Towards the end of his rookie season, Juan Thornhill looked like he was the first draft pick hit for Brett Veach as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Then Thornhill tore his ACL.
It's regrettable timing for any player to sustain a serious injury late in their rookie year. The first few seasons for a player can truly make or break their career in the NFL, and significant injury early on can rob a player of much-needed valuable experience. Thornhill was no exception, as a player who had all the athleticism in the world but needed to work to become a more refined safety.
The timing of Thornhill’s injury was especially painful. Tearing it in Week 17 of the regular season ensured that the beginning of the following season would be in jeopardy and limit Thornhill’s work in offseason programs.
Thornhill did not miss the beginning of the 2020 campaign, however. This didn't mean that he looked the same as his rookie year, however, as it was apparent that the injury was still affecting him. After the first half of 2020, the Chiefs limited Thornhill’s snaps in the latter portion of the year for reasons unknown. He flashed once in the AFC Championship Game that season but other than that, his play seemed to regress compared to his rookie year.
This all led to the lowest point of Thornhill’s career as a Chief.
Heading into the 2021 season, Thornhill didn't even win the starting free safety job. Daniel Sorensen won the second safety job out of training camp to the dismay of many hoping that Thornhill would return to his rookie year form. While the decision to give the job to Sorensen quickly (and painfully) showed to be the incorrect decision, the fact it happened at all spurred questions about Thornhill and his future — a future that could've taken the shape of a budding Pro Bowler based on his rookie year.
There is an easy-to-buy explanation for Thornhill’s last few years of up-and-down play: Major injuries are tough to come back from in the NFL.
It's simple to apply the logic that if a player can play on the field after recovering from a major injury, that player should be the same as he was pre-injury. With that said, this level of recovery is not as common as many believe. The reason fans do not hear all of the cases of players looking different after a major injury is that if a player is playing worse, they get less media attention. The only players that get major media attention by playing worse are those who were great before said injury.
An example of this injury-recovery phenomenon was Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers last year. Akers tore his Achilles in July before the 2021 season and returned for the Rams in the playoffs. While he certainly was able to literally return, Akers was flat-out bad on the field. Again, significant injuries in the NFL are not always simple to return from.
When Thornhill says he is “all the way back” or expects to be an All-Pro this year, it's very possible that he hasn't felt healthy until this offseason. A healthy Thornhill was one of the best athletes at safety in the NFL and had a great first year. If he returns to that form, Veach will have an interesting decision to make.
The Chiefs' premier free agent signing in the 2022 free agency period was safety Justin Reid. Reid was signed to fill the leadership role Tyrann Mathieu had in the locker room and is a young, athletic safety who can perform multiple roles on the defense. He also turned only 25 years old in February.
If Thornhill has a bounce-back year, will the Chiefs be willing to sign Thornhill with Reid already on the books? If the Chiefs are willing to sign him, how could Reid’s contract impact negotiations? Is Thornhill okay with being paid less than his teammate? Does it depend on how the two play this year? All of these questions need to be answered.
If Thornhill plays well, then a comparable player, contract and position to his situation is something similar to what Rayshawn Jenkins got from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021. Jenkins secured a four-year, $35 million deal in free agency as a solid, but not top-tier safety. The top of the market for safeties is pretty depressed, with Pro Bowl-level Marcus Williams getting just $14M per year on a free agent contract from the Baltimore Ravens this offseason.
With the salary cap exploding soon, Thornhill’s prospective extension with the Chiefs projects to land right around what Reid got — just one year later. If Kansas City doesn't mind investing a substantial amount of money into that position group, then retaining Thornhill could really help out a defense that should be very young over the next few years. It's tenable to give Thornhill an extension if players like Nick Bolton, Trent McDuffie, and George Karlaftis play up to their respective talent levels. Those cheap contracts allowing the Chiefs re-sign a player like Thornhill is the benefit of drafting well.
The future of Thornhill will depend on him and his play in 2022. The range of outcomes this year is vast, and that eventual outcome will determine what a new contract for him will look like. If he's truly healthy now, it isn't hard to buy into a career year for a player who once looked like he was Veach’s first slam-dunk draft pick.