The Kansas City Chiefs' defense got off to a notoriously rough start last season, and a large chunk of it came with safety Juan Thornhill watching from the sidelines.
In Week 1's win over the Cleveland Browns, Thornhill played 95% of Steve Spagnuolo's defensive snaps. Over the next four weeks, however, those percentages fell to 14, 29, 42 and 44. It wasn't until Thornhill's Week 6 promotion into the starting lineup for good that things started to show signs of legitimately improving. That isn't to argue that Thornhill is the main reason why, but he was certainly a contributing factor.
On the first day of the Chiefs' mandatory offseason minicamp, Thornhill stepped up to the podium with a different vibe being radiated. He was excited, he was confident and he was declarative. When asked about how it felt to not have to scratch and claw his way back into the starting field this year, the 26-year-old admitted that he's quite relieved.
"It feels great," Thornhill said. "It takes some of the pressure off my shoulders, honestly, because sometimes you feel like you have to be perfect. No one is perfect playing football. I'm just going out here, playing football and having fun each and every day. Wherever the pieces lay, that's what I'm going to go with."
Perfect doesn't describe Thornhill's rookie season, but that campaign was extremely impressive nonetheless. Fresh out of the University of Virginia, Thornhill started all 16 games for the Chiefs while recording five passes broken up, three interceptions and making 58 total tackles. His range and athleticism paired with Tyrann Mathieu's do-it-all nature to form one of the more promising safety duos in the entire league.
Then Thornhill tore his ACL.
After working his way back for the 2020 season, Thornhill simply wasn't the same. That was the case yet again last year, as he was still battling to get back to 100% heading into the regular season. It was obvious at times that Thornhill didn't totally trust his knee during the year, yet he played through any indecisiveness or discomfort and turned in an up-and-down season overall. As Thornhill enters the final year of his rookie contract, external expectations are high. His internal bar may be set even higher, though.
"I've got high expectations," Thornhill said. "It's as simple as that. I'm planning on playing my best football by far, playing at the top of my game and I'm expecting an All-Pro season. I'm saying that right now."
He then doubled down on the All-Pro proclamation, adding that he's not worried about the knee whatsoever heading into year four.
"I'm all the way back," Thornhill said. "If you're out there watching me play, I'm flying around right now. I'm not thinking about the knee at all. My confidence is on a high, and I feel like I can run and compete with anybody on the field. Like I said, I'm going to have an All-Pro season. I'm putting that out there. If you all want to take that down, record it, it doesn't matter. I'm committed to doing that."
Coming off an overhaul of the secondary this offseason, the Chiefs will be relying on the still-young Thornhill to step up and emerge as a veteran leader on defense. That applies both on and off the field, and he seems to be ready to assume a new role. There's a lot on the line for both player and team in 2022, and how things unfold could determine their future together. If Thornhill accomplishes what he's setting out to do, he could cement his status as one of the better safeties in the league.