10 Biggest Questions: How will the Chiefs’ safety rotation play out?

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers
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During defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s tenure, Kansas City’s safeties have played a key role in his scheme.

Heading into the Kansas City Chiefs’ season, I’m continuing my “10 Biggest Questions” series about the team. This time, we turn our attention to an important position in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense: safety.

Since Spagnuolo took over the unit in 2019, his defenses have been built around the play of their safeties. Shortly after his arrival, the team acquired two: free agent Tyrann Mathieu and second-round draft pick Juan Thornhill. Both are versatile players with ball skills.

Early on, everything revolved around Mathieu’s unique versatility. He excelled not only as a slot defender but also in the Robber role, in which he lined up in the middle of the field about 10-15 yards behind the line. Spagnuolo used every possible pre and post-snap rotation shell to get Mathieu into these spots, building his entire coverage menu around his position. The ways offenses could attack the Chiefs were limited — especially when he was used as a robber,

Spagnuolo also used three-safety shells in which Mathieu, Thornhill and veteran Daniel Sorensen could be moved around at any point in the play. They could blitz, come downhill, play underneath (in either zone or man coverage) or even bail into a deep zone to cover half of the field. Lacking elite coverage skills in his linebackers, Spagnuolo sometimes had to resort to four-safety shells and dime personnel to get speed on the field.

While all three players are now gone, Spagnuolo still uses his safeties in similar ways. There have, however, been some adjustments. With his different body type, Justin Reid can’t do quite the same things Mathieu could. While he’s bigger (and much more physical), he lacks Mathieu’s fluidity. It took the Chiefs about half a season to figure it out, but keeping Reid in the box — where he could tackle and defend tight ends in man coverage — proved to be his best role.

So once again, the rest of the defense took shape around the veteran safety. In 2023, Spagnuolo could use cornerback L’Jarius Sneed against No. 1 wide receivers because he could trust two of his players in one-on-one coverage: Trent McDuffie in the slot and Reid against tight ends.

But with Reid closer to the line of scrimmage, Kansas City’s other safeties had to play deep more often. The Chiefs started 2023 with Bryan Cook and Mike Edwards as the safeties in their dime rotation — and while neither did anything exceptional, their play allowed the Chiefs to run more aggressive man-coverage shells and still get into their funky rotations.

Cook was lost for the season with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 13, which forced rookie Chamarri Connor to step in as the third safety — something he did exceptionally well. Coming into the league, we didn’t quite know exactly what Connor could do — but in the playoffs, he was a big bright spot; he proved his ability to do different things as a safety in Spagnuolo’s scheme. I’m excited about what he could do in 2024.

Reid, Cook and Connor will all be back. Edwards will be replaced by Washington State rookie Jaden Hicks, who was my top safety from last spring’s draft class. Stylistically, he reminds me a lot of Reid. While he’s a bigger safety with good tackling ability and downhill explosiveness, he struggles with agility when playing deep. As a player who thrives near the line of scrimmage, he projects well as Reid’s post-2024 replacement.

So I think the Chiefs can credibly say they can play four safeties — but I think the role each plays will be interesting. With Sneed gone, the defense might depend less on man coverage; it might have to play more conservatively on the back end.

What would this mean for Kansas City’s safeties — particularly Reid? Can the team continue to get away with him playing close to the line and traveling with tight ends, or will he have to play deep to protect the cornerbacks? How will Spagnuolo use the other safeties? Following his injury, will Cook again be a starter — or did Connor’s late-season play give him the inside track? How will Hicks figure into the rotation? With their similar skill sets, can the Chiefs play Hicks and Reid at the same time? Will either Cook or Connor emerge as a player who could replace Reid — or will Kansas City re-sign the veteran before his age-28 season?

At this point, I have to give Spagnuolo the benefit of the doubt. Year-over-year, he’s proven that he can find the best ways to use his safeties and build his coverage shells around them. I fully expect he will figure it out again. Still, without Sneed for the first time in four years, it’ll be interesting to see how all the defensive pieces fit together.

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Title: 10 Biggest Questions: How will the Chiefs’ safety rotation play out?
Author: Nate Christensen

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