Chiefs are confident in their youthful cornerback corps
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The most experienced cornerback on the Kansas City Chiefs' roster is entering his third year in the NFL.
The best of them is entering his second.
View from the sidelines: NFL cheerleaders 2016.
In other words, the eyes of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers should light up when he steps inside Arrowhead Stadium for the season opener Sunday. He's coming off a 4,800-yard season with plenty of production coming against defensive backs who have been through the professional grind.
But the Chiefs seem unconcerned by their cornerback pups.
In fact, they seem downright confident in them.
"We do have some young guys," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said, "but you know what I've seen from preseason games? I think they've all done a really nice job.
"Now it's time for the real season to start. Now you take it up to that next level, and I think these guys WILL take it up to the next level."
The Chiefs lost veteran starter Sean Smith in free agency, yet were still confident enough in their youngsters that they traded Marcus Cooper to Arizona for a draft pick before final roster cuts. Cooper had been losing playing time but had still appeared in 38 games, giving Kansas City some semblance of experience.
Their departures left Phillip Gaines as the Chiefs' elder statesmen, and the fact that he's entering his third season in the NFL is tempered a bit by the way his first two years have gone.
Gaines struggled to get on the field as a rookie, the acclimation process taking longer than the third-round pick expected. And once Gaines earned the starting job a year ago, he tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 3.
Gaines won back his starting job in training camp and will pair with Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters in giving the Chiefs perhaps the youngest starting tandem in the NFL.
"We lost a lot of guys last year -- well, this year -- so we've got to pick it up," Peters said.
That is certainly true for Peters, who was usually matched up with an opponent's second wide receiver a year ago. He is now the No. 1 cornerback and will be given much more difficult tasks.
"We've told him and he knows what they're going to try to do to him," Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas said. "He'll step up to the occasion. We're not worried about him. He's our guy back there that can get the ball, turn the ball over, and he's our best cover guy on this team. He'll be ready."
Will the guys deeper on the depth chart be ready?
The first two cornerbacks off the bench, and the first options at nickelback, appear to be Kenneth Acker and Steven Nelson. And while both have some experience, they are still relative newcomers.
Acker spent a year on the San Francisco practice squad before starting 13 games a year ago. But he was traded to the Chiefs relatively late in training camp, so the pressure has been on to quickly learn the nuances of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's press-man coverage scheme.
Nelson appeared in 12 games as a rookie a year ago, though much of that was on special teams.
"It's the small things," he said. "Playing defensive back is a game of inches back there, so working on the small things is important. Having a short-term memory is important, too."
No problem there: Quite a few of the Chiefs' defensive backs have yet to make any memories.
KeiVarae Russell was a third-round pick out of Notre Dame and D.J. White a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, and both have flashed some talent at cornerback. Fourth-round pick Eric Murray played mostly cornerback at Minnesota, but he's forced his way onto the field in Kansas City at safety.
All of them are quickly learning what life is like in game week.
"You can tell the focus has been taken up a notch," Russell said. "Every game counts at this point and you obviously want to win every game and work toward that No. 1 playoff seed. It's not like preseason."
In that respect, Russell at least sounds like a veteran.
"I don't know how often my name will be called, but it's going to be exciting getting out there," he said. "This has been a longtime dream of mine and it's going to become a reality on Sunday."