KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs had very few holes to plug after their Super Bowl run, one of which was at cornerback, which made it seem odd that they would wait until the fourth round of the April draft to pluck L'Jarius Sneed out of Louisiana Tech.
The long, rangy defensive back had all the right measurables, but he had bounced around from wide receiver in high school to cornerback in college to safety his senior year. And while he was good enough to earn second-team All-Conference USA honors and an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, little else about him had the markings of an NFL star.
Turns out Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knew what they were doing.
“Both his position coaches and then Spags and Brett were real high on him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained, “so we kind of did the waiting game. Brett did what he does. I mean, he's got a real knack for knowing where and when guys are potentially going to be picked, so we waited a little bit there and it worked out for us.”
In a lot of different ways. Instead of using their first-round pick on a cornerback, they managed to snap sensational LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to add more firepower to their dynamic offense. They also used early picks to fortify their offensive line and linebacker corps, two other areas where the Chiefs were looking for depth.
Yet there's an argument to be made that Sneed has outplayed all of them.
He was shoved onto the field in Week 1 — despite not having a regular offseason or training camp because of COVID-19 — when Bashaud Breeland began to serve his four-game suspension for off-the-field issues. Sneed promptly intercepted the Texans' Deshaun Watson, then added another interception the following week against the Los Angeles Chargers.
That's about where his meteoric rise took a turn. Sneed broke his collarbone in Week 3 against Baltimore, landing him on injured reserve until late last month, when he finally returned to the field in an entirely new role.
“It was hard on my mental (well-being), you know, how I started off. Plus, me trying to come back and maintain that same image that I put out,” Sneed said. "But with God, anything is possible. So I kept my faith in God.”
It has paid off, too. With the Chiefs reticent to move Breeland or fellow cornerback Charvarius Ward from the outside, Sneed slowly became accustomed to his new spot at nickelback. And while he was shaky for a few games, and played fewer snaps than he had before his injury, it seemed to just about everyone that he was poised to have another breakthrough.
"When I was at corner, I was out there on an island or by myself,” Sneed said. “Nickel is totally different from corner. In nickel, you’ve got to be in run fits, you know there’s a lot that goes on that you have to be patient. And I think that it’s just teaching me patience within myself.”
Sneed put everything together last Sunday in New Orleans. He picked off Drew Brees, brought him down on a blitz for his first career sack and had three passes defensed. He also was fourth in tackles among the Chiefs defense.
“We didn’t think was that he would be playing nickel for us. That’s a tough spot,” Reid said. “So, when he came back from the injury, we moved him back into the inside position and there’s a whole lot of learning going on there, and what you’re seeing now is him getting the hang of this and things are picking up again for him.”
It's not as if those early games on the outside were wasted reps, either. Sneed may be the regular nickelback, but he could easily take over for Breeland or Ward if either got hurt, and his college experience means he could even fill in at safety.
In other words, he's become an indispensable part of the Chiefs' defensive tool chest.
“Yeah, I see a lot of good,” Spagnuolo said. "Listen, he played really well when he was in there early in the year. We’re trying to get the best players on the field as much as we can, and we have asked him to learn a position that he really didn’t during training camp, but he’s doing a great job at playing inside I think.”
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