clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Chiefs’ defense becomes elite: Defensive backs return

Kansas City’s defense could have a special 2023 season. Let’s look at one of the reasons why.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This four-part series will examine how the ways in which the Kansas City Chiefs' defense can become elite in 2023.

For the Kansas City secondary, 2022 was a year of transition. Safety Juan Thornhill returned for one more season before departing for the Cleveland Browns. Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed also returned — but in free agency, the team added safety Justin Reid before drafting defensive backs Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson.

While the unit had its fair share of struggles during the year, it finished strong. The secondary grabbed three interceptions during the AFC playoffs — and gave up fewer than 240 passing yards to both Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow.

In 2023, Thornhill’s spot will have to be filled — but otherwise, this will also be the most continuity the unit has had since Steve Spagnuolo became defensive coordinator in 2019. With three second-year players all looking to build on strong rookie seasons (and with L’Jarius Sneed looking for a career year), this could be a very good secondary.


With McDuffie, Williams and Watson available to play on the outside, Sneed will finally have the opportunity to play every down in the slot — where he has been able to use his play-making ability to rank second in cornerback sacks since 2020 and lead the league’s cornerbacks in tackles with 75 in 2022. Spagnuolo has done a tremendous job in unlocking Sneed’s abilities — and considering how much the coordinator disguises coverages and possible blitzes, a versatile slot player such as Sneed has been very useful.

Although McDuffie was sidelined for six weeks after sustaining a hamstring injury in Week 1, he wasted no time in re-entering the starting lineup. Over just 11 games, McDuffie racked up seven passes defended and displayed the coverage skills of a more seasoned veteran. In his second season, he has a chance to make the whole unit tick; having a true lockdown corner on the outside can erase offensive game plans by making highly-paid wide receivers ineffective.

While McDuffie was out, Watson was the starting outside corner. Throughout the season, he showed a knack for making big plays — including two postseason interceptions. As he started every game of the playoff run, it’s a safe bet he’ll start opposite of McDuffie in 2023 — when his ball-hawking abilities could once again prove vital.

While Williams had the least playing time among the rookie corners, he should continue to grow — and add value — this season. His 6-foot-3, 197-pound frame makes him an ideal size to defend long AFC receivers like Tee Higgins and Mike Williams in the red zone. Williams will still have work to do, but his role (and size) will prove valuable.


Reid will return as the team’s strong safety — and during his second year in the system, he’ll be ready to take a step forward. In 2022, he started slow — but late in the season (and into the playoffs), he stepped up his play. Now fully immersed in the playbook — which he admits has a steep learning curve — Reid should be even better. He has a chance to become one of the league’s top safeties.

Thornhill’s free safety spot will likely go to Cook, who was used more sparingly than some of the other defensive backs in 2023. While his greatest contributions came on special teams, Cook still played well in relief of both Thornhill and Reid — and also as a box safety close to the line of scrimmage. He will be given every chance to start in 2023. He’s already able to make calls as a safety. If he can continue to develop his coverage skills, he should start alongside Reid.

The team has also quietly added safety Mike Edwards in free agency. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter brings a knack for finding the football; with seven interceptions over four seasons, he will be competing for a starting job — and if that doesn't work out, he’d be an excellent third safety.

The bottom line

In the NFL, continuity is key — and with so many players returning to Kansas City’s secondary, it is hard to imagine that it doesn’t improve. While Spagnuolo’s scheme has been described as one of the hardest for young players to grasp, their second year of learning (and developing chemistry) together should help them flourish.

Yet there will still be competition. It will — as always — sharpen all of them. While I have detailed several players who are expected to be key contributors, other returning players like Deon Bush and Dicaprio Bootle — and new rookies like Chamarri Connor and Nic Jones — will also be fighting for roster spots (and playing time) in a stacked room. So while the main contributors appear to be set, these other players will be keeping the pressure high.

NEW: Join Arrowhead Pride Premier

If you love Arrowhead Pride, you won’t want to miss Pete Sweeney in your inbox each week as he delivers deep analysis and insights on the Chiefs' path to the Super Bowl.