Rookie Review: Kansas City Chiefs draft class proved highly productive
It didn’t take long for rookie safety Juan Thornhill to gain the affection of the fan base. Coming out of Virginia, Thornhill was known for his ball skills and versatility. He spent most of his time playing cornerback until his senior season when he switched to safety, where he had most of his success in college. While many pegged him with having excellent ball skills and quick processing, there weren’t many that gave him a high grade when it came to his range as a single-high safety.
The Chiefs were adamant about letting the media know that Thornhill would have to earn the starting role. After a stellar training camp and good preseason, he won that starting role heading into Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the first quarter of the season, we saw the rookie mistakes and hesitations from him on the back end. That’s not to say he wasn’t playing well, but it also came with the typical first-year player mistakes undone by experience.
One of the reasons defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was able to start playing more aggressively and implement more into his scheme was the development of Thornhill. Spagnuolo started playing more single-high safety, dropping Tyrann Mathieu down inside the box or in the slot. We started seeing the defense become more aggressive generating pressure with different blitz packages. None of this could have been done if Spagnuolo didn’t trust Thornhill on the back end.
In 2018, the cornerback group struggled heavily in Bob Sutton’s scheme that left them out to dry. Following the hiring of Spagnuolo and the rest of the defensive staff, the team put a lot of capital into the safety group to help the cornerbacks and linebackers. While we have seen improvement from the cornerbacks, a significant amount of that success can be linked to having Thornhill over the top. He showed the range to help over the top even along the boundary reading the quarterback.
After finishing second to last in yards given up in 2018, the revamped Chiefs defense ranked 6th in DVOA against the pass. While Thornhill might not have the elite acceleration or twitch, his ability to diagnose quickly is close to elite. His presence on the back end is what allows Mathieu to play all over the defense instead of needing a second safety back deep. It will enable Spagnuolo to deploy and disguise more packages allowing Mathieu to play more roles around the defense.
Unfortunately, Thornhill’s season ended in the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Chargers when he tore his ACL blitzing Philip Rivers. It will be interesting to see who all remains in the safety room for 2020, but one thing is for sure, Mathieu and Thornhill have already proven to be one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Imagine what year two could look like.