The Kansas City Chiefs feature one of the game's most dominant safeties in Tyrann Mathieu, who has earned All-Pro nods in each of the last two seasons and has 10 interceptions to his name in that time.
Mathieu is the ultimate chess piece on defense, demonstrating the ability to play virtually anywhere on the field at a high level. That positional versatility is really a microcosm of the Chiefs' secondary as a whole, too, as Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has shown a tendency to blur the line between safeties and cornerbacks within his scheme. The Chiefs feature a grand total of 18 defensive backs on their roster, and many of them have experience at both positions.
For the purpose of this article, however, we're going to dive into the eight players on the roster who possess significant experience at safety. That's not to say that players such as L'Jarius Sneed and Marlon Character Jr – who each logged substantial snaps at safety in college – couldn't contribute in that role if needed, but we'll cover those individuals (among others) in our piece focusing on cornerbacks next week.
For now, let's dive into the eight players with significant experience at safety heading into training camp.
As previously mentioned above, Mathieu is among the best defensive backs in the NFL. He's tallied 10 interceptions in his two seasons with Kansas City – the most among safeties in that span – while recording 21 passes defensed. Additionally, opposing quarterbacks registered a 70.5 passer rating in Mathieu's coverage last season, which was the sixth-best mark among safeties who played at least 80 percent of their team's snaps.
His versatility is also something to behold. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathieu tallied 345 snaps at slot corner, 301 snaps in the box, 224 snaps at free safety, 44 snaps on the line of scrimmage and 15 snaps at outside corner in 2020. He can play just about anywhere at an elite level, prompting NFL.com Senior Analyst Gil Brandt to call Mathieu one of the most versatile players in all of football.
Speaking of versatility, Sorensen has consistently worn numerous hats during his seven-year career with Kansas City. Just last season, Sorensen recorded 497 snaps in the box, 225 snaps at free safety, 165 snaps at slot corner, 147 snaps along the line of scrimmage and 51 snaps at outside corner. He also logged significant snaps on special teams.
The 31-year-old Sorensen matched a career-high with three interceptions last season, two of which effectively sealed victories late in games. In fact, Sorensen has become synonymous with critical, game-changing plays during his time with the Chiefs. For example, his forced fumble at the goal line against the Browns in last year's Divisional Round matchup helped prevent a Cleveland comeback. There was also his unforgettable performance against the Houston Texans in the 2019 playoffs that included a forced fumble in kickoff coverage and a crucial tackle on fourth down. Both plays were integral to Kansas City's 24-point comeback that eventually paved the way for a victory in the Super Bowl two games later.
Sorensen is seemingly always prepared to handle whatever responsibilities are expected of him, filling a crucial role on both defense and special teams.
Originally a second-round pick back in 2019, Thornhill suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 of a brilliant rookie campaign that included both Pro Football Focus and PFWA All-Rookie Team honors. It was an unfortunate ending to a strong season, and because the injury took place so late in the year, it was uncertain if the former University of Virginia star would be ready for the beginning of last season. Remarkably, however, Thornhill fought through his rehab process and managed to not only make it back in time, but to appear in all 16 games in 2020.
Thornhill's prompt return to the field is a testament to his work ethic, and now a full season removed from his injury, this upcoming season represents an opportunity for the 25-year-old to continue building what he started back in 2019.
Parks signed with the Chiefs in early May after parts of five seasons with the Denver Broncos and a brief stint with the Philadelphia Eagles this past year. He's an experienced player with 72 career games (18 starts) to his name and at least 500 snaps played in three of the last four years. In that time, Parks has tallied 163 tackles, 13 passes defensed, seven tackles-for-loss and four interceptions.
The 26-year-old Parks has experience at both safety and cornerback - serving primarily as a slot corner over the last two seasons – but he spent the majority of his time as either a free or box safety for the first three years of his career from 2016-18.
That positional versatility is invaluable and could permit the Chiefs to experiment with Parks in a variety of roles. We'll learn more about how he fits in defensively when camp gets underway.
A three-year veteran, Watts has grown into one of the Chiefs' most valuable contributors on special teams during his career in Kansas City. The 25-year-old led the squad with 355 special teams' plays last season, taking the field for more than 80 percent of special teams' snaps while appearing in all 16 games. Those were the 13th-most special teams' snaps of any player in the league, trailing the top spot by only 20 plays.
He hasn't seen a ton of action defensively, recording 174 snaps over the last two seasons, but Watts showed off his versatility during the Chiefs' season finale against Los Angeles in 2020. He tallied 72 snaps in that matchup, spending time in the box (26 snaps), as a free safety (25 snaps), in the slot (11 snaps), on the line of scrimmage (7 snaps) and at outside corner (3 snaps).
An undrafted free agent signee last year, Clemons spent the entirety of the 2020 campaign on the Chiefs' practice squad before signing a Reserve/Futures contract in February.
He was a four-year starter at SMU before joining the Chiefs, recording 275 tackles, 34 passes defensed and seven interceptions during his time with the Mustangs. Four of those picks were during his senior season and helped Clemons earn all-conference honors.
Now, after a full year in the building learning the Chiefs' scheme, he'll have an opportunity to show what he can do up in St. Joseph.
Anderson signed with the Chiefs as a rookie free agent following the 2021 NFL Draft, adding yet another versatile defender to Kansas City's secondary. The former BYU standout played parts of six seasons for the Cougars from 2015-20, tallying snaps as a safety, cornerback, and linebacker during his career. Anderson appeared in 11 games for BYU last season, logging the bulk of his snaps at free safety (436) while also contributing in the box, as a slot cornerback and on special teams. He has impressive speed, too, as Anderson won state honors in the 100 and 200-meter dashes in high school.
While the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Anderson dealt with injuries during his college career, Dane Brugler of The Athletic noted in his pre-draft analysis that Anderson possesses elite-level athleticism and toughness.
Chiefs 2021 rookie class participate in day one of Rookie Mini Camp.
Like Anderson, Key joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent this past spring. A four-year starter at Western Kentucky, Key racked up 350 tackles over the course of his impressive career while lining up primarily as a box safety. He started 49 games in that time, earning a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team in 2017, All-Conference USA Honorable Mention honors in the two following years and Second-Team All-Conference USA recognition during his senior campaign.
Key notched 90+ tackles in three of his four seasons on campus while also making plays in coverage, recording 25 passes defensed and six interceptions. Overall, Key has experience in the box, as a free safety and as a slot corner.
The Bottom Line
The trio of Mathieu, Sorensen and Thornhill have accounted for the vast majority of playing time among safeties on the Chiefs' roster in each of the last two years, with all three players recording 700+ snaps in 2020. That will likely once again be the case this upcoming season, and as mentioned above, Thornhill may have an opportunity to earn even more playing time now that he's a year removed from the injury suffered during his rookie season.
A team can never have enough defensive backs though, and while those three may account for the bulk of the snaps, the Chiefs will be watching the other players mentioned above with a close eye. Kansas City has featured exactly five safeties on the roster to open the season in each of the last two years, so history tells us that Parks, Watts, Clemons, Anderson, and Key will each have an opportunity to make the team out of camp.
Those players all bring a variety of talents to the table, and once again, the versatility within this group will make the Chiefs' secondary as a whole that much better.