In most sports movies, every team has roughly the same combination of stereotypical personalities. There’s the charismatic leader, the tough guy, the new guy, the womanizer, and the practical jokester. And then there’s the über-talented-but-unmanageable rebel. If you were making a movie about the 2016 Kansas City Chiefs — working title: The Most Boring 7–2 Team in the World — that would be Marcus Peters.
Peters was kicked off the University of Washington team for fighting with coaches and then rehabilitated his image with the help of mentor … wait for it … Marshawn Lynch. Kansas City took him 18th overall in 2015, and the pick was widely seen as a risk.
Well, that risk has certainly paid off, and the Chiefs have reaped the rewards. Peters intercepted a pass on his first play in the NFL and was a Pro Bowler in his first season. No player in the history of the league has had more interceptions (13) than Peters through his first 25 games. But he’s still a wild card — the frequent victim on big plays, touchdowns, and untimely penalties, all of which serve as counterbalances to those big plays. Peters has quickly turned into the NFL’s best playmaker at cornerback, and Kansas City knows that it has to accept his miscues because the big plays outweigh the bad ones.
Peters tied for the league lead in interceptions (eight) and led the NFL in passes defensed (29) as a rookie last season, and opposing quarterbacks had a 67.7 rating when targeting him in coverage (eighth best). But despite his penchant for picks, Peters didn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. By the end of the year, the mercurial defensive back was the most-targeted corner in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, giving up 69 receptions on 137 targets in coverage, surrendering 939 yards and eight touchdowns.
The action has followed Peters into his second year. While his opposing quarterback rating has dropped to 64.4 (eighth) and he’s picked off five more passes (again tied for the league lead), he’s also allowed 35 receptions on 58 targets for 508 yards and two touchdowns through nine games, per PFF. Peters’s best outings are often marred by big mistakes; we saw that in Week 2, when he gave up a long completion to Will Fuller down the sideline, setting the Texans up for a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line.
Of course, three plays later, he picked off Brock Osweiler in the end zone.
On the next drive, Peters gave up a touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins …
… but redeemed himself in the third quarter by picking off Osweiler a second time.
On Sunday against the Panthers, Peters gave up a season-high seven completions, 121 yards, and a touchdown in coverage, but made the biggest play of the game with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 17. After Kelvin Benjamin made a catch at the Panthers’ 29-yard line, Peters ran up to the receiver, and, as he said after the game, "I took it from him. You know how you go to the store, and you want something, and your mama tells you you can’t have it?"
But just as Marcus giveth, Marcus taketh away. After ripping the ball out of Benjamin’s hands and getting tackled, he jumped up and punted the ball into the stands (for the second game in a row, mind you), incurring a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty. It didn’t end up making a difference — Spencer Ware gained 11 yards on the next play to set up Cairo Santos’s game-winning field goal — but Peters’s brain-fart celebration could’ve been costly.
Of course, that’s just Peters in a nutshell: emotional, volatile, and ridiculously good. He’s got an almost inexplicable nose for the football. While you might ascribe "being in the right place at the right time" to a few of his picks, the majority of his big plays come down to his ball-hawking style of play. It entails a lethal combination of technique, anticipation, fast-twitch short-area quicks, and a natural ability to catch or swat away the football. A few intangibles, like confidence and a short memory, also don’t hurt.
Peters is at his best playing off coverage, where he can survey the field in front of him and read the quarterback’s eyes. Playing with this technique means he may give up more throws underneath, but he can also react to throws in his area and play downhill to break up passes rather than trying to deflect them from a trailing position.
In Week 3, Peters picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. On the first, anticipation was the key. Sometimes chalked up to mystical "instincts," this kind of play really comes from hours and hours of studying opponents’ tendencies. What route combinations do teams use based on down and distance? What are a given quarterback’s habits? On a third-and-8 deep in New York’s own end, Peters gambled on the idea that the Jets would throw at or near the first-down marker, so he jumped Jalin Marshall’s 15-yard hook route, breaking on it well before Marshall got to his spot. Peters was risking giving up the double move for a deep shot on this play, but in this case, his aggressiveness (and knowledge of the Jets’ tendencies) paid off.
On Sunday, Peters made almost the exact same play late in the first quarter. On a Panthers third-and-11, he camped out on a hook route just past the sticks, knowing that was the most likely goal for Newton and the Carolina offense in that situation. He essentially ran to the spot where Devin Funchess was supposed to be before Funchess even got there.
Early in the second quarter, with his eyes squarely in on Newton, the second-year cornerback anticipated the quick slant, planted his foot, drove on the spot the ball would end up, and knocked it away from Ted Ginn.
Peters is not just a one-trick pony, though. He’s capable of playing deep routes down the sideline, as he did here in Week 4 against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers …
… and he also plays up in press-coverage technique at times. His physicality and ability to mirror in coverage comes in handy on these plays, as do his natural ball skills. On Sunday, he broke up this pass attempt to Benjamin on a slant by getting his hand on the ball and deflecting it away.
Peters is still a very raw player in many ways. He’s susceptible to double moves over the top because of his aggressive style of play, and he still commits too many avoidable penalties. But what becomes very clear when watching the second-year cornerback on the field is that for every one of those youthful mistakes, he seems to make two or three plays that demonstrate an understanding of how to play the position equal to that of a player with twice his experience.
Whether it’s because of his footwork, ball skills, or ability to read and recognize route combinations, Peters is as close to "a natural" as it comes at cornerback. The pick and pass-breakup numbers he’s accumulated through two seasons are not an accident, nor is the fact he picked off 11 passes in 34 college games. As he becomes more disciplined and even more knowledgeable about route combinations and quarterback tendencies (the same way hitters in baseball learn to hit certain pitchers) he’s only going to get better and transition into another popular movie trope: the superstar who just needed some institutional structure and the guidance of a players’ coach to fully blossom. Andy Reid, who displayed remarkable patience with Peters after he punted a ball into the stands for the second game in a row ("I’m going to go block the next one. That’s what I’m going to do," joked Reid), feels like just the man for the job.
The eye-popping stats may decrease over time, but that’s not because he was an early-career fluke; it’s simply because quarterbacks are going to stop throwing it his way.