In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I’ll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs’ season. Last week, I wrote about whether the Chiefs needed to acquire a possession wide receiver.
This week, I’m considering a long-term roster question:
Should the Chiefs keep L’Jarius Sneed for the long term?
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Chiefs limited superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson during Week 5’s 27-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Since then, I can’t stop being happy about how the Chiefs’ defense played; the film from Sunday’s game was the best I’ve watched this season. Seeing a unit that was so synchronized (and prepared) for that level of talent was a blast to watch. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the defense’s progress over the last two seasons — and where it can go from here.
The secondary stands out as the unit that can do special things over the long term. When the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill last season, they used their excess draft capital to revamp the whole back end with young, cost-controlled defensive backs: Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson. These picks gave Kansas City many ways to replace two players it lost in free agency: safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Charvarius Ward.
It’s rare for a team to hit on so many draft picks, but that's exactly what the Chiefs did. Demonstrating abilities to play in the slot or on the boundary at a high level, McDuffie has already established himself as one of the league’s best cornerbacks. Cook still has steps remaining in his development — but after just one season, has already earned a starting job. Williams and Watson have looked like functional starters for two seasons, drastically exceeding the expectations of their Day 3 selections.
It was reasonable to wonder if these players would continue to succeed in 2023; plenty of defensive backs have strong seasons followed by rough seasons. It’s perfectly natural — even common — for that to happen.
But every single one of Kansas City’s young defensive backs has been playing better than they did last year. There have been no breakdowns in communication like we saw at the beginning of 2022. The tackling has been great. The unit has faced a Murderer’s Row of NFL wide receivers — Amon-Ra St. Brown, Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, Garrett Wilson and Jefferson — allowing a passer rating of just 84.6 to them. In the rest of the games these wideouts have played in 2023, opposing defenses have allowed a passer rating of 134.3!
Last season, general manager Brett Veach gave us a masterclass in rebuilding a secondary — one that might someday go down in NFL history. The Chiefs finished 2021 with an aging defense; a pivot was badly needed. With a trade — and hitting home runs on multiple draft picks — Veach pulled it off. He deserves a huge amount of credit for what he did.
Even better, these young defensive backs are under contract for multiple years on low salary-cap hits. This year, McDuffie, Williams, Cook, and Watson have a combined hit of $6.8 million — $5.9 million less than veteran safety Justin Reid’s 2023 hit. All four of the young players are under contract for two seasons after 2023.
But next spring, Kansas City will have to answer a question about one of the secondary’s best players: L’Jarius Sneed. After four seasons on his rookie deal, Sneed will finally have the opportunity to earn a big payday.
After being drafted in 2020’s fourth round, Sneed was a surprise hit; he was immediately able to play at a high level. Starting as an outside cornerback, he eventually found a role in the slot, where could defend against the run and blitz. This allowed the Chiefs to decrease their dependence on Mathieu, who couldn’t fill these roles as well as he aged.
After the team added all the young defensive backs in 2022, Sneed continued to play in the slot — but eventually, the Chiefs found McDuffie was their best option. After the first-round pick came back from a hamstring injury, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo experimented with having Sneed cover the opposing team’s best wide receiver. Against wideouts like D.K. Metcalf, Ja’Marr Chase and A.J. Brown, Sneed did very well.
Sneed has remained in that role this season, being the primary defender covering Ridley, Moore, Wilson and Jefferson. He’s played a critical role in slowing them down.
PFF tracks CB v WR matchups. This is L'Jarius Sneed v WR1s past 4 weeks:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 9, 2023
v Ridley: 5 tgts, 2 recs, 32 yds, 4 YAC
v Moore: 4 tgts, 1 rec, 3 yds, 4 YAC
v Wilson: 6 tgts, 3 rec, 24 yds, 3 YAC
v Jefferson: 3 tgts, 2 rec, 14 yds, 6 YAC
44% catch rate, & only 17 YAC allowed on 8 recs
What stands out on film is the synergy that Sneed and McDuffie have in covering these premium wide receivers. Most modern NFL wideouts play from multiple spots. This stresses the opposing defense, because it must cover them in multiple ways. A defense might have an excellent outside cornerback — but if the slot cornerback struggles in coverage, offenses will target them.
But the Chiefs don’t have this issue. If teams want to avoid Sneed’s physicality on the outside, they can’t pick on McDuffie in the slot. With these two corners, the Chiefs can shut down any elite receiver — something that most teams simply can’t do.
So should the team make it a priority to keep Sneed for the long term? He’ll be able to demand a top-of-the-market contract in free agency. Will the Chiefs be willing to pay that price to keep Sneed and McDuffie together?
It’s easy to say yes — but the Chiefs may view it differently. Since they found so many defensive backs a year ago, do they really need to pay Sneed? Kansas City has a tremendous amount of depth at cornerback; they should be able to manage Sneed leaving in free agency. And as it continued to demonstrate in 2022, the front office has been able to identify good cornerbacks exceptionally well. Could it find Sneed’s replacement in the draft — assuming that his replacement isn’t already on the roster?
I was surprised that the Chiefs didn’t sign Sneed to a contract extension during the offseason; I thought the team would love to keep a foundational part of its secondary for years to come. But Kansas City appears willing to let him test free agency — and if it turns out the team decides to apply the franchise tag to defensive tackle Chris Jones, it may have no choice in the matter.
For years, Sneed has been one of my favorite Chiefs players — so I would approve any extension for him. But that may not be what happens. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.