A year ago, safety was one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ biggest positional question marks.
Superstar Tyrann Mathieu was headed for free agency. Longtime contributor Daniel Sorenson — also a free agent — was coming off his worst season. Meanwhile, third-year player Juan Thornhill had been struggling to fully recover from his 2019 ACL injury — and as a result, had found difficulty getting on the field over Sorenson.
So general manager Brett Veach had a lot of work to do at safety — and the returns were very good.
A third-round pick for the Houston Texans, Justin Reid’s career had started well. In fact, he was trending toward becoming one of the league’s better safeties. But as Houston’s roster began to crumble over successive years, so did Reid’s play. As free agency began, Kansas City signed him to a three-year, $31.5 million contract.
With Reid, the Chiefs were buying low — hoping that his more-recent struggles came from playing in a poor unit. And while he stumbled out of the gate, Reid really excelled down the stretch. He played a major role in defending against tight ends — and dramatically improving the run defense. Just like Mathieu, Reid became defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s “Swiss Army knife,” lining up in the slot (199 snaps), in the box (320) or as a free safety (484). From Week 14 through the Super Bowl, Pro Football Focus never graded Reid lower than 73.
Second-rounder Bryan Cook came to Kansas City from the University of Cincinnati. Like many of the other rookies, he gained more and more playing time as the season continued — mostly as a third safety. With a skill set that made him an asset both in the box and in coverage, 63% of his snaps were as a free safety playing deep. A strong athlete who tackles well in open space, his improving coverage skills could make him a vital part of the Chiefs’ secondary.
Marshall’s Nazeeh Johnson was selected in the seventh round. While the rookie appeared exclusively on special teams, his second year could find him playing defense.
Moving on to 2023
Thornhill will become a free agent on March 15. While he hasn’t been bad in Kansas City, he hasn’t been great, either. His biggest issue seems to be consistency. Sometimes he looks like the fantastic player he was in 2019 — and sometimes he looks like the player who couldn’t get past Sorenson. The bottom line is that his production is not irreplaceable. If he’s unable to get an offer elsewhere, he could find himself back with the Chiefs on a one-year deal — but paying him the salary of an average free-agent safety would not be a wise move.
Even without Thornhill, however, Cook and Reid’s continued improvement during their second year in Spagnuolo’s system will provide a solid foundation. Kansas City now has the opportunity to make safety a position of strength.
Safeties in the draft
The top player in 2023’s safety class is Alabama’s Brian Branch. Most see him as a mid-first-round selection who probably won’t be available when the Chiefs pick at 31. But if he falls that far, fans should pre-order his jersey. He would be a star in Kansas City.
Since he’s played predominantly in the slot, potential second-round pick Antonio Johnson of Texas A&M probably wouldn’t be a great fit. Between cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed — and safety Reid — the Chiefs have plenty of help there.
Projected as a second or third-round pick, Florida State’s versatile Jammie Robinson has lots of playing experience — including 600 snaps in the slot, in the box and deep. A strong tackler, he could be a good free safety.
But if the Chiefs would rather emphasize Reid at free safety, Illinois’ Sydney Brown would be a great box safety. Likely a Day 2 pick, Brown lacks some size — but he is also a freak athlete who can bring explosiveness to the position.
Safeties in free agency
With the team’s recent influx of youth, Kansas City has a key advantage: it can “solve” a position with a single signing. The team has plenty of draft needs, so signing the right free-agent safety could take the position off its draft board until Day 3. There are also several really interesting players available — although some could be franchise-tagged in the coming days.
One of them is Jessie Bates of the Cincinnati Bengals. While he was tagged last year, he might be headed to free agency in 2023. A tremendous coverage player — still just 26 years old — Bates will command top money.
If the Bengals don’t let Bates leave town, their other starting safety Vonn Bell could be on the market. A great box safety who has helped the Cincinnati defense become diverse, the 28-year-old Bell is a little bit older than Bates — and is probably looking for a deal that would take him through the 2025 season.
Jordan Poyer — a former All Pro for the Buffalo Bills — is on the wrong side of 30, but has great veteran leadership skills. In the last few years, he’s also been part of one of the league’s better defenses. Given his age, Poyer might be a cost-effective option.
Chiefs fans are likely familiar with the Philadelphia Eagles’ C.J. Gardner-Johnson. In Super Bowl LVII, he punished Kansas City running back Isiah Pacheco several times. Gardner- Johnson is just 25 — and had six interceptions in 2022.
The bottom line
The great news is that the Chiefs don’t have to do very much. They could see increased improvement at safety as Reid and Cook become more confident — and it’s reasonable to think the Chiefs could find an upgrade over Thornhill. Kansas City is close to having an elite secondary — and even a small move at safety could make that happen.