As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare for the 2021 season, two of the biggest questions about the team’s defense involve moving well-established inside players to the outside.
One of them is second-year cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who turned heads across the league when he opened his rookie campaign starting as an outside corner while Bashaud Breeland was serving a four-game suspension to begin the season. But then Sneed suffered a broken collarbone in the Week 3 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Upon his return in Week 10, the Chiefs moved him inside to serve as the slot cornerback in the team’s nickel defensive packages — where he again performed very well.
But now — with Breeland a free agent (and the other outside corner Charvarius Ward only under contract through this season) — the pressure is mounting to move Sneed to a role on the outside. The Chiefs, however, now have 17 defensive backs on the roster. Two recently-acquired corners — Deandre Baker and Mike Hughes — are former first-round picks who haven’t yet delivered on their initial promise. Third-year cornerback Rashad Fenton has shown some ability both inside and outside, while second-year player BoPete Keyes saw little action in 2020.
Meanwhile, the other inside-outside situation involves star defensive tackle Chris Jones, whom the Chiefs have already been using as a defensive end in some circumstances. According to the football analytics site Pro Football Focus, Jones was lined up as an end on 18% of his snaps in 2020 — but with the signing of former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed, Andy Reid has talked about how that gives the team “flexibility” in how they could use Jones in 2021.
When he met with reporters in a Zoom conference call on Thursday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo gave more detail about both of these potential inside-outside moves. First, he addressed moving Sneed to the outside.
“I think back in Philadelphia, we had Bobby Taylor,” recalled Spagnuolo. “What we did with Bobby is that he he played outside in four defensive back packages — and then he moved back [inside] on the five defensive back packages. So we may go that route.”
But Spagnuolo also acknowledged that there are a lot of question marks among the many cornerbacks the team has rostered — and the final solution could well depend on what they learn about them.
“A little bit of it is going to depend on — I’m going to say, ‘the next corner that surfaces.’ Or, ‘IS there a next corner that surfaces?’” he noted. “If we need to keep [Sneed] on the outside, we’ll do that. I think until then, we’ll probably work him at both [positions] and see where it goes. We really need to find out what we have in the ‘other corners’ — if that makes sense.”
Then Spagnuolo spoke about how much he already likes having Reed on the team.
“I remember when he was at Alabama, I have a good friend that actually trained him as he got ready for the combine,” he recalled. “So we have a mutual friend — a coach I have a lot of respect for — and I’ve always liked him as a player, so I’m glad we got him. We’ve had him here a few days — and I texted him the other day. I just really like the way he handles himself here at practice. He’s serious about football, [but] he knows when to lighten it up. Right now, in the short amount of time I’ve had with him, I really love the personality, the attitude and what he gives us as a football player.”
Then in response to another question about how the Chiefs could find a balance between using Jones both inside and outside, Spagnuolo mentioned the issues the team still needs to address to make that happen — and acknowledged they are moving in that direction.
“He is an imposing player inside. We all know that,“ he said. “If we move him outside on a number of the snaps — and he’s going to have to be flexible to do both — we’ll miss that. Hopefully we’ll gain something on the edge. When somebody changes a position, obviously the first hurdle is the mental part of it.
“Chris is working through that — and he’s been great. He’s been here and been part of the whole thing. I think that’s important: when you change a position, it’s just not that easy to pick up a whole new spot — and we do some different things with the defensive ends. So he’ll play out there a little bit — and you know, we’ll move him back inside when we have to.”
But Spagnuolo also admitted that the precise plan for how to use Jones — just as it is with Sneed — is a work in progress.
“But it’s a great point that you’re making,” he said. “I think your question is, ‘How do you balance that?’ I’m not sure how you do that yet. Maybe it’ll come down to — and I think we’ll probably do a little bit of this — it will come down to who we’re playing... where maybe we can find a weakness — and maybe expose that weakness in the five offensive linemen.
“But we’ve just got to get him used to playing the two spots right now — and figure out the rest of it later on.”