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The film review is in: CB L’Jarius Sneed could be an early contributor

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Even as a fourth-round pick, defensive back L’Jarius Sneed could be a part of the team’s secondary sooner rather than later.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Southern Miss at Louisiana Tech Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the 138th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs deviated a little from the public's’ perception of the draft board, selecting Louisiana Tech defensive back L’Jarius Sneed in the fourth round.

The national media was a little low on Sneed — but who can blame them? As a senior at Louisiana Tech, Sneed was moved from cornerback to safety. There he had quality stats, but his tape was relatively mediocre; he looked like a guy playing out of position, which lowered his draft stock.

But in the NFLPA All-Star game he returned to cornerback — where he had played in the previous three seasons — and had a good week. He carried that hype into the NFL Combine, running a 4.37 40-yard dash. At 6 feet tall — with relatively long arms — his jumps showed equally impressive explosive traits. During the drill work. he looked much more fluid than he ever did during his senior year at safety.

Listening to Chiefs coaches and front office personnel talk about Sneed, it’s clear they are big fans — saying that if they had it, they would have taken him with the fourth round’s first pick. While it’s always hard to tell if such comments simply represent lip service or their true feelings, whenever he speaks about him, cornerback coach Sam Madison’s excitement for Sneed is obvious.

Let’s take a go down into the AP Laboratory, dig through some of Sneed’s film and see what makes the Chiefs so excited about this young man.

L’Jarius Sneed | cornerback | Louisiana Tech

6 feet | 192 pounds

NFL Combine - Day 6 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Man coverage

As a whole, man coverage is the single most important ability an NFL cornerback can possess. It allows a defense to put them against one receiver without any extra help.

While the Chiefs don’t rely on pure man-to-man coverage very often, when they do, it’s often from a press alignment, allowing bigger cornerbacks to get physical when pressure is expected. With his ability to play tight at the line of scrimmage — making it difficult for receivers to get away from him — Sneed fits right into that role.

More than pure size or strength, it’s his ability to stay patient and balanced before delivering a strike and knocking the receiver off their route. Sneed’s soft press is a great tool, because when the cornerback starts soft-shoeing — that is, mirroring the receiver’s steps — off the line of scrimmage, they think they’re getting a free release. But because Sneed is so balanced, he’s able to shoot his hands the moment the receiver tries to challenge his leverage. This allows him re-direct them and stick to their hip on the break.

This isn’t to say that Sneed doesn’t have the ability to pull of a traditional press-man coverage; he is more than capable of doing so.

Getting up on the line of scrimmage, crowding the receiver and throwing them around is where he feels the most comfortable. This dual ability — being able to line up in a receiver’s face to either engage them immediately or wait until they have to challenge you — keeps them guessing. When you can do both well, it’s a huge step toward getting on the field.

Footwork

When he’s not putting hands on a receiver right at the line of scrimmage, a corner’s footwork and patience become key to staying in proper position. When you’re trying to avoid opening up too early, the confidence in your own ability match a receiver’s foot quickness are paramount.

Sneed consistently does a good job of setting his leverage, forcing receivers to work through his entire body when they try cross his leverage. Trusting his long speed, he avoids opening his hips too early. Instead, he half-turns, trying to work the receiver into the boundary.

Sneed wasn’t often asked to execute full backpedals — but he still flashed the ability to do it. The patience to stay square — not executing his turn until he’s forced the wide receiver to alter their stem — shows well.

Sneed is not going to be at his best in off-coverage or consistently soft-shoeing off the line of scrimmage — but has the skillset to do it when called upon.

Athleticism

While his combine performance speaks for itself, Sneed doesn’t just test fast. He plays fast.

It’s easy to see why he can play so patiently at the line of scrimmage: he simply trusts his speed to match anyone vertically. Sometimes this can get him in trouble when receivers stack him vertically — but for Sneed, the athletic package is complete. Whether we’re talking about a burst to come downhill or the speed to turn and run vertically, Sneed plays like an elite athlete.

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On this play, Sneed is balanced while dropping out to top the receiver’s route. He’s able to execute a simple drop-step without having to alter his momentum and explode downhill to the ball. He does a good job identifying the break coming and begins to square his hips as the receiver’s chest rises — although that aggression can frequently bite him on double moves — and takes a flat angle to undercut the out route.

A fast, explosive, relatively big cornerback who can flip his hips and come downhill that quickly is a valuable commodity in the NFL.

Hip fluidity

Since Sneed is almost always balanced, he is able to make up for somewhat inadequate looseness in his hips. He also helps himself with his physicality at the stem or off the line of scrimmage. But functionally, Sneed plays with plenty of fluidity to match receivers vertically and horizontally.

His only major issues come against double moves, where he does struggle through some stiffness to halt his momentum and turn back upfield. That said, he’s not easy to shake on in/out-breaking routes and doesn’t show any issues turning and running vertically — even off of good route stems.

Zone coverage

While he wasn’t asked to run a lot of zone coverage at Louisiana Tech, Sneed did show a great feel for playing the curl/flat in Cover 2.

Playing against a Smash concept is always difficult for cornerbacks — but on this play, Sneed does a good job. As he releases the outside wideout vertically, he’s eyeing the quarterback and slot wide receiver while squaring up the potential out route to drive on it underneath — all while slowly drifting downfield to squeeze the window between him and the closing safety.

Sneed’s skill as a zone defender pales in comparison his skill as a man defender — but even though they are running zone elsewhere, the Chiefs allow their outside corners to play physical in a pseudo-man coverage technique.

Ball skills

When he’s coming downhill, Sneed shows natural ability to locate and attack the ball with his hands.

Whether it’s an accurate pass — or a floater like this one — as he closes to the receiver, he takes a direct angle to undercut the the route. He also knows when to go for the interception and when to just stab or swat the ball. While running vertically, he’s not bad at playing the ball over his shoulder — but he can struggle with his body position on those reps.

With his height, long arms and crazy explosiveness, you’d like to see him in a few more plays from a trail position. When playing vertically, he’s more of a ball-denial cornerback — but in shallow and intermediate routes, he can absolutely produce plays on the ball.

Tackling

Like most college corners, Sneed needs a little work on his tackling technique — but the desire is there. Similar to his ability to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, he can blow up blockers and deliver big hits on ball carriers. He rarely shies away from contact.

Bottom line

L’Jarius Sneed may have been a Day 3 pick, but he’s not really a developmental player. While there are certainly aspects of his game that need work — even at his best, he wasn’t likely to be a round-one selection — he’s not far from being able to play at the next level.

His elite athleticism (according to Craig Stout’s charting, he’s a Tier 1 cBAT player) paired with his physicality at the line of scrimmage provide a safe floor — and a route to contribute early on. The best part about him is that he’s so much more than just a fast, physical player. His patience and balance are very good — and allow him to play multiple techniques.

With cornerback Charvarius Ward, we’ve already seen how the Chiefs can work around a player with a somewhat limited skillset. With Bashaud Breeland’s early season availability a little murky, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sneed challenge Rashad Fenton for big-time reps early on — and continue to be part of the rotation as the season progresses.