A year ago, safety was one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ biggest positional question marks.
Superstar Tyrann Mathieu was headed for free will. Longtime collaborator Daniel Sorenson, also a free agent, was coming off his worst season yet. Meanwhile, third-year Juan Thornhill had struggled to fully recover from his 2019 ACL injury and, as a result, had difficulty getting the field on Sorenson.
So general manager Brett Veach has had a lot of work to do on safety and the returns have been very good.
A third-round draft pick for the Houston Texans, Justin Reid’s career got off to a good start. In fact, he tended to become one of the best safeties in the league. But as Houston’s roster began to fall apart over the next few years, so did Reid’s game. Early in free agency, Kansas City signed him to a three-year, $31.5 million contract.
Under Reid, the Chiefs were underbuying, hoping his most recent struggles came from playing in a poor unit. And while he stumbled out of the gate, Reid truly excelled down the stretch. He played a big role in defense against tight ends and greatly improved run defense. Much like Mathieu, Reid became defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s “Swiss army knife,” lining up in the slot (199 snaps), box (320), or free safety (484). From Week 14 through the Super Bowl, Pro Football Focus never rated Reid lower than 73.
Second rounder Bryan Cook has arrived in Kansas City from the University of Cincinnati. Like many other rookies, he gained more and more playing time as the season went on, mostly as a third safety. With a skill set that made him an asset in both box and cover, 63% of his shots were a free safety playing deep. A strong athlete who tackles well in the open, 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 has appeared exclusively on special teams, his sophomore year could find him playing defense.
Let’s move on to 2023
Thornhill will become a free agent on March 15. While it wasn’t bad in Kansas City, it wasn’t great either. His biggest problem seems to be consistency. He sometimes looks like the amazing player he was in 2019, sometimes he looks like the player who couldn’t get past Sorenson. The bottom line is that producing him is not irreplaceable. If he’s unable to get an offer elsewhere, he could end up with the Chiefs on a one-year contract, but paying him the salary of an average security agent wouldn’t be a wise move.
Even without Thornhill, however, the continued improvement of Cook and Reid during their second year in Spagnuolo’s system will provide a solid foundation. Kansas City now has an opportunity to make safety a strong position.
Safeties in the project
The top player in the safety class of 2023 is Alabama’s Brian Branch. Most see him as a mid-first-round draft pick who likely 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 has played predominantly in the slot, potential second-round pick Antonio Johnson of Texas A&M probably wouldn’t be a perfect pick. Between cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed — and safety Reid — the Chiefs have plenty of help there.
Drafted as a second or third pick, Florida State’s versatile Jammie Robinson has plenty of playing experience, including 600 shots in the slot, box and deep. A strong tackler, he could be a good free safety.
But if the Chiefs would rather emphasize Reid than free safety, Illinois’ Sydney Brown would be a great box safety. Probably a Day 2 pick, Brown doesn’t have a certain size, but he’s also a freakish athlete who can bring explosiveness to the position.
Securities in free will
With the team’s recent influx of youngsters, Kansas City has a key advantage: It can “fix” a position with a single signing. The team has a lot of draft needs, so signing the right free-agent safety could take the position off the draft board until Day 3. There are also a lot of really interesting players available, although some could be franchise-tagged in the next few days.
One of them is Jessie Bates of the Cincinnati Bengals. Though he was tagged last year, she could be headed to free agency in 2023. A standout coverage player—still only 26—Bates will command the top money.
If the Bengals don’t let Bates leave town, their other starting safety Vonn Bell could be on the market. A top box safety who has helped Cincinnati’s defense diversify, the 28-year-old Bell is a bit older than Bates and is likely looking for a deal that takes 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. He has also been part of one of the best defenses in the league in recent years. Given his age, Poyer could be an affordable option.
Chiefs fans probably know CJ Gardner-Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles. In Super Bowl LVII, he punched Kansas City running back Isiah Pacheco multiple times. Gardner-Johnson is just 25 and has had six interceptions as of 2022.
The bottom line
The great news is that bosses don’t have to do much. They could see an increase in safety as Reid and Cook grow more confident – and it’s reasonable to think the bosses could find an update on Thornhill. Kansas City is close to having an elite secondary, and even a little safe move could make that happen.