It was painfully obvious to regular viewers of the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs that second-year safety Juan Thornhill just wasn’t able to play to his full potential.
He played in all 16 regular-season games plus the playoffs but very seldom moved or made plays as he did in his rookie season — before he tore his ACL in Week 17. The best he looked came in the AFC championship, where he defended four passes and flew to the ball like his old self. Unfortunately, he didn’t carry that momentum into the Super Bowl: he played the second-lowest amount of defensive snaps he saw all year.
This offseason, he told the public every chance he got that he feels good. Yet, a bad rep in the first preseason game, combined with news of Thornhill running with the third team in practice on Monday, created a little panic in Chiefs Kingdom. It was obviously over-reactionary; head coach Andy Reid warned not to take stock in the practice rotation.
For those who did, Thornhill made the message very clear after a great performance in Friday night’s 17-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals:
“I’m back,” Thornhill excitedly assured reporters. “I’m back.”
“There were times last season I was doubting myself,” Thornhill continued. “I was never 100% — I just had to fight through the pain. This offseason, I’ve just attacked it. I’m trying to get my knee back to 100%, and I can definitely say I’m back.”
It’s safe to assume some of Thornhill’s confidence in post-game derived from the amazing play he made a few hours earlier.
The Cardinals’ second-team offense was threatening to score before halftime, but an outstretched Thornhill unbelievably intercepted an overthrown pass into the end zone. Even if the pass was accurate, Thornhill’s beat on the throw was likely resulting in a pass defended.
Thornhill was in perfect position as a deep safety, helping defenders in man coverage from the top. He had a jump on it because he knew it was coming; he baited the quarterback into the throw.
“I was trying to show help somewhere else so I took a false step,” Thornhill revealed, then explained. “Once I knew the quarterback saw that, he was going to try hit number three over the top. He threw it right behind one of our linebackers ears, and I just went to make a play.”
The play displayed the rare athleticism that made him a high recruit in multiple sports going into college, then a second-round pick in the NFL Draft a few years later. It’s an optimistic sign that Thornhill will be able to continue on his original path to being one of the league’s best young safeties.
To get back to where he once was as a player, he has to look forward at all times.
“I’ve put last season behind me,” Thornhill declared. “I’m just trying to move forward, I’m trying to make the plays I used to make — and whenever coach calls me or my teammates need me, I’m out there to make that play.”
It’s refreshing to hear a player be so open and honest about an injury and its effects — physically and mentally. He likely feels comfortable sharing the struggles he faced because he’s confident they are behind him.
It’s a mental block just as much a physical recovery, and Thornhill believes he’s pushed through both.
“When you’re out there focusing football and not the knee, you’ll always play better,” Thornhill pointed out. “There were times last season I was just doubting myself, like ‘Can I still jump that high? Can I still run this fast? Can I push off this leg like I want to?’ This season, I’m just focusing on football — and that automatically allows me to make more plays.”
As it sits, Thornhill is a situational player — only running with the first-team defense as a third safety in dime personnel.
However, If he continues to prove to the team that he truly is “back,” he should absolutely be the starting free safety rather than Dan Sorensen. His re-emergence would significantly raise the ceiling and the floor of the unit’s snap-to-snap performance.
The highlight-reel interception on Friday night was the strongest indicator yet that he is as back as he says.