New starters at cornerback contribute to stout pass defense

The Chiefs underwent personnel turnover at cornerback during the offseason and regular season, but quickly developed into one of the NFL’s top pass defenses.

2014 ROSTER: Marcus Cooper, Jamell Fleming, Phillip Gaines, Chris Owens, Sean Smith
INJURED RESERVE: None
2015 FREE AGENTS: Chris Owens

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Jamell Fleming (30), strong safety Ron Parker (38) and cornerback Sean Smith (21) celebrate with defensive back Kurt Coleman, second from right, who intercepted the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Jamell Fleming (30), strong safety Ron Parker (38) and cornerback Sean Smith (21) celebrate with defensive back Kurt Coleman, second from right, who intercepted the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

POSITION REVIEW

General manager John Dorsey’s preferred emphasis on strong, physical corners played a part in the team’s stout pass defense. An argument exists, however, that some credit for the gaudy defensive passing statistics should also go to a pass rush that finished fifth in the league with 46 sacks.

Still, what the Chiefs defense secondary did is impressive.

Kansas City ranked second in the NFL behind the Seahawks in passing yards allowed (203.2), tied for fourth in yards per pass play (5.5), tied for sixth in touchdowns allowed (22) and was the only team in the league to not allow a 300-yard passer or a 50-yard pass completion.

[Related: Retooled secondary became one of the NFL’s best]

The Chiefs, however, generated just six interceptions, tied for the league-low with the Jets and the Jaguars.

What stands out about the secondary is its success despite significant changes in 2014. The Chiefs released cornerback Dunta Robinson in February and cornerback Brandon Flowers in June.

The team was expected to enter the season with Sean Smith as a starter with Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker battling for the position on the opposite side. Rookie Phillip Gaines was originally there to learn.

But circumstances shuffled the lineup. Injuries forced the Chiefs to move Parker to safety, where he played well in the second half of the season. Cooper faded to the bottom of the depth chart while Gaines saw action as a starter in five games.

Jamell Fleming, signed off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad in Week 2, emerged from the team’s fourth corner to a starter by Week 7. A hamstring injury sidelined Fleming for a stretch, but he regained the starting left cornerback position to close the season.

LOOKING AHEAD

The selection of Gaines in the third round of the 2014 draft is looking like a steal. Following a rough preseason, Gaines showed marked improvement during the season, eventually breaking through as a starter alongside Sean Smith. The Chiefs will definitely be counting on Gaines in 2015.

After Gaines, there are question marks among the cornerback roster.

Cooper took a step back following a strong rookie campaign in nickel and dime coverages. Although he battled an ankle injury to start the season, Cooper went from starting at cornerback to a healthy scratch in the final two games.

Fleming finally found a home in Kansas City, his fourth team in three NFL seasons. Fleming is signed through 2015, and provides options on the outside or the nickel, which was manned by pending free agent Chris Owens.

For the Chiefs to improve in 2015, Gaines needs to emerge as a shutdown corner. Fleming may also be a diamond in the rough. Depending on what the Chiefs do with the safety position, Parker may also once again be in the mix at cornerback.

ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK?

Cooper, who has two years remaining on his contract, will need to prove his 2014 season was a fluke or the team could be looking for an upgrade. It is also alarming Cooper closed the year as a healthy inactive the final two games.

Owens, who appeared in 11 games with three starts, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Owens missed five games battling a knee injury and the development of Gaines and Fleming could make Owens’ return unlikely.

Smith’s salary merits observation as he enters the final year of his contract in 2015. He is due a base salary of $4.25 million with a salary cap hit of $7.75 million.

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