The 2020 NFL season has been filled with angst and uncertainty amidst the obvious challenges of a Covid-season. An offseason that was completely adjusted to ensure safeties of players restricted things such as practicing.
Like anything in life, when adjusting to a new environment it is going to take time, especially with that new environment being the National Football League. Even more specifically, it can take time for a rookie on a defending Super Bowl Champion that is trying to #RunItBack.
That heightened sense of urgency alone speeds up the rookie learning curve, if you’re going to participate that is. Saying that the Chiefs 2020 rookie class is living up to that challenge and rising to the occasion has been an understatement.
The Chiefs rookie draft class, in order selected, consists of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Willie Gay Jr., Lucas Niang (sat out for covid reasons), L’Jarius Sneed, Michael Danna, BoPete Keyes and UDFA’s Tershawn Wharton, Tommy Townsend and Yasir Durant.
With a shortened offseason, the Chiefs entered their first game vs. the Texans with three out of seven rookies being starters (CEH, L’jarius Sneed and Tommy Townsend, punters are people too even though the Chiefs don’t punt often). That alone is a hit in a draft, especially for a team as talented as the Chiefs are.
Due to the natural attrition of the game/ebbs and flows of the season, Willie Gay earned a starting role in the base defense and the remaining rookies all had to step in and play a crucial role at some point, whether it was Danna getting key run stops to Yasir Durant stepping in when Remmers got hurt vs. the Saints.
Next, I’ll break down some potential stars and role players from the guys who received relatively consistent snaps.
Potential Stars: The draft is partial crapshoot, partial being able to evaluate raw talent and ability. I think the Chiefs have three guys with Pro Bowl potential in this class alone, and that is a testament to the job Veach and his staff are doing.
Those three stars being CEH, L’Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay Jr. If you know me, you know I’m onboard with the devaluing of the HB position in modern NFL, especially with Mahomes as your QB. The position just relies on too many other factors to be successful, in my humble opinion. With that being said, to receive the most value at that position I think would be a back that can catch/run routes, make people miss in space and create yards after contact with good vision.
CEH showed a knack for all of that. The Chiefs largest weakness this year has been OL play, specifically IOL play, and that made for CEH to have to make many people miss just to create an opportunity for himself. CEH averaged 4.4 YPC even with lackluster offensive line play in the run game. I look forward to him seeing more opportunities in the pass game like he did at LSU, which is why I think he’s such a good fit for the offense.
Willie Gay Jr. started the season as just a core special teams player and ended up working his way into the starting lineup, but only in base defense, after the first quarter of the season. Willie was someone who is raw and needs more repetitions. His eyes and understanding of the game need to get better moving forward but his natural ability is through the roof.
Gay was 4th in snap count amongst the team Linebackers with 267 snaps, which was 199 less than Ben Niemann, who was 3rd. His plus-traits and natural ability led to him tying for 3rd on the team in TFL’s and 1st out of the LB’s in PBU’s with three on the season. He’s natural in coverage, has heavy hands and is good at getting off blacks, is a very physical tackler and ran 4.46 coming out of college so he brings speed to the 2nd level which is needed.
The only thing stopping him from being elite is between the ears, and that’s something that is going to come with more reps and an offseason in the playbook. (Upon typing this article I found out Willie Gay tore his meniscus and will miss the Super Bowl, prayers and a speedy recovery to him).
The gem of this class has been 4th round pick L’Jarius Sneed. Veach has been quoted saying in a redraft he’s a first-round pick, he might be a top 20 pick in a redraft, and he would probably be in the running for Defensive ROY if not for his injury.
The rookie defensive back has been nothing short of amazing this year. He’s allowed the defense to change completely with his versatility. Per PFF, he’s had 141 outside corner snaps and 171 slot snaps. I’ll save the full review for a later time, but to summarize Sneed’s season was limited to 8.5 games due to a collarbone injury and T-2nd on the team in PBU’s (7) and INT’s (3) while giving up a passer rating of 54.2 which was 4th in the NFL.
Sneed’s been the teams 3rd best defender this season and that might be underselling him. After his collarbone injury, they moved him to Nickel corner, where he had no reps during camp or practice according to DC Steve Spagnuolo and changed the tide of the defense. Veach definitely hit on this lottery ticket and I look forward to seeing his progression moving forward, I believe he’s a true natural playmaker Chiefs fans and not Marcus Cooper (IYKYK).
I think the rest of the rookies are role players moving forward. Guys like Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton have flashed at times. Danna is a solid run defender that sets good edges but has limited burst/athleticism for an edge defender. Turk Wharton is a high effort UDFA that is super athletic and has some natural ability but needs to utilize his hands better/have a rushing plan so somewhat the opposite problems for the two.
These guys might not be stars moving forward, but DL needs a lot of bodies and these two have already shown to be good rotational pieces and high effort guys, which is really all you can ask for as a defender. Tommy Townsend didn’t stink and that’s all you can really ask for in a punter, respectfully.
Statistics provided via Pro Football Reference.