KC Chiefs: Jaylen Watson’s debut at Arrowhead was an instant classic

The underdog story is always a good one, whether it be on the big screen or in real life. One of my personal favorites is The Replacements (2000) starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman. While both their characters are memorable, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson would fit right into the football movie’s cast of characters.

The 23-year-old rookie from Augusta, Georgia came to Kansas City as the 243rd overall pick in this past draft. He had an unremarkable college career and one that nearly didn’t happen. Watson started his college career at Ventura College in California, where he was a two-time junior college All-American cornerback. After that, he committed to playing at USC but did not enroll due to lackluster academics.

Kansas City Chiefs rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson was the rookie of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2. What made his first career start so effective?

It was at that point that Watson resembled a movie character. He was back home, working at a Wendy’s with his mom, wondering where his football career goes from here.

“It was really hard because I’d been playing football since I was five and just have a tremendous love for the game,” Watson said. “Football is a safe haven. I didn’t have the best in home life, so when I’m going through family issues or whatever I was going through, when I got on the field, it was my safe haven.”

Watson eventually continued his career at Washington State, a school not known for its defensive firepower. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in both 2020 and 2021, making an immediate impact on the Cougars. Despite this, Watson was widely viewed as a late-round prospect, or even an undrafted free agent, according to NFL.com. However, the Chiefs brought the underdog to Kansas City, taking a shot at a player who fought through many obstacles to reach the NFL.

Fans and teams alike usually don’t expect much out of their seventh-round selections. The Chiefs are no strangers to forgettable seventh-round players like BoPete Keyes and Da’Ron Brown. But, Watson made sure fans would not forget his name anytime soon.

In a game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2, Watson broke the game’s tie with a 99-yard pick-six. The score was crucial to the Chiefs’ victory, with only 10:29 left in the game. It was certainly an unforgettable play, when Watson undercut the throw intended for Chargers tight end Gerald Everett.

According to NFL Research, Watson’s game-changing score “is the longest go-ahead 4th-quarter TD scored by a rookie in NFL history”. Watson said he will never forget his historic night and, namely, his record-breaking interception.

“I woke up knowing I was gonna get a pick,” Watson said postgame. “I just knew, being a seventh-rounder, having my first start, I was going to get tested a lot and early, and I just felt I was going to get one today, and that’s what happened. I was surprised. I still knew I was going to get one, but obviously, I was surprised when it happened.”

And he came up big indeed. In several ways, Watson was the Chiefs’ best cornerback against the Chargers. Los Angeles tried to pick on the rookie, but Watson proved he would not be an easy target. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbet targeted Watson eight times, the third-most amongst Chiefs defenders. Watson only allowed three receptions, though, good for a 37.5% reception percentage. That was the best percentage allowed amongst Kansas City defenders, while veteran defensive backs L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton allowed 88.9% and 75%, respectively.

How did Watson do it? Was it luck? Was it skill? Both? Likely, it was both. But, Watson’s blend of size and good fundamentals was integral to his success. When the game was still scoreless, Watson had a one-on-one opportunity against Williams. Watson kept himself between Williams and the sideline, corralled Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams to the sideline, and also got his head around to track the ball.

Watson limited Williams to two receptions for 13 yards, despite Williams dominating the rest of the Chiefs’ defense. Watson did not look like a rookie, much less a seventh-round rookie, against the Chargers. Do you need more proof? Herbert had a 100.5 passer rating against the Chiefs, totaling 334 passing yards and three touchdowns. When Herbert targeted Watson, he only had a 6.8 passer rating. Watson was on fire against Herbert and shut down the Chargers every chance he got.

The Chiefs need a true boundary starting cornerback, especially as fellow rookie Trent McDuffie and Sneed excel in the slot. In Watson’s small sample size, he has proven he can do that against bigger, more experienced wide receivers.

This Week 2 start was huge for Watson’s outlook. He looked reliable against the Arizona Cardinals, earning a 70.4 coverage rating from PFF. But in Week 2, Watson proved he belonged and will challenge for more snaps after McDuffie returns.