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How Chiefs’ safety Bryan Cook can build off rookie year, break out in 2023

There’s a path to a starting role for the second-year defensive back, but can he seize that opportunity?

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Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs clearly value a strong group at the safety position.

Since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo arrived for the 2019 offseason, the team has given out multi-year contracts to two external free-agent safeties while also making two second-round picks in that span.

The latter draft picks came last year when the team selected Bryan Cook from Cincinnati. Cook immediately earned the third safety position behind starters Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill, appearing on defense in every game outside of a Week 6 visit to concussion protocol; he played roughly 30% of the team’s total defensive snaps in 2022.

When Thornhill signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason, a path opened up for Cook to naturally blossom into a starter. He’ll have competition to hold off, like free-agent signing Mike Edwards or fourth-round pick Chamarri Conner, but Cook’s year of growth in this system last year gives him an advantage.

I looked back at his rookie year to project his impact in 2023:

Evolution of his role

In the Chiefs’ system, it’s essential that a safety can make an impact in various ways. It allows Spagnuolo to stay unpredictable when he wants to be, especially on third downs.

That’s where Cook made most of his impact last season: when the Chiefs deployed their Dime personnel on obvious passing downs. Their Dime package calls for a third safety to replace a second linebacker in the formation.

To start the season, Cook was primarily given simple coverage responsibilities on those snaps: a deep half or quarter in zone coverage to stay on top of the routes developing in front of him. That freed Reid to play closer to the line of scrimmage, whether he was manning up a tight end, picking up a running back, or blitzing.

In Week 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Thornhill left the game with a calf injury, pushing Cook into the primary lineups where he was no longer aided by situation and simplicity.

Here, you can see him translate the free-safety skills he uses on Dime downs to the full-time gig with clean coverage drops and active work in tightening deep throwing windows. You can also see him verbally communicating with teammates before the snap, something he didn’t have to do as much as the third safety on the field.

With Thornhill missing the following game as well, Cook played 84 total snaps over two weeks and gained valuable experience — and possibly trust from the coaching staff.

That may have been on display in Weeks 16 and 17 against the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. Cook was utilized more to man up the tight end on the Dime downs, and he does an effective job here: first, breaking on a quick pass and securing a tackle, then having the punch strength to knock a potential completion loose from the receiver’s grip.

He may have also earned more runway as a blitzer, a skill he looked comfortable with when given the opportunity throughout the year. The second play here is Week 16, where Cook was sent on his eighth and final rush of the regular season; he exploded through and earned a quarterback hit.

In the three-game playoff run, Cook was sent on four pass rushes — showing an expansion of his role in the Dime defense.


So Cook showed the ability to line up different places and fill different responsibilities — but that doesn’t go far unless he can bring playmaking with him.

In flashes, Cook showed active hands when the ball was in the air or as a tackler. He saved the best example of that for last — when his tip of a pass led to a game-breaking interception in the AFC Championship. With inside, trailing leverage, Cook read the receiver’s eyes, turned to locate the ball and had the coordination to finish the deflection of the throw.

Cook also has notable range in terms of getting to plays in front of him quickly. He has good acceleration, but you can see a long stride on a few of these plays that takes his speed across the field to another gear. The second play of this clip was a penalty for defensive pass interference, but it was a bang-bang call; I still find it impressive that Cook got there.


It’s nearly a requirement for a safety to have effective, meaningful communication when he’s on the field — and by all indications, Cook doesn’t mind being vocal.

The willingness to be vocal is the first step, which Cook has obviously passed. Aside from the comments from those around him, I found this example from the AFC Championship game noteworthy. As the Bengals try to switch things up pre-snap, Cook is barking at cornerback Joshua Williams with what to know — and continues to communicate through the whistle for the delay of game penalty.

The bottom line

The Chiefs value the safety position with high regard, and that’s why they constantly keep the depth chart both top-heavy and deep. It’s why they made the moves they did this offseason, to continue having the position as a strength.

I see Cook being a significant factor in the position staying a strength, and that means starting next to Reid as the second primary safety. Edwards may have more NFL experience, but Cook has more experience with the scheme and has made strides of progression throughout his entire rookie year.

I believe he has the on-field ability and the intangibles to be a difference-maker for the Chiefs’ starting defense in 2023 and beyond.

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