When L’Jarius Sneed, a defensive back out of Louisiana Tech, was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, there weren’t a lot of people in Chiefs Kingdom who were overly excited about the pick.
Sneed wasn't highly recruited out of high school and didn't take on a full-time starter role until his junior collegiate season with the Bulldogs. During his junior year, he flashed some potential, starting 12 games and recording 59 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions.
During his senior season, the team made Sneed transition to safety and he had his best season. He recorded a team-high 72 tackles (including 3.5 tackles for loss) and three interceptions (including a pick-six). The versatility is something that caught the eyes of scouts and ultimately led to the Chiefs selecting Sneed at pick No. 138.
It was a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's system. Sneed could come in as a rookie and soak in the playbook while having the flexibility to play whatever position in the secondary was needed. He was ready to go to work.
And go to work he did. In fact, he did so well in the limited preseason practices (with preseason games being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) that he was able to secure a starting role with the first-team defense leading up to Week 1. This was partly due to the fact that projected starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland was going to be suspended for the first four games of the season.
Sneed seized the opportunity. He recorded an interception in his first career NFL start during that Week 1 matchup against the Houston Texans. He continued his impressive play in Week 2 and recorded another interception. He was playing so well that he led the NFL in interceptions heading into Week 3.
Unfortunately for Sneed, his all-out effort landed him on the injured reserve list after a diving attempt for his third interception in three weeks. He wouldn’t return to the lineup until Week 11 against the Las Vegas Raiders. When Sneed came back into the starting lineup, he wasn’t playing outside corner, as he had the first two weeks of the season. The team utilized him as a slot cornerback and, amazingly, his play didn’t dip.
He finished the season on a high note going into the playoffs. Spagnuolo utilized Sneed as a blitzer and he got a sack in his last two games of the season before the team was able to rest the starters in Week 17.
Sneed finished the season with 41 total tackles, seven passes defended, three interceptions, and two sacks. Impressive stats for a rookie who missed seven games due to a clavicle injury.
So what can Sneed do to make a second-year jump? One thing would be to make sure he can stay healthy all season. That’s not always something the player can control, but if he can start all 17 games and get similar production to what he had in about half of the games last season, he will be well on his way to a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Being able to stay in the mindset of being a versatile team player will be another key. At this point, we can only speculate if the Chiefs will start Sneed at an outside cornerback spot or in the slot in 2021. The coaches will put Sneed in the best position to be successful and he just needs to stay open to that, no matter where he plays.
Sneed had a fantastic rookie season. He was named to the Pro Football Focus All-Rookie team and many considered him to be the best rookie defensive back in 2020. He was targeted in man coverage 25 times throughout the season and only allowed 13 catches for 108 yards. He had the fourth-best cornerback rating amongst all cornerbacks who were targeted at least 15 times. Quarterbacks only had a passer rating of 46.8 against him when he was in man coverage.
If Sneed can put together another season like he did his rookie year over a full 17-game slate, his second-year season will be considered a wild success. What’s the likelihood of making that second-year jump? Assuming Sneed snags one of the starting spots on the outside, he will have chances early and often to make plays.
Chiefs Kingdom is hoping their Need for Sneed will only increase after a very promising rookie season. He can be another integral piece to the puzzle, as the Chiefs look to not just get back to the Super Bowl but to win it again. That’s a good goal for any player looking to help in their second-year jump. Sneed is the type of player who can elevate his game and reach those goals. It's something for everyone across the league to keep an eye on heading into the 2021 season.