Chiefs roster evaluation: Tyrann Matheiu, Juan Thornhill emerge as top safety duo

Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Tyrann Mathieu (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Tyrann Mathieu (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images) /
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Kansas City Chiefs free safety
Kansas City Chiefs free safety /

The Kansas City Chiefs suffered at the safety position in 2018, but the unit was a strength and among the league’s best in 2019.

As we wrap up our positional reviews from the 2019 season, what better way to end than with the Kansas City Chiefs safety group. One of the primary needs last offseason was finding new contributors at both strong and free safety. In 2018, the Chiefs were fielding Ron Parker at free safety and a mixture of guys like Jordan Lucas and Daniel Sorensen at strong safety. Eric Berry missed most of the season, leaving the team with inadequate production.

Kansas City had an outstanding pass rush trio in 2018. Unfortunately, the second and third levels of the defense brought the entire defense down. One of the worst defenses in the league in 2018, it also cost them the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. The middle of the field was picked on consistently due to the weak linebacker and safety play.

General manager Brett Veach made the safety unit a high priority in the 2019 offseason. It started with signing Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year contract. Mathieu brought not only a high level of play with the versatility to play multiple roles within the defense, but he brought the leadership and attitude that had been lacking in Kansas City on the defensive side of the ball. Kansas City would ultimately end up cutting Berry as a designated post-June 1st cut to spread the dead cap over two seasons.

Doubling down on the safety position, Veach drafted Virginia safety Juan Thornhill in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Thornhill was coveted for his ability to quickly diagnose coverages from the back end of the defense. He demonstrated excellent ball skills at Virginia, showing great anticipation and angles to jump routes. His versatility to come down from single high and cover in the slot made him a great addition to new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.

Expectations were high going into 2019 when it came to the safety position. Due to the lack of aggressive moves at linebacker or cornerback, the safety group was tasked with covering up weaknesses across the defense. Having Mathieu as an experienced veteran that could fill in anywhere on the defense made things easier. The expectations surrounding Thornhill were understood that it would take some time, but he would be a good safety for the back end further into the season.

Spagnuolo was welcomed with open arms by Chiefs fans. Multiple seasons of being torched (due to former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s refusal to make adjustments) had taken its toll on the kingdom. Instead of putting players in a position to succeed, Sutton consistently tried to run his same predictable scheme. The last two seasons he spent in Kansas City demonstrated that, as the defense would rank as one of the worst both seasons.

Under Spagnuolo, the expectation was that we would see a more aggressive defense in 2019. Most importantly, an unpredictable defense. Fans were blown away when they first saw Spagnuolo while attending Chiefs training camp last August. He was on the field working with the players, including pulling them to the side to work with them one on one. Before the season had even started, the new defensive coordinator had already won over most of the Chiefs Kingdom.