The Kansas City Chiefs’ offseason has brought a whole lot of change and one of the biggest differences in 2022 will be the absence of Tyrann Mathieu on the defense.
That’s created an interesting spring and early summer talking point — who will take over the role left by the “Honey Badger” and are they ready to do so?
While the popular answer might be free-agent signing Justin Reid, or draft pick Bryan Cook, the most accurate one could end up being fourth-year safety, Juan Thornhill. A former second-round pick in 2019, the Virginia product learned from Mathieu first-hand and now it could be his chance to take center stage.
Of course, the spotlight comes with added expectations and pressure.
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Can Thornhill Finally Deliver After ‘Wetting the Appetite?’
During an episode of the SportsBeat KC podcast with Chiefs beat writer Jesse Newell and host Blair Kerkhoff, the two experts debated which players have the “most to prove” in 2022.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kerkhoff chose Thornhill. He explained:
The absence of Tyrann Mathieu… I think puts more of a spotlight on Juan Thornhill, who overdelivered in his rookie season. Made the NFL’s all-rookie team, was injured in the final regular season game that year so didn’t get to participate in the Chiefs’ run to the Super Bowl championship, but really wetted the appetite for a player who [many thought was] going to be terrific. We haven’t seen that since. Injuries played a role — common theme here, injuries — but I think there is a lot on his shoulders going into this season. He has got to be a guy who steps up — he’s going to be the Chiefs’ centerfielder in a division now with terrific quarterbacks and great wide receivers.
Some might say the obvious choice is a veteran like Frank Clark or Chris Jones but Thornhill was a sneaky good selection by Kerkhoff. After a bright start to his NFL career, injuries have halted the safety’s development and at times, kept him on the sidelines.
Kerkhoff concluded: “He’s going to be in the spotlight often [and] I think he really needs to step up and be the player that he was [during] his rookie year that we expected [he’d] take into his second and third season — but we haven’t seen it yet. I’ve got a couple of other names here but Thornhill goes to the top of my list.”
If the combination of Mathieu’s departure and the trajectory of his professional journey isn’t enough pressure, Thornhill also guaranteed an All-Pro season during minicamp.
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Off to a Hot Start
According to ESPN beat reporter Adam Teicher, Thornhill was the Chiefs’ “surprise offseason standout” this spring. Part of that honor appeared to reward the safety’s confidence.
“Thornhill is healthy perhaps for the first time since tearing the ACL in his left knee as a rookie in 2019 and was impressive during offseason workouts,” wrote Teicher. “The Chiefs will ask more of him now that Tyrann Mathieu is gone, and Thornhill said he will respond with an All-Pro season.”
Saying something at a press conference is one thing but proving it on the field is another. Thornhill will have to become more consistent if he wants to turn into a team leader and steady performer in this defense.
He only made nine defensive stops last year according to Pro Football Focus — which are determined as any tackle that constitutes an offensive failure. That ranked tied for 15th on Kansas City’s roster. He also allowed a reception percentage of 75%, which could obviously be better.
Paired with Reid — and Cook as an understudy — this safety room has way more talent than it’s getting credit for. Having said that, there’s also more competition.
If Cook continues to make headlines as he did at minicamp and Thornhill falters or picks up another injury, he could quickly become an afterthought behind his two new teammates. Kerkhoff said it best — the pressure is on for the former second-round pick in 2022.