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Chiefs training camp notebook: Juan Thornhill stepping up as leader after Tyrann Mathieu’s departure

For years, it was the Honey Badger’s defense in Kansas City. With Mathieu in New Orleans, it’s Juan Thornhill’s time.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In late July, during his initial press conference at Kansas City Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was questioned about the leadership ability that free-agent signee Justin Reid brought to his defense.

The team decided to move on from its previous leader, Tyrann Mathieu, allowing him to sign with the New Orleans Saints while turning the page to Reid as its top safety. But Spagnuolo did not want to discuss Reid's leadership, deciding instead to bring up a returning safety.

"Justin is very similar [to Mahieu]," said Spagnuolo. "I'm not sure right now because [he hasn't] been in the system that he's where Tyrann was. I'm not sure anybody is going to get to that particular spot. But a guy that has stepped up is Juan Thornhill. I'm talking about out here from a communications standpoint and running the show. He has kind of taken that upon himself, which is about what Juan should be doing right now in his fourth year."

The Chiefs selected Thornhill out of Virginia with the No. 63 overall pick in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie year and the two following seasons watching Mathieu — both on the field next to him and off of it in the meeting and film rooms.

"I think he learned a lot from Ty, so that's helped him," said Reid. "He's taken on that leadership role back there. He's a brilliant kid. Very, very smart, and he's playing hard. I think he's stepped his game up. He's one of those guys that's done that. I'm curious to see how he does once we play the real game. It looks like he's really stepped up."

Hearing about the leadership pronouncements, Thornhill explained that he hadn't changed much.

"I don't really feel like I did anything different — just being more vocal to the guys," said Thornhill on Saturday. "Guys come to me to ask questions, and they look to me to give them the right answer if they don't have the right answer, so that's the only thing I've been doing: just trying to be a leader. Lead by example, and if they have any questions, just ask me."

That attitude helps, especially because the club drafted safety Bryan Cook in the second round of this year's draft.

"He's a heck of a guy," said Thornhill of Cook. "Funny guy, I see him like as my little brother. I've watched a lot of clips of him at Cincinnati — and I can tell you right now, he's going to be a hitter, for sure."

Thornhill explained that Cook spends most of his time off the field at training camp with first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie.

"They hang out all the time — just like when me and (Rashad) Fenton came in, we were basically best friends at the same time, because they're in the same class," he said. "With them being together all the time, it's going to make them better. They get to study together, they play together and it just builds chemistry. When you see them two together, me and Justin Reid are the older guys in there, and they come together with us? It's great. That's how you build the best chemistry on the field."

He's proud of what he's seen from the duo through the first two weeks of camp.

"I was once a rookie at one point," said Thornhill. "I know that it takes time to pick up on that playbook because Spags' defense, it's not a joke. I think the guys are doing a heck of a job. It shows that they're studying. They're making a lot of plays on the ball. They're not making a lot of mistakes on the field and then that's the main thing. They're playing with confidence. I like that group a whole lot, and I'm just excited for them."

Thornhill made offseason waves in mid-June when he declared that 2022 would be an All-Pro season. Being named an All-Pro is much more difficult than making a Pro Bowl roster. While the Pro Bowl recognition is partially based on fan voting, the first and second-team All-Pros are voted on by 50 of the top football journalists across the country.

Asked on Saturday about his self-confidence, he did not back down from his proclamation.

"There's a lot," started Thornhill. "I feel like the past year, I just wasn't as confident in my ability because of the fact that I was struggling with the knee, so I would say that the knee is healthier, I have more mental clarity. I feel better all around. I just feel like I'm back to myself, and I'm capable of having that All-Pro season. So I'm definitely here to back up whatever I said, and I'm not taking that back."

Thornhill had an outstanding rookie season in 2019, one that landed him on the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) all-rookie team. Unfortunately, his year ended in Week 17 when he tore his ACL in the final regular-season game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Sometimes it takes players years to recover from such injuries, and it sounds like that has been the case for the fourth-year safety.

"I feel better today than I did two months ago, so I'm still just getting better and better each and every week," he said. "I can definitely say there's a huge difference. Last year, I would still think about it. I still had pain in the knee, and now I'm just out there playing football with no pain. I'm not even thinking about it, so that allows me to make more plays. If I'm reading concepts instead of thinking about my knee, I'm going to make more plays naturally, so I feel a lot better for sure."

Thornhill has moved well in St. Joseph, and the confidence he has in himself does not end there. He loves what Reid, McDuffie, Cook, Fenton and some of the other younger defensive backs — such as fourth-rounder Joshua Williams and seventh-rounder Jaylen Watson — bring to the table.

"The sky isn't the limit. We can go past that. I feel like we have a really good safety group. Guys can make plays on the ball and we've been showing it each and every week. Guys can tackle, they're physical and like I said before, we're going to be one of the most feared defensive back units in the NFL."

Spoken like a true leader.

Observations

You can find Arrowhead Pride lead analyst Ron Kopp's full observations from Saturday's practice here.

Post-practice chat

Press conferences

If you can't see the above (Apple iTunes) embed, click here. The press conferences are also available on Spotify.

Injury report

  • Did not practice (due to injury): CB Rashad Fenton (shoulder), OL Lucas Niang (knee), TE Jody Fortson (quad), WR Gary Jennings (concussion), DT Taylor Stallworth (knee)
  • Left early: WR Daurice Fountain (finger)

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Saturday's tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

Mustache Travis is back.

Quote of the day

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman on returning punts this season: "I don't mind being back there, at all, and if I need to be back there, I will. But I think (Dave) Toub is kind of looking at it like, for example, if I'm online shopping and it's like you got Prime and Amazon — it's two different things, honesty. Prime is whatever. I think I'm more like a Prime option. Get there faster, I think I'm already there. When you come into the league, Amazon — it might take a little longer to get there."

What's next?

The Chiefs return to the practice field on Sunday (Day 10) for another padded practice. The workout begins at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Here's the complete schedule. The full team will be available to sign autographs after practice as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy addresses the media at the podium. It is also Family Fun Day.