With the minutes of the final team drill winding down, Juan Thornhill made the kind of play the Chiefs searched for from their secondary last season.
Thornhill picked off former Wagner quarterback TJ Linta and ran the ball back some 30 yards to the end zone at the Chiefs’ practice facility Saturday afternoon.
The play, of course, has to be taken with a grain of salt.
None of the 72 players participating in the Chiefs’ rookie minicamp were wearing pads, and the competition wasn’t nearly as stout as it will be once the NFL regular season starts.
But even so, the flash of athleticism and playmaking ability out of Thornhill, a second-round draft pick, bodes well for the Chiefs as they remake the defense to Steve Spagnuolo’s specifications.
Thornhill, a versatile defensive back out of Virginia, figures to be a key piece in the Chiefs’ future plans.
“He gives you that flexibility,” coach Andy Reid said after the Chiefs drafted Thornhill No. 63 overall. “So much is that match game and he gives you some flexibility there with his size to play over a tight end. He can play over the slot. You can kick him out on the outside and he can play on the outside, he’s comfortable with it. He has great ball skills.”
Those skills were obviously on display in his first rookie minicamp practice, but he first showed off the traits that help him get to the ball at the NFL Combine in February. Thornhill’s measurables jumped off the charts as he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, did 21 reps on the bench press, and leaped to a 44-inch vertical and 141-inch broad jump — both best among defensive backs.
“The way that helps me on the field is being able to go out there and compete,” the 6-foot Thornhill said. “Whenever the quarterback throws a jump ball to the receiver, I plan on going up and getting that football. I know I can jump and I’m very athletic. It’s going to keep me in a position to make plays.”
And it certainly did Saturday.
Though he played all over the field with the Cavaliers and has the versatility to also move around in the NFL, he fits best as a free safety in Kansas City — the center fielder to Tyrann Mathieu’s spot in the box.
It’s a position Thornhill has played frequently in his senior year at Virginia, moving there from cornerback prior to the season. He’ll likely have a more steady role with the Chiefs though.
As a free safety, he’ll be in a complementary role to Mathieu. Two versatile players, Thornhill and Mathieu have the ability to play well with, and off of, each other.
Though Thornhill hasn’t met Mathieu yet, he’s been channeling the former LSU defensive back for years.
“Before every college game I used to watch his college film,” Thornhill said. “I just loved how he played. He keeps that energy going. I pride myself in keeping my energy up and try to play well. I think we’ll be a great fit.”
As he enters into the next phase of his playing career in the NFL, Thornhill will do so wearing a new number that’s symbolic of his evolution.
At Virginia, Thornhill wore No. 21. But with the Chiefs, he’ll don No. 22 — a number previously worn by cornerback Marcus Peters prior to his trade.
“That’s a good number to have,” Thornhill said. “That means you’re taking a step up. So getting No. 22 is symbolizing me taking a step up and bettering myself as person and a player.”
Thornhill has already begun growing into a new person since joining the Chiefs. A day after he was drafted, he and the Chiefs’ other Day 2 draft picks arrived at Arrowhead to meet fans.
Not typically one to enjoy public speaking, Thornhill was hardly prepared when the Chiefs asked him to say a few words to some of the thousands of fans gathered at the stadium.
“I’m not used to talking in front of a lot of people like that,” he said. “Then I had to go on stage and basically give a little speech. But it wasn’t bad at all. You say one thing, they go crazy, and they just love you. It was a great experience.”