On Tuesday, the football analytics site Pro Football Focus released their final top 32 position group ranking for the 2021 season — this one focusing on NFL safeties. Sam Monson’s list ranked Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos first, followed by Harrison Smith of the Minnesota Vikings, John Johnson III of the Cleveland Browns, the New Orleans Saints’ Marcus Williams and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Minkah Fitzpatrick.
If you’ve been following these, you know that the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t have a player on PFF’s top-32 linebacker or cornerback lists for 2021. But they put two on their list of the league’s top safeties.
11. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Tyrann Mathieu is a complete and versatile player who has been a difference-maker within the Chiefs defense since he arrived there. He still has a knack for making big plays at the most critical times, as he came down with a pick in both the AFC championship and the Super Bowl, two of seven he had in total last season.
31. Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
Thornhill’s second season was something of a letdown, given how good he was in his first, but a torn ACL in Week 17 of that debut season probably impacted his play in Year 2. Now he is a year removed from that injury, and a return to that PFF coverage grade of 78.0 or better this season would see Thornhill likely even climb higher on this list.
These last three PFF position rankings tell us something that we already knew: that in recent years, the Chiefs have continued to just get by at the second and third levels of their defense, investing only a relatively small amount of draft capital (or salary-cap space) in linebackers and cornerbacks.
But they haven’t minded investing in safeties, signing Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million contract before the 2019 season — and then following that move by spending a second-round draft pick on Thornhill.
So far, these moves have paid off for the Chiefs. In 2020 — despite not having an experienced “name” cornerback or linebacker on the roster — they allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 89.3, which was the league’s 10-best mark. But they’ve also been just average against the run, allowing 4.5 yards per carry in 2020. Thankfully, succeeding on the ground hasn’t been a consistent way for opposing teams to defeat the Chiefs.
To be sure, the Chiefs have begun the process of investing resources into the linebacker corps, using second-round picks in the last two drafts to acquire Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton. And they got lucky last season, finding L’Jarius Sneed — widely recognized as one of the best rookie corners of 2020 — in the fourth round.
But until those moves pay off, the Chiefs are still depending on their talented safeties to make the defense work.