With no preseason and a very limited offseason, it didn’t make much sense to expect too much from rookies. Rookies already generally struggle with assignments and adjusting to NFL speed, so with basically little to no coaching opportunities to help those guys out, the expectation from myself personally was that the rookie class wouldn’t get much run this year, and if they did, they would struggle. But so far, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With injuries and suspensions already affecting the Chiefs defense, three rookies had to step in and fill massive roles. L’Jarius Sneed, Mike Danna, and UDFA Tershawn Wharton had to play significant snaps on Thursday, and they looked comfortable playing. Why were they so ready to go? Is it a positive sign for their outlook this season? Can the Chiefs comfortably rely on these rookies? Let’s see what the film says about these rookies.
L’Jarius Sneed, a fourth round pick from Louisiana Tech, is an athletic freak at cornerback. Standing at 6’1 and 193 lbs, Sneed also ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, while also having a 41″ vertical jump. He’s the best athlete the Chiefs have had at cornerback in years, and easily has a way higher ceiling than any Chiefs cornerback since Marcus Peters. Still, Sneed was going to take some time, because he played a lot more safety in his final year at Louisiana Tech, and needed time to transition back to the outside. Due to the Bashaud Breeland suspension, Sneed wasn’t going to get that time, and was instantly thrown in the fire. Still, in his first game, he showed the traits to be a legitimate cornerback in the NFL.
Even in his first game, Sneed proved to me he has the best ball skills of any cornerback the Chiefs have had in the Brett Veach era. Sam Madison mentioned it this offseason, stating that they were coveting ball skills in their cornerback rotation. Charvarius Ward doesn’t have good ball skills, and Breeland is average at his very best. L’Jarius Sneed, even in his first game, proved that he’s already the best of any Chiefs cornerback already. For a rookie with only 55 snaps under his belt, that’s super impressive. His ability to track the ball in the air, while using his length and coordination to bat balls down, is superb. Even when he’s initially beat, he can recover to the ball, and use his long arms to force contested catches. That trait translates to any scheme, and any defense. That skill set already makes him super valuable in this defense.
The other thing that’s super impressive about Sneed is just his excellent long speed. Sneed obviously ran a 4.37 at the Combine, which is significantly better than any Chiefs cornerback already. Ward ran a 4.44, Breeland a 4.62, Hamilton a 4.46, and Fenton a 4.52 40-yard dash. The difference between Sneed and those other guys is how it translates to the field. All those previous cornerbacks play slower on the field, and have serious issues with fluidity and recovery speed. In a straight-line, they run fast, but they lack the explosive profile to really flip their hips, and run with receivers. That’s why guys like Will Fuller and T.Y. Hilton really hurt us. Sneed, on the other hand, has that fluidity and explosive speed that no one else in our cornerback rotation has. Yes, he’ll get beat at the release point, but his ability to turn and recover is already at a super high level. Yes, technique-wise, he’s way behind the other guys in the cornerback room, but his speed and fluidity are superior to anyone else. That should keep him on the field.
Now, L’Jarius has a long way to go in his technique. While he’s got awesome speed and ball skills, he’s very behind Ward and Breeland just in technique. Sneed likes to lunge forward in his press, and try to knock people off the line of scrimmage. The issue he, he either goes too far forward, or even tries to lunge with both arms. If you try to lunge forward with both hands, your hips become locked. You’re not able to turn and run. Now, his recovery speed helps with some of that, but he’s going to get burned against better receivers eventually with this, who run with more nuance in their routes. Hopefully, more repetitions help out with this in the future.
L’Jarius Sneed gives something the Chiefs haven’t had at cornerback in years; a ceiling. Ward and Breeland are nice players, and quality starters in this league. Even at their best, they just don’t have the athletic profile or ball skills to really become a top tier cornerback in the league, or at least a very high quality cornerback. That’s the difference between them and Sneed. Sure, his technique isn’t there yet, and he needs to have the game slow down for him. Yes, he needs to work on his feet in press. Still, the combination of speed and ball skills gives him the chance to become one of the best cornerbacks in the league. I’m not kidding. It may take some years to get there, but under the tutelage of Spagnuolo and Mathieu, he’ll get awesome coaching. I’m buying all the Sneed stock in the future.
Mike Danna is an entirely different type of player compared to Sneed. His athletic profile is meh at best, although he apparently had a 44″ vertical at Central Michigan. On tape, his athleticism wasn’t superb, but it was at least average. The difference is, Danna is a super smart player, and especially in the run game. He sees pulling blockers well, will crash blocks, and fill multiple gaps at once. He set a hard edge for Michigan in college, and showed inside versatility. He lost some weight coming to Kansas City, and that helped him earn a roster spot easily, and also helped him get on the active roster in his first game ever. He beat out Demone Harris and Taco Charlton, both veterans, for the active spot in Week 1. That’s so impressive for a 5th round pick.
Mike Danna is an incredibly smart football player, and his football IQ has been praised by Brendan Daly often. Even in his first game ever, Danna flashed some of that football intelligence, especially dropping into coverage. The Chiefs are bringing a “Stab” blitz here, overloading the strong side of the blitz, while playing Cover 3 behind it. Danna drops into coverage on the backend, and he’s responsible for the hot read in the flat. Danna recognizes this route very quickly, and robbed it underneath. This little detail forces the incompletion, even though that’ll never show up in the stat sheets.
Danna also was pretty impressive as a pass rusher in week 1. He’s got real heavy hands, and good body control for the position. His bull-rush packs a lot of punch, and against tackles with average anchors, he can win often. Yes, he’s a little stiff around the corner, and he’ll never really dominate the stat sheet. Still, he can make a big impact as a pass rusher, simply by pushing the pocket inside, and collapsing the available scrambling lane. That can still make a big impact on the rush.
Danna won’t ever be a double digits sack guy. He doesn’t have that athletic ceiling in order to reach that milestone. But for your 3rd-4th defensive end, you don’t really need that. You need a guy to do the dirty work, to set the edge, to collapse the pocket, and to drop into coverage. Your 4th defensive end shouldn’t have 10+ sacks. He needs to be an assignment sound football player, who can do anything asked of him, and can be trusted every snap. Even for a rookie, Danna has those qualities. And for a 5th round pick, you have to be seriously impressed by his ability to demonstrate high football character, and an ability to already reach the field on critical reps.
Tershawn Wharton was a bit of a mystery to me. I wasn’t really sure what to think about him, but suddenly, I heard a ton of hype around him. He even made the active roster for the Chiefs, at 285 lbs, from Missouri Science and Technology. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t really know what to expect out of him, in year 1. But after watching the game initially, and again with All-22, I was super impressed to see the gifts he displayed on tape.
Wharton, considering he’s only 285 lbs, plays with a great anchor inside. He was only 255 lbs one year ago, but his improvement in anchoring was super impressive to watch. His leverage is really solid, and his lower body explosion and strength are fantastic. You can tell by just looking at him, but his length and leg strength are superb for a 285 lbs defensive tackle. He was super disruptive in the run game. His agility carries over from defensive end well, and he showed some ability to locate the ball. He can run across multiple gaps, and make plays all across the play.
The other thing I loved about Wharton was his relentless effort and speed. Most defensive tackles don’t have the ability to run all day, and pursue holes or chase down quarterbacks. Wharton, considering he’s a leaner guy, was able to at least come close to chasing Deshaun Watson down. Deshaun. Watson. He’s the fastest defensive tackle on the roster by far, and he plays with a very high motor. He’ll run all day, and do anything asked, which makes him so valuable as a defensive tackle.
Wharton is legit. While being leaner and quicker, he showed way better anchor and gap control than Chris Jones ever has so far. Yes, he’s still undersized, and will struggle vs double teams, but he’ll run all day. He’s an assignment sound player, his motor and effort can never be questioned, and his speed inside is disruptive. Wharton will get plenty of opportunities to improve and show his skills these next few weeks, with Mike Pennel being suspended, Derrick Nnadi still on a pitch count, and Khalen Saunders being out for a month. If he continues showing this type of performance, there’s no chance the Chiefs don’t keep him on the active roster.
The Chiefs clearly were wanting to Run it Back this year, but with a lot of the same roster obviously. While I think it was cool to bring back all these players, there are clear disadvantages to the Run it Back method, in terms of team building. One is that your young guys and rookies don’t get as much playing time. With the veterans there and already firmly secured in their roles, there aren’t many free snaps for rookies to get into the rotation. Fortunately for the Chiefs, due to some suspensions and injuries, they finally got to see these rookies in action, and very early. And based off of one game worth of tape, there should be a ton of optimism in the building currently.
L’Jarius Sneed looks like he could be a potential steal as a hyper athlete at cornerback. Mike Danna already has proved to me he has the intelligence to play in this league, and for a very long time. Tershawn Wharton has really strong athleticism for a defensive tackle, and could carve out a role as the 2nd pass rushing defensive tackle, backing up Chris Jones. The fact that in week 1, these guys have already shown so much about their potential in the future, is a credit to the rookies and the coaching staff, for getting these guys ready to go so early in their careers.
The Chiefs are going to have to make tough decisions next season. Guys like Breeland, Okafor, Tanoh, Ward, Pennel, and Taco Charlton are all likely going to be gone. While you can say those guys are replaceable, it’s not easy to replace 5-6 starters and high level rotation players with young guys. But when you have guys like Sneed, Danna, and Wharton on cheap, cost control deals, those decisions come a lot easier.
Sneed was a 4th round pick, Danna a 5th, and Wharton a UDFA. Getting 3 potential high rotation players, or even starters, with those picks is massive. That’s great process from the Chiefs, and it shows how good this front office is at filling roles, and finding guys who can immediately make impacts in big roles. If the Chiefs are going to build a dynasty, they need guys like these 3 young rookies in the future to fill big roles early. And if these 3 players are any indication about the future, the Chiefs should be in good position to win many championships, for many years.