News & Analysis

Renner: L’Jarius Sneed was the best rookie defensive back in 2020

Dec 13, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (38) breaks up a pass to Miami Dolphins running back Malcolm Perry (10) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The grades, stats and tape all agree: No rookie held a candle to Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. To say that’s a surprise is an understatement. Fifteen cornerbacks and 31 total defensive backs were selected before Sneed came off the board in the fourth round at pick 138 overall.

Sneed started off at outside cornerback for the suspended Bashaud Breeland. Through two and a half games at the position, Sneed only allowed seven completions on 13 targets for 60 yards with two picks and a pass breakup. But he broke his collarbone in Week 3 against the Ravens and missed the next seven weeks.

Blessed with 4.37 speed and 31 3/8-inch arms, Sneed has a prototypical outside corner body. He does not have prototypical slot traits. That’s where the Chiefs have stuck him, though, ever since returning from his injury.

The rookie hasn’t missed a beat.

His ability to lock receivers up at the line of scrimmage even from the slot is easily his biggest selling point. Just watch him eat Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s lunch at the line of scrimmage on this pick against the Saints.

Press is a massive part of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. On the year, Sneed allowed only eight completions on 20 targets for 88 yards when in press coverage. Being so adept at the line of scrimmage with his elite combination of speed, burst and length means his standout rookie year is no fluke.

With how well he’s playing so early in his career, it makes sense to ask: What did everyone miss? 

Playing Out of Position

Sneed was a difficult evaluation because he didn’t play the position that pretty much everyone assumed he’d play in the NFL during his final year at Louisiana Tech. 

Sneed was more often than not a deep safety in quarters looks. He was very skinny for a safety and not particularly physical. His senior season for evaluators was likely not even worthy of a fourth-round selection if they saw him in the same role in the NFL. But Sneed had played outside cornerback the two seasons prior to that 2019 season after originally starting his career at corner. He was very up and down there, but we still saw the flashes.

We simply never got to see Sneed get more consistent because he changed positions. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that evaluators saw him as a fourth-rounder (he was 137th on the PFF draft board) given those issues and the level of competition he played against in Conference-USA.

Just How Good is Sneed?

While Sneed is on the older side for a rookie at 24 years old, his ceiling isn’t capped by his athleticism. He was a true freak athlete with a 41-inch vertical and 10-foot-11 broad jump to go along with his aforementioned 4.37 40 time.

That combination of speed and explosiveness is exactly what it takes to be an elite man corner in today’s NFL. And, truthfully, Sneed is close to already qualifying as one. Sneed was targeted 25 times in man coverage this season, including the playoffs, and allowed only 13 catches for 108 yards for a passer rating of 46.8 against. That’s the fourth-lowest passer rating against for any corner with at least 15 targets in man coverage this season.

Any way you slice it, Sneed is legit and one of the steals of the draft. Don’t be surprised if he proves this once again against the Buccaneers' loaded receiving corps on Sunday.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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