went undrafted that has put up numbers like that for an extended period of time is former Kansas Jayhawk, former Denver Broncos and now-Los Angeles Charger Chris Harris Jr.
Harris Jr. is one of the best cornerbacks of this era, deserving to be mentioned with the likes of Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Casey Hayward and others. Harris Jr. stacks up with the very best cornerbacks in PFF grading and his other numbers back it up too, with a career yards per coverage tally under 0.85. That is better than both Revis and Hayward.
So what will come of Ward’s future? It is tough to project at the moment. Cornerback is one of the most — if not the most — volatile position in football. Many great cornerbacks, such as eight-year veteran Josh Norman, have a mix of great seasons, average seasons and poor seasons.
Ward’s growth seems real, with him turning his head around to make plays on the ball becoming a more common occurrence, but we have been fooled by similar stories before, such as former Chiefs CB Terrance Mitchell.
In 2016, Mitchell played six games for the Chiefs and he played admirably. He had the game-winning pass breakup in a Thursday Night game vs. the Oakland Raiders, four yards allowed and four pass breakups the following week vs. the Tennessee Titans and zero yards allowed in the Chiefs’ Wild Card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. 2017 was not as kind to Mitchell. He had good numbers in some aspects, such as his four interceptions, ten pass breakups and a completion percentage when targeted of 51.7%, but he also allowed nearly 1.7 yards per coverage snap and six touchdowns. That just won’t fly. In the two seasons since then, he has played with the Cleveland Browns, where he has put up average numbers. Ward having this scenario play out of what he has shown in his two seasons would be disappointing, but it is the more likely scenario compared to Ward becoming a top-10 cornerback year-in and year-out.
Pro Football Focus data scientist Eric Eager took a look at the Chiefs’ defense as a whole back in early January to find out how stable their 2019 improvement might be and one part of the article, in particular, caught my attention.
According to Eager, “the Chiefs are the fifth-best team in the NFL when the quarterback throws the ball on his first read (-0.05; only nine teams have allowed better than a 0.0 EPA on such throws, versus 11 overall). On admissible plays, the Chiefs were pretty good at forcing other teams off that first read, too, making them do so about a fourth of the time (11th-best in the league).”
While Eager admits that this is an unstable stat year-to-year, it is highly correlated with strength of schedule, and the Chiefs played a tough schedule in 2019.
Ward is a restricted free agent after the 2020 season. He has made $1,050,000 in the previous two seasons and will make $750,000 this year. This season will be the most important for Ward in his young career. He could end up with a big new contract this time next year, he could go into a period of uncertainty as a restricted free agent, potentially playing on a one-year deal, or he may have to settle for a contract that he would not be satisfied with. It will also be crucial for the Chiefs, as Ward is currently the best cornerback on the team and they want to make sure he is worth the price tag he would demand.