Rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — whom the Kansas City Chiefs had selected out of Louisiana Tech in the fourth round of the NFL Draft last spring — immediately proved to be a valuable contributor to the team’s defense in the opening weeks of the season, collecting 10 tackles, a pair of interceptions and three passes defensed in his first two NFL starts.
The performance couldn’t have come at a better time. Outside cornerback Bashaud Breeland was suspended through the fourth game of the season, while the other starter — Charvarius Ward — broke his hand in the season’s first game.
Sneed himself broke his collarbone during a near-interception in the Week 3 game against the Baltimore Ravens — and when he returned from injury against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10, the Chiefs were no longer scratching to find defensive backs who could play outside.
But it didn’t matter. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo already had a different plan in mind: making Sneed a nickel corner. And through two weeks, he’s liked what he’s seen from the young rookie.
“I see a lot of good,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday. “Listen, he played really well when he was in there early in the year. [We’re] trying to get the best players on the field as much as we can. We’ve asked him to learn a position that he really didn’t do in training camp — and he’s doing a great job playing inside at nickel.”
“Honestly, I started preparing before they even told me,” Sneed himself said on Wednesday. “I was trying to learn it before they even told me.”
Sagnuolo confirmed that.
“Yeah, I anticipated it,” he recalled, “so we’d gone to L.J. and said, ‘Look, keep your eyeball on the nickel’ — and he ran with it. That showed me that he was a pro.”
In some ways, the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic have made it easier for coaches to switch things up while a player is recovering from injury; they’re already accustomed to virtual meetings, which they can easily do while they’re rehabbing.
“The good thing was when we had him on IR, he was with us and able to meet every day,” Spagnuolo noted. “He was in every meeting.”
But both the player and coach acknowledged that the book-learning — however it happened — was only part of what needed to be done in order for Sneed to be able to make the switch.
“It’s totally different, for me,” explained Sneed, “than sitting at home trying to read a book than actually going out there and doing it. For me, going out there, that’s how I learn faster when I go through the process.”
“He did not have a foundation of reps,” agreed Spagnuolo. “Like, we hadn’t played him in any nickel going all the way back to training camp, so I give him a lot of credit for knowing what to do — or knowing as much as he did in the reps he’s had. There is a learning curve — whether you know it on the board or in the meeting room — there’s a learning curve when you go out there and it’s going really fast. But so far, so good.”
In the two games since his return, the Chiefs have brought Sneed along fairly slowly, giving him 23% of the defensive snaps against the Raiders and 55% on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and in Tampa, for a significantly higher percentage of running plays.
But Spagnuolo believes that he has the right man for the job.
“Mental capacity is really important,” he said of the nickel corner position. “The guy that goes inside and plays nickel has to be somewhat cerebral. We do a bunch of different things: [the nickel corner] plays zone, he plays man [and] he goes back and plays the half with the way we rotate people. And the one thing about L.J. is that he’s got ‘football get-it.’ I mean, he understands football.
“We knew that when we started working with him — however many months ago it was — and we were anxious to get him back after how well he performed at corner. What we didn’t know was, ‘Could he slide inside and get some of the things done?’ And right now, I think it’s been pretty good.”
For his part, Sneed said he is just doing what he sees everyone around him doing: making adjustments to help improve the team.
“I think we’re a very adjustable team,” he said. “Wherever they throw us [in] at, I think we can adjust at it, put our heads down and go to work at it.”
But he indicated that in his new role, he would still be holding on to the ballhawk mentality he displayed in the season’s opening weeks.
“You’ve got to have [it] in your mind like, ‘Go get it,’” he said. “If you want something, you’ll go get it. That’s what’s in my mindset. If I see a ball, it’s, ‘See ball, get ball.’”