Back in June, "Need For Sneed" was nothing more than a pun accompanied by an article explaining that L'Jarius Sneed had serious potential. As the Kansas City Chiefs gear up for another playoff run, it's now a pun followed by a legitimate argument that Sneed is the best cornerback on the team.
Selected in the fourth round of this year's NFL Draft, Sneed entered the league as a three-year starter for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. His predraft designation as a "defensive back" rather than a cornerback stemmed from him spending part of his time at safety in college. Kansas City knew they were getting a talented and versatile player when they drafted Sneed, and those traits have been put to the test in his first season.
He hasn't been used at safety yet, but Sneed's ability to fit anywhere in the secondary is impressive. Per Arrowhead Pride's Chiefs defensive and special teams analyst Craig Stout, Sneed has spent 227 snaps in the slot as a nickel cornerback and 182 snaps on the boundary. It isn't uncommon for teams to try rookies at different spots, but Sneed's strong performance in both roles has turned some heads.
Per Arrowhead Report's Sam Hays, Sneed's 73.9 overall grade makes him Pro Football Focus' fourth-best rookie defender and the top-rated defensive back amongst his first-year peers. He always seems to be near the football, recording three interceptions in addition to seven passes defended on the season. The scary part is that Sneed's most recent game — a contest in which he made a great impact — graded out as his fourth-best of the year. He can do so much more.
That "so much more" came in the form of rushing the passer against the Atlanta Falcons. Sneed had his usual solid performance in coverage (34 yards allowed in 31 snaps) but also registered a sack and two pressures in total. This is an area of Sneed's game that's been put on display as of late, as he has a sack in back-to-back contests. It doesn't matter what you ask him to do — he always seems ready for the challenge.
In Weeks 1-3, Sneed was a starting boundary corner for the Chiefs. After returning from a broken collarbone in Week 11, his role shifted to lining up in the slot most often. At 6-feet, 192 pounds, Sneed has the size to be on the outside and the athleticism to thrive in the slot when needed. Not only has his switchable nature helped him, but it's made the entire secondary evolve for the better.
Down the stretch of the 2019 season, the Chiefs used Tyrann Mathieu in the slot quite frequently. He embraced the role and played quite well, but having Mathieu there was a crutch at times. It limited what else the defense — and Mathieu — could do.
The team often used three-safety looks in its "Buffalo" nickel sub-package with five defensive backs on the field. Because Sneed was able to transition to the nickel role with ease, it's allowed Steve Spagnuolo to use Mathieu as a human chess piece again.
As a result of fewer three-safety looks, Juan Thornhill's usage has been cut down in his return campaign after an ACL tear late last season. He still enters the game in dime sets (six defensive backs on the field with just one linebacker) but hasn't had to overexert himself. The secondary seems balanced as the defense ranks fifth in the league in passer rating allowed. Sneed plays a major role in that, posting a rating against of 47.2.
This is a domino effect that wouldn't be made possible without Sneed's impressive rookie campaign. He answers every time his name is called, doing so with a blend of poise and technique that some veterans struggle to boast.
It also helps that he's a great athlete with good size. Sneed is capable of keeping up with most wide receivers and when it's time to get physical, he has the sturdy frame to withstand that. There aren't many glaring weaknesses in his game.
Sure, the sample size is still relatively small and the Chiefs have been burned in the past after quickly falling in love with young cornerbacks but this time feels different. Sneed is good at too many things for this to be a fluke. He's a jack-of-all-trades with plenty of smarts and athletic ability to have sustained success in the NFL. Pair that with a quality defensive coordinator, and the Chiefs defense may just have another Swiss Army knife on their hands.