KC Chiefs: The defensive backs have no margin for error

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 07: Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts after a penalty call in the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium on February 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 07: Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts after a penalty call in the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium on February 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Kansas City Chiefs are either sitting on a goldmine of young secondary talent or they are about to implode. This is the year we will discover the answer.

Of all the position groups, defensive back seems like the least settled. It’s not a lack of bodies or talent. It’s just that most of that talent is on paper at this point.

Much was made in the off-season about the LB position. The Chiefs addressed that with Nick Bolton, their first pick in the draft. With stalwart Anthony Hitchens and the high-ceiling potential of Willie Gay, the starters seem to be in place. Ben Niemann will add early starting potential as Bolton learns the ropes and then fill-in on sub-packages.

The offensive line was the biggest concern at the end of last season, but fans are thrilled with the addition of proven talents like Joe Thuney, Orlando Brown, Kyle Long, and the return of LDT. Creed Humphrey will battle Austin Blythe at center and Nick Allegretti, Martinas Rankin, Mike Remmers, and Andrew Wylie add depth across the line. Then add Lucas Niang, last year’s 3rd round pick, and you have perhaps the deepest OL in the NFL.

Suffice it to say the OL is not a concern as it sits today.

But with OL and LB receiving most of the attention in the off-season, and DL being shored up with Jarran Reed, the Chiefs secondary comes into focus as the unit with the most unknowns.

All Chiefs fans are anxious to sign Tyrann Mathieu to an extension. He is not only a fan favorite as a personality, he is the most disruptive force on the defensive side of the ball for the Chiefs. His teammates rightly laud his leadership and energy. At this point, the Chiefs have no one close to being able to replace his experience and mojo.

L’Jarius Sneed is a star in the making. Just this week, he quietly entered the CBS Sports Top 100 players list. I’m not sure there is a better kept secret in the NFL than Sneed. If he builds on last year’s lock-down play, he is likely to become one of the most coveted young secondary players in the league.

That still leaves the other CB spot, slot corner, and safety position in flux. Most experts believe Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton are penciled in to fill the outside and slot DB roles, respectively. The ageless Dan Sorensen and promising Juan Thornhill are slated to platoon at the other safety position.

After that, it gets pretty murky. And that is the concern for a position group that has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play.

The KC Chiefs need proven contributors at defensive back

Mike Hughes was acquired from the Vikings for a late-round swap of picks in what amounted to the Vikings getting a bag of footballs in return. Hughes is a former 1st round pick, but injuries and inconsistent play made him available. His spot on the roster is not secure by any means. The same goes for Deandre Baker who is coming off a major injury and remains an unknown commodity.

At safety, Armani Watts remains an unknown commodity. He was Juan Thornhill before there was Juan Thornhill. The Chiefs expected Watts to come in and take Sorensen’s playing time and add athleticism to the back end of the defense. That never materialized.

A year later the Chiefs drafted Thornhill with the same thought in mind. They also added veteran safety Will Parks this off-season. None of those moves bode well for Watts. This may be his last off-season in KC.

Now we come to the cornerbacks. If Sneed maintains his ascending play and Charvarius Ward can become a little more consistent, the Chiefs will have a great starting unit.

The problem is that we all know injuries will happen. And in the pass-happy NFL, a depleted defensive secondary looks like a limping gazelle upon which opposing quarterbacks are ready to pounce.

Let’s run through the list of players needing to step up if Watts, Baker and Hughes don’t pan out and/or any starter goes down: (Years of experience)

  • BoPete Keyes (2)
  • Zayne Anderson (R)
  • Dicaprio Bootle (R)
  • Marlon Character (R)
  • Rodney Clemons (1)
  • Devon Key (R)
  • Chris Lammons (2)
  • Manny Patterson (1)

That’s eight guys with a combined six years of NFL experience. That’s not ideal.

If the Chiefs keep four safeties and 5 DBs, the talent and experience falls off a cliff if any starter is out for an extended period of time. Remember, Thornhill and DeAndre Baker – two players expected to contribute this season – are coming off major injuries.

The Chiefs desperately need to find the next L’Jarius Sneed – a diamond in the rough who exceeds expectations and contributes immediately. Baker is an ideal candidate if he’s recovered. Mike Hughes is a lottery ticket; if it hits, it’s a huge steal., but chances are low.

This means a player listed above is likely going to make the 53-man roster and have a chance to launch an NFL career. Many think BoPete Keyes is that guy, but his book of work in the NFL is thin.

If the Chiefs go with Mathieu, Sorensen, Thornhill, and Parks at Safety and team them with Ward, Sneed, Fenton, and Baker at CB, that leaves one additional spot for a secondary player.

The Chiefs fans are hoping Bashaud Breeland resigns, but those hopes seem to be dimming. If that doesn’t materialize, look for BoPete Keyes and Dicaprio Bootle to fight for the remaining spot. Special teams performance will be a big factor in that decision.

Above all, fans hope that Mathieu, Thornhill, Sorensen, Sneed, and Ward stay healthy. If any one of them goes down, the secondary may become the Achilles heel that prevents the Chiefs from getting back to the Super Bowl.

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