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Film review: Chiefs rookie safety Juan Thornhill

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Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt rated Thornhill as the No. 1 free safety in the 2019 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is our second film review of the Chiefs’ 2019 draft class. If you missed our review of second-round wide receiver Mecole Hardman, click here.


After trading up to select Mecole Hardman as the 56th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs were back on the clock.

According to general manager Brett Veach, the Chiefs had a handful of players in a “high-two” (second round grade) pocket even after trading up for Hardman. Much to their surprise, one of these second-round players was still available at No. 63.

“This was a guy that, actually, (defensive backs coach) Dave Merritt had number one on his free safety list,” Veach said, according to Chiefs.com. “We were excited and ecstatic when he was still available and we wasted no time to turn his name in.”

It was somewhat clear entering the draft that Tyrann Mathieu was going to be playing near the line of scrimmage and in the box but it was never confirmed. The Thornhill pick strengthens that line of thinking, as Thornhill is seen not only as a top free safety option but a true centerfielder.

Making that connection from Thornhill’s game isn’t always as simple as just watching his tape because of how he was utilized at Virginia. The Chiefs had to connect those dots by focusing on the traits and skills he brought to the table.

So, without further ado, let’s dust off the ol’ doorknob and head down in the AP Laboratory and try to see what the Chiefs are seeing.

Virginia S Juan Thornhill

6’0” | 205 lbs.

Range

The most commonly talked about trait when referring to free safeties, especially as single-high safeties, is their range. How much space can they effectively cover on the back end of the defense, especially when plays are being funneled to that area of the field?

Range is more than the ability to run fast and cover from number to number or hashmark to hashmark—it is also heavily reliant on angles, change of direction and how quickly the game can be processed.

The athletic process of a player flipping his hips into the correct direction and then having the acceleration and speed to cover a long distance is no issue for Thornhill.

This play doesn’t present itself as a traditional deep safety snap, but Thornhill is still covering a deep half of the field despite his close alignment to the line of scrimmagee.

(Note: With the Giants, Steve Spagnuolo often had a safety with deep zone responsibilities line up near the box, just to drop out. What you gain from this rep is a sense of the athletic range Thornhill possesses.)

Once Thornhill correctly identifies pass, he makes an easy transition to flip his hips and gain depth over the top of the receiver. He can accelerate out of the transition smoothly and quickly, which he then carries into top-end speed to close the gap to the receiver.

Another fantastic part of this play is the angle Thornhill takes to arrive to the catch point. Rather than retreating vertically and then horizontally, elongating his travel distance, Thornhill’s initial aiming point is about where he ends up. He does a great job on setting his initial angle and then keeping eyes on the quarterback, ball and wide receiver, making the subtle adjustments needed. The athleticism to contort his body while still moving full speed and then make that kind of play on the football isn’t as easy as he makes it look.

The hardest part of judging a centerfield-type safety is evaluating mental acuity. Range is predicated on how quickly a player can identify possible targets, narrow them down and react accordingly.

Here, we have an example of Thornhill showcasing range and ability to read the field. Reading the offensive lines pass sets, he quickly identifies pass to the point that he’s changed his read from the ball and quarterback to the receivers before the play-fake even happens.

Thornhill has the deep middle on this play, and as such, he is keying through the slot wide receiver to the outside wide receiver to figure out who he is helping initially. As the slot receiver begins breaking down the corner and showing his chest, the outside receiver is continuing vertically. Not being stuck on the receiver nearest to him, Thornhill opens up his hips as he gains depth to stick with the deeper receiver in case they come to the middle of the field.

In this Cover 3 variation, the outside cornerback actually stays on top of the wide receiver, which allows Thornhill to squeeze from underneath. Here, we have Thornhill tracking just underneath the post for the interception. Whether relying on athleticism, angles or mental processing, he shows the baseline traits you want to see out of a deep safety.

Click and close

No matter where a defensive back is playing on the field, the ability to click and close is crucial. The click aspect means seeing what is happening and adjusting your mindset and goal to react to that motion. Close means getting where you need be as quickly as possible.

Safeties can most often be seen breaking toward the line of scrimmage, reacting to a run or an underneath route.

Thornhill stays square to the receiver, trying to read his route before he has to click his mindset into reacting to the short out route. He has to go from reading the play in front of him to responding and he does so while the receiver is still trying to break him down. Be it from advanced film study or understanding the situation, Thornhill gets a great initial jump on the out route. The close then comes into play, as he can accelerate not only to the catch point but also through it to stop the receiver on the spot.

No matter what position—strong or free—they need to quickly process a play and break downhill on it extremely fast. Thornhill should face no limitations, mentally or athletically, in this department.

Man coverage

Speaking of versatility and being asked to do fulfill many roles, the Chiefs have been very open about looking for safeties with man-coverage skills. Spagnuolo will use his safeties in man coverage as part of his blitz packages or simply to change up his coverage at times, so there is a need for both the strong and free safety to have some level of man-coverage ability.

Thornhill is a former cornerback at the college level, and there are some man-to-man skills evident in his tape. He has good size and length and when he’s able to get hands on receivers and be physical with them, he can stick to any type of receiver in coverage.

He quickly reads the release of the receiver and transitions accordingly to stay in phase, and Thornhill makes his presence known when the receiver leaves his chest open. The quick, powerful jab throws the timing off on the route, and while he has to reset himself, his athleticism allows him to recover back into phase quickly. His ball skills then take over at the catch point.

Thornhill is far from perfect in man coverage, which is likely why the switch to safety occurred. When he doesn’t get hands on receivers, he looks less polished.

The receiver gets on top of him on this play, and with no hands on the receiver, Thornhill is forced into an early-recovery mode. While he can recover and get to the catch point, Thornhill is so late on the play, he is never able to track the ball fully. This is a situation in which he should have played the receiver, not the ball, once he was beaten.

Quicker players in the slot, especially with free releases, tend to eat up Thornhill at the top of their route stem. He is exceptionally athletic and even has very smooth change-of-direction ability, but they are super twitchy. Asking him to routinely man-cover slot receivers in the NFL may be a tall task for him, but using his size and length against tight ends or carrying routes vertically are absolutely in his wheelhouse.

Run defense

As a deep safety, run defense is somewhat of an afterthought. It does not mean a player can be a terrible tackler, but they don’t have to be a dynamic playmaker in the run game to be effective. It’s much more about taking proper angles and filling gaps when no else is left to fill them or taking proper angles to limit big plays.

This is just a solid all-around play by Thornhill to limit the yards gained by the running back without being overly impressive in terms of run defense.

As Thornhill follows the motion into the middle of the defense, he’s reading the mesh point and making a quick decision on where the ball is going. Rather than committing hard to a gap, he knows he’s assumed the run-fit roles of a strong safety after the motion, as the free safety has followed the jet motion. If he allows the running back to get by him, there is no else. So he waits for the running back to commit to a gap and then breaks down to secure the tackle for minimal gain.

Thornhill is working through traffic to help secure the tackle near the line of scrimmage, as he can avoid both a stalk block and a climbing interior offensive lineman. He can play physical and take on some blocks—even shed them at times—but he much prefers to slip around blocks. This particular play worked out well, but there are times he can surrender a few extra yards.

Evident in these run-defense clips is a potential tackling issue that never truly manifested in college but could in the NFL.

Thornhill is a dive tackler that frequently drops his eyes during contact. He didn’t miss many tackles in college—quite the opposite, as he was a fairly sure tackler. It is something worth watching if the Chiefs plan to use him as a run defender.

The bottom line

Thornhill’s versatility as a coverage player, whether it’s his ability to play man to man, defend shallow zones, play the run or play on the deep end made him highly coveted by the Chiefs.

It sounds like the plan will be to let him earn a starting role at free safety, so he can play along Mathieu, which is probably the best case scenario for the Chiefs.

As much as I personally love Jordan Lucas and there are some high expectations for Armani Watts, Thornhill shows better skills and traits than either of them and allows the defense to function in the versatile way Spagnuolo wants.