Among Kansas City Chiefs fans, Daniel Sorensen has been a firecracker.
Since he joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of BYU in 2014, fans have tended to see the 29-year-old safety either as an up-and-coming homegrown talent or an overpaid depth player.
The more playing time Sorensen received, the more fan opinions appeared to turn negative — and this past offseason, they got worse. With the acquisitions of veteran Tyrann Mathieu and second-round draft pick Juan Thornhill — and with Jordan Lucas and Armani Watts already on the roster — there didn’t seem to be much reason to hold on to Sorensen and his $4.7 million cap hit.
But the Chiefs decided Sorensen was worth keeping.
Early in the year — as the Chiefs tended to use five defensive backs while working in various linebackers on passing downs — Sorensen only played about 20% of the defensive snaps. But after slot cornerback Kendall Fuller’s injury, his snap counts have increased — and it has resulted in some success for the Chiefs.
Let’s take a look at how the Chiefs have been deploying Sorensen — and why his role is becoming extremely vital at just the right time.
In the box
The most common way the Chiefs use Sorensen is as a dime linebacker. He was used this way before Fuller’s injury, but it was only in select situations.
Sorensen isn't the best athlete at the S position but he does have the change of direction ability to pick up RBs on option, angle, and wheel routes coming out of the backfield— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
When in man coverage he does a good job squaring up a RB and staying over the top forcing them to stem pic.twitter.com/PlB5JmKb5D
On this play, Sorensen is lined up as one of two linebackers. He has man coverage on the running back out of the backfield. Sorensen does a good job angling out to the flat with the running back — and as the backflips his hips on the route, Sorensen is able to flip back around with him.
The Chiefs defense has been notoriously poor at covering running backs out of the backfield — and while Sorensen may not be the perfect guy for the job, he is the team’s best option. His angles can be off — and he doesn’t always play up to NFL-level athleticism — but overall, he has the skill set to match the shiftiness of running backs, along with the processing skills to identify where a back is trying to go.
His run D in the box isn't quite as effective as he is coming deep. His size and average explosiveness limit his ability to fight through blockers or slip under them— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
He struggles to sit down in his gap and when he tries to work around a block he can be late back to the gap pic.twitter.com/RsdiJprwX7
So it would make sense for the Chiefs to play Sorensen as a linebacker against lighter personnel groupings — but his run defense isn’t ideal.
When playing the run from inside the box, Sorensen’s size becomes a problem — and his reads become cluttered. He doesn’t have the top-end explosion of a small linebacker or the size of a traditional linebacker. This makes it hard for him to challenge interior gaps by slipping or stacking up blockers. Even when working laterally from the box, he can be sealed off on the back side or slip under a block that takes him out of the play.
These limitations keep Sorensen from playing as a linebacker on any snap with 11 personnel. When he is in space, he does a good job tracking ball carriers — and bringing them down — but when he’s in the box playing the run, Sorensen simply looks like an average safety.
Since Fuller’s injury, there have been increased reps with Mathieu as the nickel cornerback — which often requires Sorensen to be on the field. Most of the time, he’s either in the box or back deep — but from time to time, he does end up as another slot or apex defender.
Dan Sorensen has found a bit of a role for the Chiefs as a 3rd S covering RBs and allowing Mathieu to be a chess piece— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
Sorensen has a good feel in zone and does a good job sliding/pedaling while eyeing a QB. IDs vertical threat, pedals, walls off, then elevates for the pick. pic.twitter.com/wK1hOuil2S
Here, lined up as an overhang off the edge, Sorensen is first responsible for anything coming into the flat, but also for any receiver that turns to a vertical route after flashing into the flat.
As the running back works outside, Sorensen is reading his hips and starts with a lateral slide — but with the back aiming towards the pylon, he quickly transitions to a shuffle. The flat route isn’t sold well — and the quarterback never sees him — but Sorensen plays the route perfectly by squeezing the running back to the sideline while keeping his eye on the ball.
Sorensen has always been a very opportunistic player. If a ball is lofting through the air in his direction or on the ground near him — or even if a receiver is in a vulnerable position for a big hit — he can take advantage. He shows natural ball skills and the knack for maximizing his opportunities to make plays, which is something that not every player — even a star player — can do.
Sorensen's coverage role is limited but kind of has to be because when he does get isolated against WRs or good TEs in man or carrying in match zones there are some issues.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
Missed the jam at the LoS, feet were flat, and the transition was segmented resulting in easy separation pic.twitter.com/x3lPQod1d1
So if he plays the run well in space and can excel in coverage, why not use Sorensen as a primary apex defender?
The problem is that when he is forced into man coverage against quality tight ends (and most wide receivers) — or when he is picking them up in zone coverage — his unnatural coverage mechanics show up. For a guy who has some of the best short-area quickness and change-of-direction testing on record, his ability to transition in coverage looks very segmented and stiff.
When asked to come downhill and attack a player in front of him — or shuffle/slide in one direction — he is fluid and does it at a good pace. But as soon as it becomes a multi-step process with direction changes and route diagnosis, he looks out of place. The issues are only compounded when he has to press at the line of scrimmage — and it often puts him behind when he’s also struggling to keep up.
Another way the Chiefs utilize Sorensen is as a deep safety. While it draws a lot of ire from fans, it may be his single best role.
Getting to RBs in the flat is something that killed the Chiefs early in the season and the additional playing time for Sorensen has helped that a ton.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
His angles aren't always the best and cause inconsistency in his closing but he's proven to be heads and shoulders above the LBs pic.twitter.com/XCX0AIC5Eq
While Sorensen isn’t being asked to play deep on this play, it highlights the general skill set he displays at reading the field from the deeper alignment — that is, how safely he plays the position.
As he spins down, Sorensen is still able to see much of the field and process the route combination unspooling before him. He squares up to the swing pass — and even shuffles out over the top — but doesn’t commit downhill until the ball is thrown.
We see that same kind of safe play from Sorensen when he’s playing in deep coverage over the top.
Doesn't look like much but Sorenen's run fills from deep have always been solid. He stays on top of both run options and doesn't commit until the runner has chosen his running lane.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 26, 2019
When Sorensen comes downhill he does so balanced and reducing potential cuts a RB can make pic.twitter.com/wEtMJ5agGN
It’s the same story against the run. While Sorensen has some issues reading the field when he’s close to the box, when he’s further away, he does a good job taking safe angles and reducing the number of directions the running back can cut.
Whether it’s against the run or pass, Sorensen does a good job staying over the top of potential threats, which reduces the chance for a big play. While this means he makes fewer plays than some other safeties in similar roles, it does serve a purpose.
The bottom line
While fans may have a wide range of opinions about him, Daniel Sorensen has settled into a niche in the Chiefs defense. He may not be stellar in any single area, but his ability to play all three of a safety’s roles at a competent level allows the Chiefs to utilize Tyrann Mathieu in multiple ways.
Furthermore, his ability to operate as a dime linebacker on passing downs will continue to give him snaps — even as the rest of the secondary returns to health. His sure tackling and ability to cover running backs out of the backfield give him an extremely important role — one that could be vital to the Chiefs down the stretch.