Having reliable cornerback play is important in today's NFL. Some recently competitive AFC teams, unlike the Kansas City Chiefs, have made concerted efforts to secure that by investing heavily in the position.
For example, the Baltimore Ravens have ranked in the top-five in spending at cornerback in each of the past three seasons. The 2019 Tennessee Titans — a team that played the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game — ranked second in cornerback spending. The upstart Miami Dolphins were third in that same category a year ago and are first heading into the 2021 campaign. Where much of the conference has zigged, the Chiefs have zagged.
From 2018-2020, the Chiefs never ranked higher than 27th in the NFL in cornerback spending. As of the time this article was published, their current figure ($11,466,222) is 26th. In 2017, a year in which Brett Veach didn't take over as general manager until after the draft, the Chiefs' monetary investment in cornerbacks was the 25th-highest in the league. It isn't an outlier anymore — it's a pretty clear trend.
The draft process is also interesting to analyze. In four drafts as general manager, Veach has picked four cornerbacks. Tremon Smith was a 2018 sixth-rounder who quickly fizzled out and is no longer with the team. The following year, Veach struck again in the sixth round, this time drafting Rashad Fenton. Last year, L'Jarius Sneed and BoPete Keyes heard their names called in rounds four and seven, respectively. Day 3 seems to be Veach's go-to time to strike for cornerback help.
A key contributor to the Chiefs' cornerback group over the past two seasons, originally brought in via the free-agent market, was Bashaud Breeland. In 27 games as a Chief, Breeland recorded 67 tackles, 17 passes broken up and four interceptions. His steady and inexpensive play on the outside ($5 million combined contract values in 2019 and 2020) was a major reason why the Chiefs could get by without investing heavily at cornerback. Breeland has earned a payday by now, and he knows it.
Over two months removed from the start of free agency, Breeland is still without a home. With another two months until training camp, he's got time to keep searching. Per The Athletic's Nate Taylor, the 29-year-old has already visited with the Minnesota Vikings — a team that recently traded a cornerback of their own to the Chiefs. The Chicago Bears also have some level of interest in him, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
Despite reports offering hope for a contract soon, Breeland's future remains in question. If the Chiefs choose to continue preparing for the 2021 campaign without him, their philosophy on corners will be put to the test. Consistent, starting-quality outside defensive backs don't grow on trees. The Chiefs' cornerback cupboard isn't bare, but with Breeland out of the picture, they will get an up-close and personal look at its contents.
Starting at the top, restricted free agent Charvarius Ward is returning to the Chiefs after having a second-round tender placed on him worth just under $3.4 million. Ward, who went undrafted in 2018, was acquired via trade later that year. His current cap hit is more than that of his first three seasons combined. While his play has fluctuated after making a strong first impression with the team, Ward is slated to start on the outside again this season.
Albeit in a small sample size, Sneed burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2020. In nine games, the former Louisiana Tech standout broke up seven passes, intercepted another three and also had a pair of sacks. His strong play continued into the postseason as well. It's unclear whether Sneed will be moved back outside this year, but if he is, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be demonstrating a great deal of faith in a player who is still somewhat unproven.
Fenton and the newly-acquired Mike Hughes should compete for reps in the slot, assuming Sneed is kicked back outside. Fenton has managed to outperform his draft position thus far and projects as a passable nickel corner. Hughes, on the other hand, is a former first-round pick who still has yet to put it all together. His ceiling is much higher than Fenton's, but he may never reach it. Sending just a 2022 sixth-round pick to Minnesota in exchange for Hughes and a 2022 seventh-round selection, Veach once again executed a buy-low trade to inject talent at the cornerback position.
Keyes and DeAndre Baker are the next two players in line. Keyes is still very raw and started just one game last season. Baker, another former first-round pick, was snagged and stashed on the practice squad in November of 2020. He then broke his left femur in his first game with the team. Both Keyes and Baker offer intriguing profiles, but neither of them should be counted on to be major contributors this season. The same can be said about 2021 undrafted free agent Dicaprio Bootle.
There is no such thing as a certainty at the cornerback position for the Chiefs right now. Ward is inconsistent, Sneed is impressive but inexperienced, relying on Fenton is somewhat risky, Hughes is a lottery ticket, Keyes isn't ready, Baker is coming off of a major injury and Bootle may not even make the team. The aforementioned group consists of two former first-round picks who are now reclamation projects, a fourth-round pick, a sixth-round pick, a seventh-round pick and a pair of undrafted free agents. The Chiefs are truly rolling the dice with this group.
That isn't to say that Ward can't turn in a solid season in a contract year. It isn't to say that Sneed can't solidify himself as a premier talent and build on an outstanding rookie campaign. Perhaps Fenton fills in admirably as a full-time slot corner. Could at least one of Hughes, Keyes or Baker emerge? Sure. With that said, there's one player we've discussed that doesn't come with question marks: Breeland.
Maybe the Chiefs will reunite with their old friend. At this point in the offseason, though, those chances don't look particularly great. Retaining Ward was a solid decision and trading for Hughes is a nice move, but ultimately, Veach and company didn't get better at the cornerback position this offseason. They likely lost their most reliable player. Replacing him will be easier said than done.
The philosophy of making minimal investments in cornerbacks has worked thus far for the Chiefs. It's possible that they skate by for another year under the same umbrella. To that point, if they head into this season with the group they currently have, it will be placed under a microscope. It will be challenged each and every week. It's up to that unit to answer the call.