The Chiefs continue to search for answers at cornerback

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Terrance Mitchell
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Terrance Mitchell /

Kansas City Chiefs secondary coach Al Harris says that Terrance Mitchell wasn’t benched at all, but that the coaches are instead just trying to find the right fit.

It turns out the answer wasn’t in house after all.

The Kansas City Chiefs allowed the entire offseason to come and go without worrying too much about cornerback opposite Marcus Peters in the secondary. For the last few drafts, the Chiefs had added a number of young, emerging talents at defensive back, much like wide receiver, and the Chiefs seemed to be comfortable under general manager John Dorsey with holding steady at the position.

While it was a questionable decision, even at the time, it wasn’t an indefensible one. Consider the reasons for optimism from the Chiefs staff for a number of players:

  • Terrance Mitchell came on strong in the team’s final handful of games and looked like a real answer on the outside, despite the fact that he’d been a journeyman free agent who was available on the open market for anyone to sign midway through the year.
  • Phillip Gaines had been inconsistent and injured, but coming into a contract year, he was healthy and motivated to provide some returns on the third round investment placed on him a few years prior. In addition, Gaines had actually flashed some very impressive potential during his rookie season.
  • Steven Nelson looked good in his first full year starting and showed he could even play outside despite a smallish size that forced most analysts or even coaches to automatically project him as a slot corner. Another year in the system would give Nelson a real chance to blossom.

Even outside of those three primary candidates, the Chiefs also had several other young faces in training camp hopeful to make an impact. Kenneth Acker had been a versatile trade target from the San Francisco 49ers just one year prior. D.J. White was the team’s sixth round choice in 2016 who had some decent experience in his first year. Leon McQuay was this year’s final draft choice, another smart, physical and versatile product from USC.

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In the end, instead of signing a veteran free agent or drafting another rookie to complicate a crowded picture, Dorsey instead decided to let competition work things out. Every option came with serious question marks, but certainly one thing had to turn out for the positive. Either Mitchell was the real deal or Gaines would show himself ready or Nelson would play bigger or another developmental player would unexpectedly step up. The investments had already been made, and it was up to the coaching staff to nurture the talent on the roster into the answer instead of bringing in something foreign from the outside.

Fast forward eight games and the Chiefs likely wish they’d altered their approach just a tad. Mitchell has lost his starting spot. Gaines looks lost on the field and is the targeted mismatch when he’s in the game. Nelson was injured until just two weeks ago and even then he’s needed inside. Furthermore, none of the others, or even newer faces like Steven Terrell, have proven to be the sort of lockdown option opposite Peters.

For a team that refuses to play man coverage, instead allowing quarterbacks to completely avoid one side of the field and its best playmaker, it’s a serious problem having such a drop in talent after Marcus Peters. On one side, Peters provides an All-Pro level presence, a playmaker with elite instincts and a nose for the ball. On the other side, well, it’s not quite the opposite of all of that but it might as well be.

Al Harris, the Chiefs secondary coach, even admitted the team is experimenting week to week on Monday in his media session. Mitchell has missed most of the last two weeks after being in the starting line-up for much of the season thus far, earning only 4 snaps last Sunday. Instead, Acker has been given the chance to start two consecutive games to middling results.

"“Last year, we started four different right cornerbacks,” said Harris. “It is a constant evaluation on our side of the ball and just our football team in general. There wasn’t a glaring thing to say, ‘OK, Terrance is being benched,’ because that wasn’t the case. We are just trying to find the right combination of players on the field in the secondary. Those guys have to be on the same page. There can’t be a weak link. Not that Terrance was a weak link, I am not saying that, but we just need to find the best combination of guys.”"

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the carousel is likely to continue spinning as the Chiefs search (and hope) for an answer. Acker played solid coverage much of the time, only to give way to occasional glaring mistakes that proved much of the difference between the Cowboys and Chiefs on Sunday. His ball skills and versatility are an asset, but only in sub packages and certainly not as an everydown corner on the outside. He’s simply going to be targeted far too much. It also sounds like the Chiefs also reached the same conclusion about Mitchell at the midway point.

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Maybe the bye week will allow Nelson to find his footing and grow into the role. Maybe the Chiefs will hold some auditions to see what’s available on the free agent market. Harris makes it clear that they will continue to try new things until something clicks. Maybe it will take another outsider a la Mitchell from last season to finally help the secondary settle, but at this point it needs to be an answer they find sooner than later.