ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The AFC Championship wasn’t on the line during Saturday morning’s training camp practice but that didn’t matter for rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense faced a fourth-and-long in a 2-minute drill scenario. The quarterback dropped back with a blitzing Joshua Williams bearing down on him. Mahomes saw Mecole Hardman splitting the safeties, and he heaved a deep ball down field with a flick of his wrist.
Hardman had to slow for the ball, but he got both hands on it. He was wrapping up the catch when McDuffie, hot in pursuit, wrapped his arms around Hardman and punched the ball free.
It’s the type of play the Chiefs defense didn’t make enough in a second-half loss to Cincinnati in the AFC title game in January. It’s also a reason why the club selected McDuffie in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, and it’s a play head coach Andy Reid sees McDuffie make with regular frequency through the first nine practices of training camp.
“He’s got that want-to and he’s making plays. He’s also — when he’s not getting a play — he’s about that far off,” said Reid, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “He’s at least in position to make things happen. For a young guy, that’s pretty good stuff. We can work with that.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo praised McDuffie on Thursday, saying he’s done an outstanding job thus far through camp.
“I think he’s competed really well with the bunch of really good veteran wide outs we have,” Spagnuolo said. “The thing I like about Trent is when it hasn’t gone great for him, he’s not one of those guys that sticks his head in the sand. He bounces right back up, that’s a good quality.”
That short memory is often key for cornerbacks, who must bounce back immediately after inevitable negative plays. McDuffie understands that as a rookie he’s going to make mistakes — he just doesn’t want to get beat.
“Getting to this point in the camp, I think the big thing for me is just finishing,” McDuffie said. “Everything doesn’t go perfect, and I’m going to mess up at the line in my technique or at the top of the route. But being able to fight through that adversity and finish on the ball at the end of the play is something I’m working hard at and something that you saw out there today is something I’m trying to do each and every day.
McDuffie is on course to be one of the club’s starting corners in Week 1, and he’ll likely spend time on the field with his training camp roommate, second-round safety Bryan Cook. The duo lead a nucleus of young secondary players the Chiefs hope are future faces of the defense. Safety Juan Thornhill sees a parallel between McDuffie and Cook with himself and cornerback Rashad Fenton, who were both part of the team’s 2019 draft class.
“They hang out all the time,” Thornhill said. “Just like when me and Fen came in, we were basically like best friends at the same time because we’re in the same class. With them being together all the time, it’s going to make them better because they get to study together, they play together and they just build chemistry.”
Saturday’s practice was one of those chemistry-building days where the humidity and the pressure rises. At one point during the 2-hour, 10-minute practice, the first-team offense and defense slugged it out over 14-straight plays. It’s those repetitions where McDuffie sees his confidence growing.
“We’re out there on these long drive drills and we’re tired and it feels like nothing’s going our way, to be able to come together in the huddle and kind of form as a group, form as a bond and understand that we’re in this together and that we can go out there right now against the offense, that adds a lot to our confidence and a lot to our defense,” McDuffie said.
Notes & observations
The steam returned to St. Joseph on Saturday, but perhaps it was just the off day on Friday that made the heat have a little bit more bite. The sun was out early with a temperature of 83 degrees for the start of practice at 9:15 a.m., but the thermometer read 86 by the finish 2 hours, 10 minutes later with a heat index of 96 degrees.
The workout opened with the traditional stretch, individual and install periods before moving into the first 7-on-7 session. Mahomes opened the with five-consecutive completions to five different receivers. Linebacker Darius Harris came up with biggest defensive play in 7-on-7, breaking up a pass over the middle from Chad Henne to fullback Michael Burton.
Next up was a dual period where a 9-on-7 run period took place on one field while pass catchers and defensive backs conducted one-on-one drills on the opposite field. Clyde Edwards-Helaire opened up the period in the backfield followed by Jerick McKinnon, Ronald Jones, Isiah Pacheco, Derrick Gore, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Jerrion Ealy. Ealy has primarily worked with receivers during camp but took reps in the backfield during this session. Newly signed defensive end Carlos Dunlap also saw his first snaps with the defense on the field.
Much of Saturday’s practice put the offensive in a difficult position, starting with the 2-minute drill team period. The offense took possession of the ball with 1:30 on the clock needing a field goal. The first-team defense won the initial period with McDuffie’s pass break up against Hardman on fourth down. The second-team offense fared no better when Henne thew the ball behind Skyy Moore on fourth down. The third-team defense also held after wide receiver Cornell Powell bobbled a pass from Shane Buechele that was intercepted by cornerback Deandre Baker.
The first-team offense fared better the second time around, running 10 plays before stalling out at midfield. The second-team offense finally broke through, with Henne leading a 9-play drive that culminated in a 51-yard field goal from Harrison Butker.
After a special teams period for the field goal team, it was another 7-on-7 session while offensive and defensive linemen faced off in one-on-one matchups. Two of the better offensive plays came from receivers further down the depth chart with Josh Gordon connecting with Mahomes on a touchdown deep down the left sideline and Omar Bayless hauling in a Henne pass along the left sideline.
The penultimate period was a lengthy long-drive team session where the first-team offense and defense stayed on the field for 14 plays. This is another tough scenario for the offense, which is trying to stay on the field to close out a game in the fourth quarter. It’s not about big plays but more about the run game and short passes. Mahomes connected twice with tight end Noah Gray and later targeted JuJu Smith-Schuster three times in a four-play sequence interrupted only by a McKinnon run.
The practice concluded with a special teams period for the punt team, and it was rough stretch for Moore, who bobbled the opening kick from Tommy Townsend and made an awkward catch on his second attempt. He was followed by Corey Colemn, Bayless and Gordon in the rotation.
Two players were added to the injury report on Saturday with wide receiver Daurice Fountain sustain a finger injury during practice and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth on the sidelines with a left knee contusion.
Tight end Jody Fortson was also on the sidelines with a quad strain he suffered last Saturday. Wide receiver Gary Jennings remains in the concussion protocol and did not attend practice. Cornerback Rashad Fenton (shoulder) and right tackle Lucas Niang (knee) remain on the physically unable to perform list.
Reid said Fortson and Fenton were improving but declined to put timetables on their returns.
“I can’t give you a date, but these guys are all making progress,” Reid said. “It’s just where in that part of camp where it’s going fast and furious, and now when we bring them back they have to be back at that level or something else happens. We’re trying to get them back to speed here.”
The Chiefs have agreed to terms on a free-agent contract with wide receiver Devin Gray, according to NFL Network. The 27-year-old Gray entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati in 2018, and spent time with Atlanta and Baltimore along with a stint in The Spring League in 2021 and the USFL in 2022.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Gray has never played in an NFL regular-season game but played in eight games for Philadelphia in the USFL this spring, playing in eight games with 25 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns.
The club has yet to move the signing official nor has it made a corresponding move to free a spot on the 90-player roster for Gray. The injuries to Fountain and Jennings put the Chiefs in need of depth at receiver during the preseason.
The Chiefs have four training camp practices during the week ahead before next Saturday’s preseason opener at the Chicago Bears. The club has practices scheduled for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday with the starting time each day at 9:15 a.m.
All tickets have been reserved for Sunday’s family day session and Tuesday’s season-ticket member event. Tickets remain available for the practice on Monday and Thursday. Thursday’s practice will likely be a shorter workout of around 90 minutes.
Tickets for most practices are free but must be reserved on the team’s website. The university charges $5 per vehicle for parking.