Heading into the Kansas City Chiefs’ season, I’m continuing my “10 Biggest Questions” series about the team. So far, we’ve covered six questions:
- What is the Chiefs’ contingency plan at offensive tackle?
- Will Deneric Prince or Clyde Edwards-Helaire crack the running back rotation?
- How far along are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?
- Do the Chiefs need to add another defensive tackle?
- Can Joshua Williams or Jaylen Watson expand their roles?
- How much of an offensive load can KaDarius Toney carry?
Today, we turn our attention to the Chiefs’ safety room.
What does Year 2 look like for Bryan Cook and Justin Reid?
In the 2022 offseason, the Chiefs underwent a massive changeover of their safety room. Veteran safety Juan Thornhill did remain, but the Chiefs let long-term stalwarts Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen leave in free agency. Sorensen and Mathieu were critical parts of the defense for many years but were on the backside of the aging curve.
The Chiefs opened the 2022 free agency period by signing former Houston Texans safety Justin Reid. Reid flashed top-end safety play in his first two years with the Texans but didn’t have the same impact his last two years with a rebuilding roster. The Chiefs were able to sign Reid to a contract below the top of the safety market, but the hopes were that Reid’s play would return to what his first two years in Houston looked like.
The Chiefs would also draft Cincinnati safety Bryan Cook in the second round. Cook didn’t have the same notoriety as former Cincinnati star teammate Ahmed “Sauce” Gardner, but he was an important stabilizer to an elite Cincinnati defense. Cook wouldn’t need to start in his rookie year but would still get important developmental reps as the sixth defensive back in the Chiefs’ dime package. Drafting Cook also gave the Chiefs an in-house option to replace Thornhill, who was in the last year of his rookie deal.
While there was a lot of excitement for the new safety room, the onboarding process proved more difficult than expected. Reid, in particular, struggled to get his footing in this defense. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is known for having one of the more expansive playbooks. Since his safeties are responsible for many of the coverage calls and adjustments, it takes time to get adjusted to the Chiefs’ defense.
However, by the end of the season, Reid’s play improved significantly. Spagnuolo adjusted Reid’s role, allowing him to rotate down into the box and cover more tight ends in man coverage, which took advantage of his size and physicality. Reid’s tackling also improved over the course of the season. Once the Chiefs were able to find a role that better suited Reid, his play improved significantly.
Cook didn’t have the same onboarding issues as Reid — mainly because the Chiefs didn’t need to play him often. Cook’s regular season performance was neither spectacular nor concerning, but there weren’t many flashes of high-end safety play. However, that all flipped in the postseason. Cook was able to use his athleticism to fly downhill and make critical tackles short of the sticks but also flashed the processing, range, and ball skills to make plays from deep.
Cook's INT here, same coverage concept. Quarters (match) to field concept, bracket/cloud on backside with Higgins. Higgins takes vertically this time, great break on ball by Cook. He's a stud man pic.twitter.com/TgimdLOzLk— Nate Christensen (@natech32) February 1, 2023
By the end of the season, the Chiefs’ safeties went from clear question marks to positive parts of their defense. A lot was made about how the Chiefs’ defense was significantly better after the bye last season, and there were many factors to that, but one of the biggest reasons was that the Chiefs’ safeties improved considerably over the course of the season.
Going into 2023, the Chiefs have continuity in their safety room. Thornhill did leave in free agency but was quickly replaced by former Buccaneer safety Mike Edwards. Edwards was overtaxed by an injured Buccaneers defense, playing a whopping 94% of snaps. He’s been a situational safety for most of his career, which fits what the Chiefs needed. With Cook and Reid, there are no questions about who will be playing every safety snap next season.
However, there are questions about how Reid and Cook will perform in 2023. Reid’s a bit easier to project since we have a large sample of him playing, but the duality of his play throughout the season leaves questions about what version of Reid we’ll get. Was his strong end to 2022 a mirage, or did the Chiefs find ways to unlock his play by switching his role?
Speaking of roles, Reid and Cook are entirely different body types from what Mathieu and Thornhill provided. Reid and Cook don’t have the same coverage skills, but both are larger safeties who won’t struggle to stop the run and tackle. Because of this change of skill set and body type, how does Spagnuolo adjust his defense? Does Spagnuolo become more willing to rotate either Reid or Cook down into the box postsnap — which would give the Chiefs some much-needed aid in run support?
Reid dabbled in covering tight ends in man coverage, but can either safety cover slot receivers? The level of versatility either safety brings means the more Spagnuolo can add to his playsheet, so figuring out how many different roles Reid and Cook will be imperative to figuring out the ceiling of the pass defense.
When it comes to Cook, I’ll be fascinated to see what he looks like in a full-time role. Of all the rookies that contributed on defense last season, we know the least about Cook. Edwards has spoken about how advanced Cook feels in this defense, but how does he look over a larger sample when the bullets are flying? Cook arguably brings the best blend of size, explosiveness, and range the Chiefs have had since Eric Berry, but can he put all his traits together as a starter? If Cook had any struggles in 2022, the Chiefs didn’t need to play him, but now, he will be trusted with every coverage call and responsibility.
Overall, the floor of the Chiefs’ defense feels solid. The cornerback room has plenty of continuity, and the front seven returns most of their contributors from 2022. The safety room largely remained intact, but it still feels like we don’t know about them.
For the Chiefs to reach their ceiling defensively, it will depend on Reid and Cook having strong seasons. I’ll be fascinated to see how they track throughout the season.