How deep is cornerback depth?

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Whether they get complete answers or not, there were four key questions attracting the attention of Andy Reid and John Dorsey this week when the Chiefs began on-field work in the OTAs and an upcoming mini-camp. The Chiefs passing game was addressed here, injuries here and the offensive line here.

  1. How much progress can Alex Smith make with his new cadre of receivers, topped by Jeremy Maclin and Chris Conley?
  2. How far along physically are injured starters inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito? What about safety Tyvon Branch, signed in free agency that missed most of the 2014 season in Oakland? Will they see safety Eric Berry in the next three weeks?
  3. What combinations will they create along the offensive line, with old and new faces?
  4. With draft picks Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson out of action because of NFL rules, what kind of depth can the Chiefs develop at cornerback, where they always seem to need talented bodies?

It has become a fact of life in today’s NFL – a defense can never have too many good cornerbacks. During the 256-game regular season, the league’s 32 teams averaged 4,028 passing yards. Last season, 11 of the teams had a starting quarterback that threw for more than 4,000 yards and the top half of the league’s passers threw for 3,398 yards or more.

(Right) rookie CB Justin Cox breaks up a throw to WR/RB De’Anthony Thomas during OTA work (KC Chiefs photo.)

The Chiefs will have 10 of their 16 games against the league’s most productive quarterbacks, including four in-division games against Peyton Manning (4,727 yards) and Philip Rivers (4,286 yards). They are going to need more than two cornerbacks to compete with those throwers. They are going to need four, five, maybe six corners.

There isn’t a team in the league that’s strong on the corner from No. 1 through No. 5 or 6. Seattle and Houston can go four-deep with quality cornerbacks; that’s one reason the Seahawks allowed the fewest passing yards in the league last season, giving up 185.6 yards per game and only 17 touchdown passes.

The Chiefs finished second, allowing 203.3 yards per game. That number was skewed due to the problems the Chiefs had stopping the run; they finished No. 28 in yards allowed per game on the ground. Opponents did not have to rely on throwing the ball to be productive. The K.C. defense did not get torched by any particular opposing quarterback, as they did not allow a 300-yard passer.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton got that done without a top-shelf performance by his secondary. Sean Smith at right cornerback had the best season of his NFL career, but that was the good side of the production spectrum for the ’14 Chiefs. The rest of the corners had mediocre to bad seasons. Strong safety play and a good pass rush kept them from being torched on a regular basis.

As they wrapped up the first week of OTAs, the Chiefs have 10 cornerbacks on the roster. Smith is back and in the last season on his current contract. Among the other nine corners, there was not a single NFL interception last season and only Marcus Cooper has a pro interception in his career, grabbing three in his rookie season of 2013.

During the first OTAs, second-year man Phillip Gaines was working the left corner with the first unit, and then moving inside as the nickel back when the Chiefs called for five defensive backs. In those cases, Cooper came in and handled the left side. Cooper and Jamell Fleming handled the corner on the second unit with Aaron Hester working as the nickel back.

Deji Olatoye, along with undrafted rookies De’Vante Bausby and Justin Cox had the other snaps.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, their two draft choice cornerbacks are not permitted to take part in the OTAs because of the quarter-calendar that their schools follow. Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson showed during the rookie mini-camp that they’ll be fighting for playing time once they arrive for the full team mini-camp in the middle of June.

In the first three off-season practices, Gaines, Olatoye and Cox have flashed their abilities in coverage. After a pretty normal up-and-down rookie season for an NFL cornerback, Gaines is running around on the field like he knows what to do and how to go about his job. Working against Jeremy Maclin in the no-contact practices, Gaines has held his own and has contested any ball that was thrown up for Maclin or other receivers to catch.

Olatoye entered the NFL in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina A&T State University after a previous stop at the University of Colorado. He was signed by Baltimore and opened the Ravens season on the practice squad. At 6-1, 194 pounds, Olatoye has the size the Chiefs look for on the corner.

Cox had a troubled 2014 season at Mississippi State University where he was thrown off the team in November after a domestic assault arrest. He also has that size profile that Dorsey looks for at 6-1; 191 pounds and he showed several snaps of good tight man-to-man coverage against the second and third-team wide receivers.

The Chiefs defense would benefit if Peters and Nelson were allowed to participate in the OTAs. That’s especially true for Nelson who would appear to be headed for snaps at the nickel role, covering slot receivers.

A group of Smith, Gaines, Peters, Nelson and Fleming would be an upgrade on the group the Chiefs had working the corner for most of last season, with a chance for Cooper or Olatoye if they go with six corners.