Why Chiefs Safety Juan Thornhill is a Future All-Pro

Sam Hays

Juan Thornhill had a crazy 2019. He graduated from the University of Virginia, had a historic NFL Combine performance, was drafted in the NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs and was among the best rookies in the NFL. The good news for Thornhill is that the odds are in his favor that he will have a long, illustrious career, and here are the reasons why.

Freak athleticism

After finishing his amazing career at Virginia, Thornhill wowed everyone in preparation for the 2019 NFL Draft. He allowed zero yards in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and he had historical testing in the NFL Combine, with a 44.0-inch vertical jump -- one inch short of the all-time Combine record co-held by former Chiefs WR Chris Conley -- and an 11-foot, 9-inch broad jump, tied for the second-best in combine history behind 2018 second-team All-Pro cornerback Byron Jones. This resulted in a 9.75 Relative Athletic Score, a system created by Kent Lee Platte that compares players vs. their position group on a 0-10 scale based on all the combine measurables. This puts Thornhill in historic company for combine production.

High-level college production

Thornhill was never just a combine darling. Pro Football Focus (PFF) gave Thornhill an 81.0 grade in his junior season and an 86.9 grade in his senior season at Virginia. His on-field production was off the charts. His combine production is just a cherry on top that increases his odds of superstardom. That’s why it was a surprise to see him fall to where he did.

Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, I expected Thornhill to go in the top 50, and I knew he had a good chance of going in round one. Thankfully, neither of these happened. Thornhill was selected 63rd overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. This pick was quickly rejoiced by Chiefs fans and draft analysts alike. PFF put Thornhill in their top 10 defensive rookie of the year candidates and as the Chiefs’ breakout candidate of 2019. With Thornhill and free-agent signing Tyrann Mathieu, the Chiefs had now fixed the biggest weakness on their 2018 team: the safeties.

Standout rookie season

2019 was a special rookie year for Thornhill. Thornhill had the highest PFF coverage grade among rookie safeties (78.0), tied for the seventh-fewest yards per coverage snap among all NFL safeties (0.22) and grabbed three interceptions, which tied for eighth-most among all NFL safeties.

Thornhill joins a great group of recent safeties who had great rookie years, including the Chargers’ Derwin James, the Bengals’ Jessie Bates III and the Saints’ Marcus Williams. All of these players have remained productive past their rookie years as well, as 2019 saw James (who just met the snap minimum requirement thanks to playing heavy snaps in the final five games) and Williams both finish as top 10 safeties by PFF grade, and Bates tied Minkah Fitzpatrick for the most combined interceptions and pass breakups among AFC North safeties. Thornhill is likely to remain amongst the better safeties in the NFL for years to come.

He has room to improve

Thornhill’s clear biggest weakness in 2019 was tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, Thornhill missed 14 out of 72 attempted tackles. Those 14 missed tackles were tied for the fifth-most among safeties. This will be the biggest focus for improvement for Thornhill in his future.

So far, Thornhill has everything you could ask for in a young franchise free safety. He has the college production, the NFL production, the elite athleticism and the potential to get even better. Expect 2019 to be just the start of an amazing career for Juan Thornhill.

The referenced Pro Football Focus stats are a part of PFF Premium Stats, which comes with a PFF Elite subscription. Go to join.pff.com for more.

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