What should the Kansas City Chiefs expect from Juan Thornhill?

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 13: Juan Thornhill #21 of the Virginia Cavaliers intercepts a pass in the second half during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Scott Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 13: Juan Thornhill #21 of the Virginia Cavaliers intercepts a pass in the second half during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Scott Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /
ArmchairAddict1 /

Many Kansas City Chiefs fans are expecting big things from rookie safety Juan Thornhill, but what are realistic expectations for a first year safety?

The Kansas City Chiefs selected safety Juan Thornhill out of Virginia with the 31st pick of the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. It was one of just a handful of times in my life that the Chiefs selected the player I was desperately begging for them to take.

I was literally reciting at my television, “Come on Juan Thornhill! Come on Juan Thornhill!” over and over and when the pick was announced I cheered loud enough that I scared the dogs and earned a condescending eye roll from my daughter. I didn’t care though. I was high enough on Thornhill that I actually had him on my shortlist of players that I wanted the Chiefs to take in the first round before they traded the pick to Seattle for Frank Clark.

Needless to say, I’m expecting good things from Thornhill, including a productive rookie season. But what exactly is a realistic rookie season for a safety? Is it fair to expect numbers equal to some of the best rookie safeties in recent seasons? Should we simply expect numbers similar to the average rookie safety taken in the second round even if we’re higher (or at least I am) on Thornhill than many other second round safeties?

I decided to look at every safety drafted in the top 100 picks (basically the first three rounds) over the last five drafts and see what kind of numbers they put up their rookie year to try and get some kind of base line to compare to.

Obviously the expectations on a safety taken in the top half of the first round are going to be much different than those for a safety taken in the late third round but safety is a position that if you spend a top 100 pick on a guy you are expecting him to be a starter if not right away, then soon. So I decided to see what the average rookie season was for those players over the last five seasons and this is the average stat line that I found.

  • 14 games played
  • 7.6 games started
  • 54.7 combined tackles
  • 1 interception
  • 4.5 passes defended
  • 0.6 sacks

That’s not exactly the most impressive stat line of all time. In fact, I’d be disappointed if that’s all that Thornhill did as a rookie. Frankly, that’s about what Eric Murray did for the Chiefs last season and I think we can all agree that we’re hoping for more than that from Thornhill. So I decided to break it down farther by round drafted. Here are those same numbers for rookie safeties taken in the second round over the past five seasons.

  • 14.3 games played
  • 8.6 games started
  • 60.3 combined tackles
  • 1.1 interceptions
  • 4.4 passes defended
  • 0.5 sacks

Unfortunately, that’s not a lot of improvement over the overall averages for the first three rounds. A few more tackles, but that’s about it. It makes sense that the second round numbers would be around the average with first round picks being a little better than the average and third round picks being a little worse. So let’s say, for arguments sake, that we think Juan Thornhill has first round talent (I already admitted I was eyeing him for the first round when KC still had their pick). If Thornhill were to produce more like the average first round rookie safety those numbers are:

  • 13.9 games played
  • 10.6 games started
  • 73 combined tackles
  • 1 interception
  • 5.9 passes defended
  • 0.9 sacks

So that’s better, but if I’m being honest, I still feel like that’s a little on the low end. If Thornhill ends his rookie season with just 73 tackles and one interception I think I’ll be kind of disappointed, even if that is the average for first round rookie safeties and Thornhill was taken in the late second round. Is that fair to him? Probably not, but I just see the potential for him to put up better numbers than that this season.

Given the fact that the Chiefs will likely have a high scoring offense there is a high likelihood that opposing teams will have to pass a lot to try and keep up. If Thornhill is, in fact, playing plenty of single high safety on the back end of the defense it will give him plenty of opportunities to get his hands on some passes. If Thornhill plays on a regular basis (he missed some of OTAs with a minor injury) I would definitely take the over on 1 interception.

The Chiefs recent struggles on run defense have also allowed safeties to have some increased tackle numbers. Last season the Chiefs safeties combined for 206 tackles on the season and if we’re being honest, none of them were great in run support. If Thornhill plays all season, he could certainly see his tackle numbers go well above that 73 tackle mark as well. Ron Parker had 77 tackles for K.C. last season and he was terrible in run defense.

Now that I’ve made my case for Thornhill having better numbers than not only the average second round rookie safety, but the average first round safety as well, let’s look at what the ceiling for a rookie safety might be statistically speaking. Just last season, there were four rookie safeties that were clearly over those averages. They included:

Minkah Fitzpatrick:
16 games, 11 starts, 80 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, 0 sacks

Derwin James:
16 games, 16 starts, 105 tackles, 3 interceptions, 13 passes defended, 3.5 sacks

Jessie Bates:
16 games, 16 starts, 111 tackles, 3 interceptions, 7 passes defended, 0 sacks

Justin Reid:
16 games, 12 starts, 88 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 0 sacks

Those are numbers that are more like what I am imagining for Thornhill in his rookie season. Again, I don’t know if that’s a fair expectation, but that’s what I’m envisioning. I should also probably point out that Derwin James‘ rookie season was probably the most impressive of any rookie safety (statistically) over the past five seasons. So that is probably your absolute ceiling for expectations.

I’m super high on Thornhill, but even I don’t think I’d put him in James’ category. That guy is going to be an absolute monster for years to come (not that putting up the same stats means that you’re just as talented but its easier to compare measurables).

Just for some more perspective, here are a few other noteworthy safeties that made an impact right away in their rookie season.

Jamal Adams:
16 games, 16 starts, 82 tackles, 0 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 2 sacks

Keanu Neal:
14 games, 14 starts, 105 tackles, 0 interceptions, 8 passes defended, 0 sacks

Landon Collins:
16 games, 16 starts, 108 tackles, 1 interception, 9 passes defended, 0 sacks

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix:
16 games, 10 starts, 105 tackles, 1 interception, 9 passes defended, 1 sack

Not that college stats transfer over to the NFL, but Thornhill put up 98 tackles and 6 interceptions in 13 games in his final college season. If I had to offer a prediction right now for what his rookie stat line might be, I would go with something like:

14 games, 14 starts, 85 tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 passes defended, 1 sack

So what do you think Chiefs fans? Is it unfair and unrealistic to expect better production from Juan Thornhill as a rookie than the average second round rookie safety, let alone better than the average first round rookie safety? Are you equally high on him as a player as I am? Do you agree that his opportunities in Kansas City given their specific team make up could give him a chance to out produce your average rookie safety?

Next. How good does the Chiefs defense *need* to be?. dark

I’d love to see what you think in the comments below.