Super Bowl 2023: Chiefs rookie went from Wendy's to intercepting NFL's best QBs. Will Jalen Hurts be next?
PHOENIX — As the Super Bowl neared, Steve Spagnuolo called Jaylen Watson into his office for corrections.
The Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator implored his seventh-round rookie cornerback to be more physical on the blitz.
Then, the coach whom players affectionately call “Spags” took a moment to play off the ball. To step back and remind Watson the route along which he’d traveled here.
“I brought him back there and said: ‘Do you remember what it was like? Don’t forget that,’” Spagnuolo told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “Things are really, really, really good now. But be humble and remember where you came from.”
Watson has evolved from a seventh-round draft pick last April into a key secondary member contributing 720 defensive snaps (including the playoffs) on a Super Bowl-bound roster.
Along that path, he hauled in a 99-yard pick 6 in Week 2 that swung the Chiefs’ win probability against the Los Angeles Chargers from 31% to 85% in one play — the biggest such swing on a pick 6 in three seasons, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
UNREAL. 7th-round rookie @JaylenWatson12 just went 99 yards for a Pick-6! 🔥 #ChiefsKingdom #LACvsKC on Prime Video
Also available on NFL+ https://t.co/Fa02SqPmRn pic.twitter.com/b2f4GIup1G
— NFL (@NFL) September 16, 2022
Now, he rides a two-game playoff interception streak that he hopes to extend a game further in the Super Bowl.
But before Watson’s 10-month transformation from Chiefs depth-chart dweller to postseason pick monster, he needed to earn his ticket to the NFL.
And three years ago, that seemed oh-so-unlikely.
‘That job made me a man’
At Wendy’s, Watson was a fast-food “jack of all trades,” he told Yahoo Sports on Monday.
He cooked french fries and chicken nuggets, schlepped meat from the freezer and grilled hamburgers. He took the trash out.
“I was doing all the work,” he said. “I just had to get the job done. If I didn't, I was going to have to hear my mom out at home.”
The change of scenery was stark.
For two years, Watson posted Junior College All-American seasons at Ventura College in California. He accepted a scholarship offer from nearby USC in 2019. Then, due to academic reasons, Watson announced he would redshirt that season.
“Do [sic] to an overload of courses I needed to take this Summer I will use this upcoming season as my Redshirt year,” Watson tweeted on July 5, 2019. “I will use this time to become a better student, athlete, and man.”
Watson would also, he learned, work at Wendy’s alongside his mother.
“I feel like that job made me a man, made me more resilient,” he said. “Showed me what real life was, and I didn't want to live it. I wanted to do anything to make my mom happy.
“I just wanted to make my mom proud.”
Watson ultimately became academically eligible to accept a scholarship offer from Washington State the following summer, and he announced his commitment on June 26, 2020, with an apt roller-coaster emoji.
“I persevered [through] so many obstacles throughout this year, went through so many highs and lows,” Watson tweeted. “Sitting back a whole year having to watch gave me more drive and will.”
By the 2022 draft, he’d notched 44 tackles at the Power 5 level, deflected seven passes, including two interceptions, and recovered five fumbles; his four in 2021 were the second-most in the country.
From Kansas City, a Chiefs front office with an eye for defensive backs was watching.
Young Chiefs DBs exceeding expectations — and facing tall task vs. Eagles
When the Chiefs committed to paying hefty contracts to stars such as quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones, they understood they would need to source some roster depth via the draft.
The secondary, general manager Brett Veach and colleagues decided, was a prime spot to strategize.
Sure, value at any position is welcome. But with top-end cornerback contracts surpassing $20 million per year and NFL offenses increasingly tilting toward pass-heavy attacks, Veach and his team doubled down on savvy secondary investment.
“We started the process three, four years ago where we almost started as a group watching [cornerbacks] as a staff early in the fall so that when we get to the pre-draft meetings, we can watch more tape of that position than anywhere else,” Veach told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like we’ve been in a little bit of a groove at corner over the last couple years.”
The groove hasn’t just manifested in drafting talented players in Rounds 1-7. Veach emphasizes how important it has been to also ensure those players fit what Spagnuolo and defensive coaches want.
Six Chiefs defensive backs played more than a third of defensive snaps this season. Five were homegrown draft picks playing on their rookie contracts.
Watson is the lone player drafted after the fourth round, yet it is he who secured interceptions in each of the Chiefs’ playoffs wins. Kansas City’s pass rush has swarmed in the postseason, hitting Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence 12 times and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven more.
Watson cashed in on that pressure to intercept Lawrence in the fourth quarter with just one hand — a hand he’d broken a month earlier, no less.
ONE-HANDED PICK @JaylenWatson12!
📺: #JAXvsKC on NBC
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/3PQhoYeSUP pic.twitter.com/PQDr05mz1l
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
Facing Burrow in the conference championship one week later, Watson was lined up in “simple man, and I was outside leverage,” he said. “I just kept my leverage, and as I was keeping my outside leverage, I saw the ball coming and went up and made a play on the ball.”
Next up, Watson will aim to bait Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, whose Pro Bowl season included a 22-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hurts’ mistakes are few and far between, aided by a reliable offensive line and a weapon stable including Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown and shifty receiver DeVonta Smith.
But Watson and his fellow defensive backs will seek opportunities to disrupt what their coordinator calls a “juggernaut.”
The rookie is far from complacent even as he believes the confidence and swagger he has long felt are increasingly on display to the world. He gives himself only partial credit, preferring to shift focus to the athletic trainers who helped treat his broken hand, the coaches who guided his development and especially the mother who kept believing in him as he shuffled between french fries and burgers and chicken nuggets with her supervision at Wendy’s.
Watson identifies at least one constant among the three games in which he nabbed a pick this season: They’re the only three his mother, hard-pressed to get off work, has attended.
He ensured she’ll be in Arizona on Sunday for the Super Bowl. Can he cook up one more pick under her watch?
“She’s my good-luck charm,” Watson said. “We’ll see if we can go 4-for-4.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.