NFL News & Analysis

The McDuffie Effect: Why a rookie cornerback is the linchpin to the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie (21) celebrates after an interception by safety Juan Thornhill (not pictured) during the second half against the Seattle Seahawks at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Young cornerbacks made their presence felt throughout the 2022 NFL season. A star-studded rookie class that includes physical freaks like Sauce Gardner and Tariq Woolen led to a revival at the position at a time when it has never been harder to cover NFL offenses. Gardner and Woolen have rightfully claimed their accolades after excellent campaigns, but there is another young star in Kansas City who has quietly been just as impactful.

Trent McDuffie wasn't an unknown going into the 2022 NFL Draft, but as PFF’s 11th-ranked player overall in the class, he was a steal when the Kansas City Chiefs traded up eight spots to No. 21 to get him. A deeper dive shows that he's among the most important players in Kansas City not named Patrick Mahomes.


Elite Production

McDuffie was forgotten about early in the season after he left his NFL debut with a hamstring injury. He did not return until Week 9, but he gave the Chiefs an elite presence on the outside upon his return. 

The standout newcomer did not record an interception in his debut season, yet he still garnered the respect of opposing defenses. Among the 86 cornerbacks who played at least 300 snaps during the regular season, McDuffie ranks near the top in several key metrics:

Metric Figure Rank
Coverage grade 76.0 14th
Yards per coverage snap 0.68 3rd
Yards per target 5.6 9th
Primary target % 12% 10th
15-plus-yard plays allowed % 1.2% 2nd

McDuffie is also already being avoided at a rate similar to the NFL's elite cornerbacks and is producing when targeted. His rate of 15-plus-yard plays allowed ranks second only to Sauce Gardner, and three of the five explosive plays McDuffie did allow were to Davante Adams or Ja’Marr Chase.

Extraordinary Impact

Trent McDuffie’s ability to shut down ordinary pass catchers while competing with elite ones is the primary driver of success for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit. Interior defender Chris Jones may be the defense's best player, but McDuffie has the greatest impact, and his presence was sorely missed when he was out due to injury. The difference in results is almost shocking:

Metric Team rank when McDuffie plays (Wks 1, 9-18) Team rank with McDuffie injured (Wks 2-8)
Coverage grade 1st 27th
Passer rating 17th 31st
Yards per reception 3rd 11th
Yards per coverage snap 2nd 24th
EPA/play allowed 12th 26th

*Regular season only

The Chiefs are a completely different defense with McDuffie’s presence in the mix. A team with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and potentially the best coverage unit in football sounds almost unfair.

Equally extraordinary to how McDuffie raises the ceiling of Kansas City's defense is the way he does it.

Perfect Fit

The Chiefs traded up in the draft to take Trent McDuffie for both his talent and his fit in the system. One thing that pops off the tape is how often defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deploys him in press coverage.

McDuffie played the 17th-most press coverage snaps in the regular season despite missing six games. Using that for a 17-game pace would place him at No. 2. This is important because the Chiefs have led the league in press coverage snaps in three of four seasons since Spagnuolo’s hiring in 2019.

Press coverage is arguably the toughest task for a cornerback. We think of the all-time greats when it comes to outstanding press coverage. It’s supposed to be hard for an average-sized rookie like McDuffie. And yet:

Best PFF Press Coverage Grades (min. 50 Snaps)*
1. Asante Samuel Jr. 81.6
2. James Bradberry 79.9
3. Trent McDuffie 79.6
3. Carlton Davis 79.6
5. Stephon Gilmore 79.1

*Through divisional round

This is simply incredible. There are 112 cornerbacks who have played at least 50 snaps in press coverage this year, and the rookie McDuffie ranks third among them in coverage grade.

Regardless of whether Spagnuolo deploys man or zone looks on any given play, he likes his cornerbacks to have a physical presence at the line of scrimmage. McDuffie has played spectacularly in press man and as a physical presence in the Cover 2 flat area. He’s nearly always in phase and has a terrific feel for positioning and tracking the ball in the air without committing penalties.

Should this be a surprise? Not at all. The Chiefs needed an elite press cornerback to continue running their defense the way they have since Spagnuolo’s hiring. McDuffie was also a top press defender in college.

The pairing of the Chiefs and McDuffie is a rare one that includes both talent infusion and a perfect schematic fit. His impact has been immense, and he is an elite NFL player already. He may also be a key reason Kansas City lifts another Lombardi Trophy.

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