During this offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs have had a lot of personnel turnover, with new faces at multiple positions. Many of the incumbent starters are getting used to the newcomers that surround them — but except for safety Juan Thornhill, none are being asked to do it all by themselves.
After three years as the youthful complement to veterans like Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen, Thornhill is now the only safety returning from 2021. Joining him are the offseason’s veteran acquisitions — Justin Reid and Deon Bush — along with rookie Bryan Cook.
He has embraced the leadership role that naturally comes with being in this situation, being much more vocal and observant than he was in his first three years with the Chiefs.
“I’ve been seeing a bunch of good things with us being out there in these preseason games,” Thornhill shared with reporters before Tuesday’s practice at the Truman Sports Complex. “We haven’t had the most reps — but at the same time, when we’re out there we’re making the most of every single rep that we have. Guys are making plays. We’re getting stops on defense, so that’s always a good thing when the offense isn’t scoring.”
Thornhill isn’t lying. The Chiefs’ starting defense has been on the field for just four possessions in the two preseason games. All four drives ended in punts.
Considering all the youth (and inexperience in the system) among the starting defensive players, it’s an encouraging sign. This is especially true in the secondary, where there are seven players who weren’t with the team last season. Thornhill has noticed the progress of those players — including Cook, who is the lone rookie in his position group.
“I’ve seen the guys grow each and every day, honestly,” Thornhill reflected. “Just looking at Bryan, at first, he wasn’t being super vocal. But now, he’s taking the leadership role when he’s on the field. Like if he’s out there with the ‘twos’ or the ‘ones,’ I always notice him making the calls — and that’s a good thing with a rookie being able to step up and take leadership like that.”
At Cincinnati University, Cook became known for his hard hits — but it was another Chiefs safety who laid the wood in a play during Saturday’s preseason game against the Washington Commanders.
Good swim move by Khalen Saunders here. He took advantage of the wide opening. My guess is they thought it was helmet to helmet contact with how the QB’s head snapped back. Deon Bush times the hit perfectly over the middle with the well placed shoulder. #JacobsEyeInTheSky #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/ihIBpxolFJ— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) August 23, 2022
While Bush’s hit might have introduced him to some within Chiefs Kingdom, he has already been making a good impression internally. Recently, special-teams coordinator Dave Toub basically confirmed his spot on the 53-man roster by comparing his role to what former Chiefs safety Armani Watts contributed on special teams.
Just like Watts, special teams may be where the bulk of Bush’s snaps will take place. Still, Thornhill has been impressed with the veteran’s skills as a defender.
“Deon is a heck of a player,” he declared. “He’s that guy that you definitely want on the field. We’ve been talking about an ‘attitude’ defense each and every single day — and hits like that will just set the tone. That will let the opponents know that we’re not here to mess around; like we’re serious. We’re going to lay the boom. Every time we’re on the field, you’re going to feel us.”
It’s interesting to hear Thornhill emphasize the physicality of the team’s safeties — considering that was not a characteristic displayed at that position last year. In fact, it wasn’t even wasn’t a theme of the defense overall.
This year, however, we expect to see much more physicality from the unit as a whole — especially among the safeties. Reid has already shown flashes of flying to the line of scrimmage and making a tackle, Cook made a strong tackle on special teams in Week 1 — and then there’s Bush’s hit on Saturday.
It all adds up to a different look that we saw in last season’s safeties — and Thornhill is right in the middle of it, working to make the transition as smooth as possible as the regular season approaches.