The hidden tension between Juan Thornhill and the KC Chiefs

August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Juan Thornhill (22) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Juan Thornhill (22) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

For the last several days, Chiefs Kingdom has been collectively scratching our heads around all things related to Juan Thornhill. In some ways, it could even go back to last season, although then we just said “injury recovery” and went back to our work. However at this point, it’s clear that those of us outside of Arrowhead Stadium are not privy to a hidden tension between Thornhill and the K.C. Chiefs.

It’s always an odd thing when a team decides to play someone who is clearly a lesser talent than someone behind him. On occasion, the scenario makes sense (a la Patrick Mahomes learning the ropes of the NFL behind Alex Smith). At other points, it can be a power struggle of some kind, a head coach determined to not let a rookie play. There was a year, remember, when Todd Haley wouldn’t let Derrick Johnson start for the Chiefs defense.

But this time around, there’s something disproportional between Thornhill’s playing time and his talent. We all watched Dan Sorensen play 100 percent of the defensive snaps in Week 2 in a losing effort to the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, no single defender played less snaps—at least of those who played at all on defense—than Thornhill.

There’s something disproportional about the way the Chiefs are using Juan Thornhill.

Here’s the rub there in that playing time discrepancy: even a casual fan would be able to watch a game and tell that Thornhill is the more dynamic talent between the two.

That’s not intended as a slight to Sorensen. In fact, Sorensen has made a very impressive career of proving doubters wrong. He was a rookie free agent who has been through this before several times over, a veteran now in his eighth season with the Chiefs who has lasted through multiple GMs and defensive coordinators. That doesn’t happen without talent, grit, determination, and the ability to overcome those who think the team can do better.

At the same time, Thornhill was drafted to start. He was a dynamic versatile talent out of Virginia when the Chiefs drafted him with their latter of two second-round picks in 2019. Thornhill came in with Week 1 starter ability having learned the nuances of both cornerback and safety, and the Chiefs saw tremendous growth out of placing him in the starting lineup with Tyrann Mathieu as part of a secondary overhaul in his first year with the team.

There’s a clear drop in on-field ability and production between Thornhill and Sorensen. Both have their place on the roster, but right now those are reversed.

In Week 1, Thornhill played in 95 percent of the snaps. In Week 2, without any injury designation, Thornhill played in 14 percent of the snaps. That in itself is a statement from the Chiefs.

In recent days, Thornhill’s own account has been a bit of a mystery, which only adds to the tension that seems to be boiling over. Check out the following cryptic tweets (which we could absolutely be reading way too much into):

On Thursday, the Chiefs allowed reporters to have access to several members of the coaching staff, including both coordinators. Steve Spagnuolo was asked about Thornhill and his response was pretty telling—at least that something is going on between the team and player.

“Spurts of good football” sounds like a better descriptor of Sorensen’s play. Instead, this reads like a coach somehow trying to motivate a player or use the press to get some unknown point across to him. Those kinds of instances are hardly ever productive, since it implies a communication impasse or an inability to solve things internally.

All of this is frustrating because the Chiefs defense is, at this point, in dire need of turning things around. The Chiefs are at the bottom of the NFL in several defensive categories after two games, and while they have Willie Gay coming back from an injury soon, it’s frustrating that someone so talented like Thornhill is being left on the bench to rot for nearly 90 percent of the defensive snaps on Sunday. Given that the Chiefs lost by a single point, it’s not hard to imagine that the outcome might have been different if the Chiefs had played Thornhill instead.

What will it take for the tension to be resolved? It’s impossible to say without knowing the source of the issue. Right now, both parties are giving vague public gestures toward an uncertain end. That sounds about as helpful as not playing Thornhill in the first place.

Whatever is going on at Arrowhead needs to be resolved for the sake of the team, the player, and a fan base anxious to see the best product placed on the field.

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