ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — When the Chiefs' first-team defense takes the field for team drills at training camp, the 11 starters combine for 54 years of NFL experience with nary a rookie in sight, and that's just the way defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes it.
'I'm not privy to starting rookies right away, I think they need to earn it,” Spagnuolo said. “I'm still old fashion that way.”
The Chiefs base defense ranges in experience from second-year defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and cornerback Charvarius Ward to seven-year veterans in safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Alex Okafor. Okafor is 28 and Mathieu 27, so it's not a defense long in the tooth.
But Spagnuolo remains steadfast in his belief that young players need to prove themselves and not have a starting job handed to them.
“Each position is a little bit different, too,” Sagnuolo said. “In my experience, it's probably been a little simpler to begin to start out right away if you're up front. There's not nearly as much complexity with calls and defensive wise. It's a little bit tougher on the back end. It's probably most challenging for a linebacker, who not only has to know his job, but he's got to know the other guys around him.”
His boss, head coach Andy Reid, feels the same way about motivating young players to earn their playing time.
“You've got to earn it by working hard, and then when you have opportunities take advantage of the opportunities,” Reid said. “Don't make the same mistake twice. All those things become important if you want to get into that play rotation.”
In safety Juan Thornhill, however, the Chiefs have a rookie who might challenge that conventional wisdom. Reid said the Chiefs liked Thornhill coming out of Virginia for his ability to play corner and safety.
“One consistency was he made plays both spots, and he's doing that out here,” Reid said.
Spagnuolo concurs. “I think he's right on track,” he said of Thornhill's rookie progression.
Few rookies have broken through under Spagnuolo during his nine seasons as and NFL head coach and defensive coordinator. Just seven players have started more than five games in their rookie season under Spagnuolo. Five of the seven were first- or second- round selections. Like Thornhill two were safeties: second-round selection Landon Collins started 16 games for the Giants in 2015, and undrafted free agent Andrew Adams started 13 games the following season.
Spagnuolo mentioned James Laurinaitis, the No. 35 overall selection in 2009 during his first season as head coach of the Rams. The Mike linebacker started from the first preseason game his rookie season.
“I said, 'Look, he's got to earn his stripes up there,'” Spagnuolo said. “But it got toward the end of preseason, it was quite evident that he was a guy that could run the show, so he started right away.”
Thornhill posted a handful of highlights during Wednesday's practice. The Chiefs' offense worked on third-and-long situations, necessitating three-safety look with Thornhill on the field alongside starters Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen. He nearly broke up a pass from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill, but Hill made an All-Pro catch with Thornhill draped all over him.
“The game might still be a little fast right now, but that's to be expected,” Spagnuolo said “That's why you got to get in some game competition to get up to speed with it, but I think he'll be fine.”
Earlier in training camp, Thornhill felt himself and his teammates playing slow as everyone picked up the new defensive scheme.
“Everybody is starting out fresh with new coaches and everything, but now since we had OTA’s and minicamp, guys are picking up things a lot faster and picking up the defense and we are making a lot more plays so that is definitely helping us,” Thornhill said.
Thornhill's 4.42 40-yard speed is evident on the field, but it's his knack for anticipating what's coming that stood out on film to general manager Brett Veach when selecting Thornhill with the 31st choice in the draft's second round. Spagnuolo hopes to see more aggressiveness from Thornhill as his comfort grows.
“Right now, he's doing a little bit more thinking than he is just playing, and that's because he's learning the system,” Spagnuolo said. “But I'm hoping the natural instincts come out when he's got the scheme down pat.”
Reid sees that talent starting to peak through on the field.
“Early (in camp) he was getting his hand on the ball, but he wasn't making the picks,” Reid said. Now he's making the picks.”
What both coaches agree Thornhill needs is time to play, especially during the preseason.
“More reps,” Reid said. “Right now he's getting a ton of them. Just continue to play. Experience will be the thing, young guy.”
Spagnuolo wants to see Thornhill takes the lessons he's learning from defensive backs coches Dave Merritt and Sam Madison and apply them in game situations.
“I just want him to go out and do his job and do it really well, that's really the expectation from me,” Spagnuolo said of his hopes for Thornhill in Saturday night's preseason opener against Cincinnati.
How Thornhill handles game speed against the Bengals and during the course of the next month should determine if he can break tradition and crack Spagnuolo's starting lineup.
“We're expecting good things from him, but we won't know until we get to the games,” Spagnuolo said.