The journey from his hometown of Minden, Louisiana, to becoming one of the best defenders in the NFL wasn't easy for Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed. But the trials along the way shaped him into the player he is today.
He wasn't a top prospect when he entered the 2020 NFL Draft. Draft analyst Lance Zierlein for NFL.com gave Sneed a fifth-round grade ahead of the draft and projected him as an average backup or special teamer.
Here is an excerpt from Zierlein's writeup on Sneed:
“...Sneed is a little bit tight in space and won’t have the fluid transitions teams look for in man coverage, but he has quality ball skills and adequate instincts to help attract teams looking for size at corner. He’s not a physical tackler, but he could be good enough for placement into a zone-heavy scheme where he will be forced into more run-support duties...”
The Chiefs selected Sneed in the 32nd pick in the fourth round — and almost instantly, the coaching staff knew they had a diamond in the rough. Fast forward to the player that Sneed is today, and you'll find a shutdown corner who regularly shadows the opposing team's No. 1 wide receiver around the field.
Although defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and Sneed had a vision of how effective Sneed could be as a shutdown corner in this league, the truth was that he was an exceptional slot cornerback as well, and so moving him from a spot where he had excelled for so long took some consideration,
"We all know how effective he was at Nickel," said Spagnuolo of Sneed, "with the pressures and things that he did in there."
But once second-year cornerback Trent McDuffie stepped into the role that Sneed vacated, it quickly became apparent that they were not losing anything with McDuffie.
Spagnuolo said that he knew Sneed would succeed in this mercenary role.
"LJ is the kind of guy that loves a challenge, you know?" said Spagnuolo. "And when you say, 'Hey, I need you to go cover that guy, that's as big a challenge as you can get as a DB in the NFL, right? We need you to take that guy out of the game, and he embraces it."
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Sneed said that regardless of what's thrown at him, he is up to the task.
"You know, I just told Spags, 'Just throw me in anywhere on the field, and I'll play. If it's D-line, wherever you want to throw me, I'll play it.'"
Opposing teams have begun to take notice of Sneed's ability and have tried to do things to assist their receivers in their attempts to escape Sneed Island. Spagnuolo pointed to the Miami Dolphins' attempts to bring wide receiver Tyreek Hill in motion as a perfect example.
"Even last week, was it evident to you guys that Tyreek early in the game was starting on one side and motioning over to the [other]," smiled Spagnuolo. "You know, it felt like there was a reason why he was doing that."
For his part, Spagnuolo said that he can't fathom why Sneed hasn't gotten more love from the national media, considering the résumé he has put together.
"I have no idea why he hasn't gotten the kind of recognition. That still befuddles me," said Spagnuolo. "I'm real proud of him. I love him. Him and I are tight."
Going into further detail, Spagnuolo explained that when you're as dominant as Sneed has been this year, it discourages the opposing quarterback from throwing your way, suppressing some of your statistics.
"When you're a press corner, sometimes your efforts in what you're doing really goes unnoticed. Because if you're on that guy and doing what you do, it probably isn't going to get thrown there... maybe somebody else gets the PBU or maybe we get a sack because he couldn't throw it to the guy."
Spagnuolo called these sorts of plays "hidden" production.
Regarding that draft profile, Sneed has developed into the exact opposite of what the pundits labeled him as — and the perfect example of this came with two minutes left in the second quarter.
Sneed was lined up across from Hill, who might be the hardest player to jam in the NFL. Sneed timed his hands perfectly with the snap, knocking Hill to the ground.
It was a big moment for the Chiefs' defense and for the fans — but for Sneed, it was just another play.
"Everybody was happy for me, but I've been doing it all year. You know, it's just something that it's Tyreek, so they made it big for what it was."
Spagnuolo said watching the play made him feel like a "proud Papa."
Sneed sees and hears all the people out there who still haven't woken up to the fact that he is one of the best corners in the league.
"I think I still have more work to do. You know they are steadily sleeping on me. So you know I still got a point to prove."
But proving himself is nothing new to Sneed; he's been doing that since his days at Minden High School.
"I've been facing challenges all my life... It's always been like this for me. I always had to prove myself. I always been the underdog... it's just something that I have been doing my whole entire life.
"And I'm going to continue to do it, keeps me hungry."