NFL draft surprise: How L'Jarius Sneed went from fourth-round afterthought to Chiefs rookie standout

Eric Edholm
·7-min read

The Kansas City Chiefs have taken the NFL by storm with one of the greatest offenses in league history. But it would be a crime not to recognize what they’ve done in assembling a more than competent defense as well.

It might be how they’ve done it that’s most interesting. The Chiefs have not spent a first-round pick on a defensive player since the 2015 NFL draft. They’ve instead had success in free agency and via trades to acquire defensive standouts and also found bargains in later rounds on that side of the ball.

And no recent Chiefs draft pick on defense in recent years — perhaps since the choice of 2016 second-rounder Chris Jones — has had as big or as surprising a contribution to that group than their 2020 fourth-rounder, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

Despite his season shortened due to a collarbone injury he suffered in Kansas City’s Week 3 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Sneed has been a massive contributor to a defense that ranked in the top 10 this past season in points allowed and interception percentage.

How this surprising rookie made his mark

In Week 1, Sneed had earned a starting job at cornerback — after spending his final season at Louisiana Tech at safety — despite no preseason games and a limited training camp.

The Chiefs’ opening-game opponent, the Houston Texans, went after what they assumed was fresh meat in the converted safety playing corner. Bad decision.

Sneed picked off Deshaun Watson early in the fourth quarter to thwart any chance of a comeback and deflected two other passes in the game, holding up well despite having a target on his back. In Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sneed hauled in another huge interception, this time in the red zone when the Chargers led 17-9 late in the third quarter. Kansas City would claw back to win in overtime.

After missing just under two months of time rehabbing the collarbone injury, Sneed returned to the lineup to start in the Week 11 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, taking over the team’s nickel role then. His third INT of the season came against Drew Brees in the Chiefs’ Week 15 win in New Orleans, adding a sack of Brees in that game.

Not a bad trio of quarterbacks — Watson, Herbert and Brees — for a rookie corner who played a mere nine regular season games to pick off.

Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed recorded his second interception in as many weeks in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed recorded his second interception in as many weeks in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

It’s hard enough finding quality cornerbacks in the upper reaches of the draft, but for the Chiefs to snag one this impactful late in Round 4, it meets the criteria for grand theft.

Pro Football Focus graded Sneed as the NFL’s No. 1 rookie corner this past season, allowing only 214 yards in coverage on 45 targets, with a passer rating allowed of a mere 53.4, one of the best marks in the entire league. Brees was the only quarterback to beat Sneed for a touchdown in the regular season, and it took a virtually perfect throw for that to happen.

Sneed also has a surprising streak heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He now has had a sack in four straight games in which he’s played. In his final two regular season games (he missed the Week 17 contest) plus the Chiefs’ two playoff contests, Sneed has been used as a blitzer and has been very effective at taking down quarterbacks.

He’s done just about everything he’s been asked and outperformed even the wildest expectations during his rookie season. All while rookies around the NFL were at a disadvantage during the pandemic-shortened offseason like never before.

“Even in meetings we could tell he was a cerebral guy,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Wednesday. “(He) played a lot of positions in college, which led us to believe he could handle things mentally.

“He's out there playing nickel, still learning on the run. He didn't have any of the luxury of any training camp snaps at nickel, and he's done a really good job.”

And after leaving the AFC title game against the Buffalo Bills with a concussion, Sneed has been given the green light to play Sunday by Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.

“Sneed is good to go,” Reid said Tuesday. “He’s been cleared.”

The Chiefs will need all the help defending a Bucs offense that threw for 342 yards against Kansas City back in Week 12 and feature one of the best receiver groups in the league.

The scouting book on L’Jarius Sneed coming out

When the Chiefs made Sneed the 138th overall pick this spring, it was right about where many NFL scouts thought he might go — and perhaps just a tad higher even.

“I fell in love with LJ just watching his college tape,” Spagnuolo said. “I was a little shocked — you ask around to scouts and other people, they didn't have him (high). I thought I was missing something.”

Most scouts we spoke with felt Sneed was a Day 3 pick (Rounds 4 through 7), although a substandard senior season likely had a lot to do with that.

After starting 20 games at cornerback over his first three seasons at Louisiana Tech, Sneed was moved to safety by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The move likely didn’t help Sneed’s draft cause, as he looked out of place in his new home at times.

Sneed logged three interceptions as a senior and earned second-team All-Conference-USA. But early in the season, he was plagued by missed tackles, a lack of big plays, penalties (five in his first eight games) and missteps.

It really wasn’t until late in the season that he made his presence felt, with three picks in his final five contests, including a 68-yard pick-six in a blowout over North Texas. That was Sneed’s third pick-six in four years for the Bulldogs.

Sneed turned in some terrific testing at the 2020 NFL combine, with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash (the fourth-best time by any prospect at the event), a 41-inch high jump (tied for sixth-best) and a broad jump of 10-foot-11 (tied for 14th).

Louisiana Tech DB L'Jarius Sneed ran the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL scouting combine but still slipped to Round 4. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Louisiana Tech DB L'Jarius Sneed ran the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL scouting combine but still slipped to Round 4. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sneed’s size (6-foot, 192 pounds, 31 3/8-inch arms, 8 7/8-inch hands) registered as middling to below-average for a DB, and he chose not to run the shuttle drills or the 3-cone drill at the combine. Sneed also stood out at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practices, but despite that he was not afforded a call-up to either the East-West Shrine Game or the Senior Bowl.

Most NFL teams evaluated Sneed last year more as a press corner than as a safety. He’d also garnered significant time as a slot corner, giving Sneed some nice versatility and appeal as a prospect.

But the step back as an out-of-position senior appeared to have an effect on his draft status. Sneed ended up being the 28th defensive back drafted, behind five DBs who did not start a single game as rookies for their respective teams.

There were even some scouts who liked Sneed’s college teammate, Amik Robertson, better as an NFL corner prospect. Robertson ended up being picked one selection after Sneed, at No. 139 overall to the Raiders, playing a mere 35 defensive snaps in his rookie season for the Chiefs’ AFC West rivals.

But Sneed has shown how flawed the NFL draft process can be — and how one disappointing final college season can throw off a player’s evaluation. Looking back, we all should have paid more attention to how Sneed had performed in his earlier seasons at cornerback to forecast his NFL outlook.

Then again, perhaps Sneed is just another example of what seemingly happens every year: A prospect who has big game but just slips through the cracks, despite possessing some elite physical traits and enough college production to warrant a higher pick.

And the Chiefs are more than happy to be the beneficiaries of one of the 2020 NFL draft’s most pleasant surprises.

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