Cornerback Sean Smith started all 15 meaningful games for the Chiefs last season, and his 1,102 snaps were third on the team to safety Eric Berry’s 1,106 and Derrick Johnson’s 1,105.
Now, he’s stuck with the second-teamers in training camp. And there may not be an easy way back to the starting lineup.
Ron Parker, claimed on waivers on the eve of last season, starts in front of Smith on the right side, while Marcus Cooper, another waiver-wire claim in 2013, occupies the left.
The demotion actually occurred in the spring after Smith was cited for driving under the influence in downtown Kansas City, though Chiefs coach Andy Reid said last week that Smith’s status was “a football thing.”
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Smith said he was never given a reason for being dropped to the second unit, nor did he demand one.
“No reason was needed on my behalf,” Smith said. “I can’t control all that. I’m definitely not a coach. I just go out there and play.
“We have some young guys who deserve to get opportunities with the ones, to see what it feels like to play with (safety) Eric Berry and (linebacker) Derrick Johnson out there,” Smith said, “because … it’s one thing to work with the twos and threes, but until you’re out there with the first group, and the bullets are going live, the communication is a little different when you move up on the depth chart.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for some of the other guys to see what it feels like to be playing with the first team and play at that top-notch level and try to match their intensity and fly around the ball.”
Smith, who joined the Chiefs as an unrestricted free agent last season, doesn’t think his demotion was punishment for the off-field incident.
“Not at all,” he said. “Ron Parker definitely deserves to get those reps. In this game, you’re going to need more than two corners out there. We play man coverage, and sometimes guys get hurt and you need somebody to step in like Cooper did last year.
“He was definitely not on the team when we started, but came in later on and got some great playing time when (Brandon Flowers) went down.”
The one advantage to practicing with the backups is Smith usually gets to go against Chiefs starting receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, though he was beaten on a sensational catch by first-year receiver Mark Harrison on Wednesday.
“I take my situation one day at a time,” said Smith, 27. “I go out there, I don’t worry about where on the depth chart I play, how many reps I take. I go out there and compete, make plays, and when my time comes … I’ll help out the others.”
Parker, who is with his fourth team since 2011, has started just one NFL game when he intercepted a Philip Rivers pass in last year’s regular-season finale at San Diego. Parker appeared in all 16 games for the Chiefs, mostly on special teams.
Cooper, a converted wide receiver, appeared in all 16 games last season, including six starts. Cooper had three interceptions as a rookie; Parker had two last year.
Smith started all 16 games in three of his four seasons at Miami before joining the Chiefs, so it’s hard to believe his talent level has fallen off so fast so soon.
“This is a competitive unit, and I think he’s just got to keep competing,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “He is not far away. He has obviously played a lot of football, played very well for us. We just thought coming out of the spring, the way it shook down that the other guys were a little in front.
“So we went that way as we started camp. He is in the hunt, and he has just got to keep working.”
Smith, who had two interceptions in 2013, including a club-record 100-yard return that broke open the game in a win at Buffalo, is the prototype cornerback for the Chiefs’ defense. He’s 6-foot-3 with long arms and fits Sutton’s scheme.
But Parker, at 6-feet, and Cooper, at 6-2, don’t seem to be budging, thrusting Smith into a quasi player/coach.
“Being a vet in this defense, I have a chance to coach up some young guys and make sure they know what they’re doing out there,” Smith said. “Every day I take the same approach to try to get better every day and see if I can help somebody else out.”
That might be a luxury the Chiefs can’t afford, considering Smith, who will be paid $3.45 million this season, is the club’s sixth-highest paid player.
“I don’t worry about money or anything like that at all,” Smith said. “My job is to go out there and be a great leader and role model to these younger guys in the secondary.”