The Kansas City Chiefs saw one All-Pro safety leave this offseason — but they’ll still have one on the team, if you ask fourth-year defensive back Juan Thornhill.
“I got high expectations; it’s as simple as that,” Thornhill told reporters Thursday, after the first practice of mandatory minicamp. “I’m planning on playing my best football, by far, at the top of my game. I’m expecting an All-Pro season. I’m saying that right now.”
The bold proclamation came after answering questions about what life will be like without Tyrann Mathieu — the veteran safety that was awarded first-team All-Pro twice in his three seasons in Kansas City.
Thornhill has benefitted from learning under Mathieu since he was a rookie, but he’s now entering his fourth NFL season, while also being the only safety that has been in Kansas City longer than a year. His familiarity with the system points to him heading the position, something he is prepared — and seemingly excited — to do.
“I love it, honestly,” Thornhill revealed. “Being the oldest guy in the room with a bunch of rookies, I basically can lead the way now.”
Thornhill may be leading the safety group, but Mathieu’s authority didn’t stop there. He was the heart and soul of the entire unit, and wore it on his sleeve. With that emotional leadership role vacant, it’s natural that the replacement is as close to him on and off the field as any current Chiefs player.
“I took a lot from him because he was that guy that got everyone into place,” reflected Thornhill. “I was really quiet when he was here because I knew that he was the type of guy to be the leader, and I’d just follow his footsteps. Now, it’s my time to take on that role and get everyone lined up. I think he did a good job helping me get to this spot in my fourth year to become that leader.”
As far as the players he is leading, there are plenty of them. The Chiefs made a point this season to build the depth of the defensive secondary. With all the new faces, Thornhill’s been impressed with the group’s assimilation into the scheme so far.
“We’re loaded, we have a bunch of good guys out there. I love them as people,” Thornhill admired. “They’re doing a great job of learning the playbook; I remember when I was a rookie coming in, it was kind of hard to pick up on.”
“The defense is really hard, honestly. If you’re not studying your playbook, you’re not going to be able to pick up on it. It shows that the guys are in their playbook and taking this thing pretty seriously, because they’re not making a lot of mistakes out there. They look like veterans out there with the playbook.”
The group features five rookies and three other newcomers. Specifically, at safety, Thornhill is the only returning player from the group aside from practice-squad candidates like Devon Key and Zayne Anderson. Without the veteran presences of Mathieu and Dan Sorensen, Thornhill has no other choice but to fill their shoes as leaders — and he may do it a little differently.
“It’s definitely a role I want to take on,” he repeated about leadership. “I want the guys to have fun. Sometimes playing this game, it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure on you — but we don’t want that pressure. We just want to go out there and have a lot of fun, enjoy the game. That’s when you make a lot of plays, when you’re comfortable and bonding on the field.”
The objective to build a tight-knit group that has fun together is much easier said than done; real friendships just can’t be forced. However, it sounds like achieving that is off to a good start — especially with the team’s biggest signing of the offseason.
“The guys from day one — like [safety] Justin Reid — we’ve talked about building a relationship,” Thornhill emphasized. “Since they came into the building, guys have been hanging out together; I feel like they’ve been here for years. We’ve picked up on each other, we’re like best friends or brothers now.”
“Guys aren’t rushing to get out and get home,” Thornhill pointed out. “We’ll sit in there and play cards or something like that. If you got guys that just want to hang with each other, you’re going to play so much better on the field.”
The other question remaining for Thornhill is about his physical health. Injuries have unfortunately plagued his career since the end of his rookie season — but this offseason has not featured any sort of recovery or setback. Thornhill’s confidence is reflected in how he feels physically.
“I’m all the way back,” Thornhill stated. “If you’re out there watching me play, I’m flying around right now, not thinking about the knee at all. My confidence is on a high, and I feel like I can run and compete with anyone on the field. Like I said before, I’m having an All-Pro season... I’m committed to doing that.”
Only Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Berry and Deron Cherry have earned All-Pro recognition as safeties for the Chiefs in the modern era. In the last year of his rookie contract, Thornhill expects to be the next.