AFC South Reporter
LAS VEGAS — Early in his Chiefs career, L’Jarius Sneed used to call his father, frustrated.
Kansas City had him playing a heavy dosage of slot cornerback, a position he’d never played before. A 2020 fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, Sneed lined up on the outside his first three years in college. He played safety as a senior.
He played more than half of his snaps out of the slot as an NFL rookie (50.8%), according to Pro Football Focus. That increased to 61.4% in Year 2.
“‘I hate playing inside nickel,'” Sneed would tell his father, Bobby. “‘I hate it, I hate it.'”
The way Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt sees it, Sneed playing inside so much to start his career — he also played 47.6% of his snaps at the nickel spot last year — prepared him to be what he is this season.
It helped Sneed understand Steve Spagnuolo’s complex defense and his role within the scheme.
“Now he’s able to focus in and say, ‘OK, I have a home now,'” Merrill told FOX Sports.
The rest of the NFL world is seeing it.
Sneed has established himself as a lockdown, No. 1 outside cornerback this season. His goal-line forced fumble against Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers in the AFC Championship Game, which helped the Chiefs punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVIII, symbolized his national arrival as an elite player at his position. He’ll be key to slowing down 49ers star wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk for Kansas City, which is aiming to become the first franchise in nearly two decades to win back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has already said it’s a priority for the franchise to re-sign Sneed, who’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, along with star defensive tackle Chris Jones.
“He’s the most aggressive corner that I’ve coached in my 27 years,” Merritt said. “”I don’t want to knock any other branch of the military, but he’s like a Navy SEAL. You give him an assignment and he goes in and gets it done.”
Do the Chiefs have a more dominant defense than the 49ers?
Among the 45 cornerbacks with at least 400 coverage snaps in the 2023 regular season, Sneed is one of just four (the Browns’ MJ Emerson, Bengals’ Mike Hilton and Titans’ Roger McCreary are the others) to not allow a touchdown, according to Next Gen Stats. He tied for second in coverage success rate (66.7%) and EPA allowed per target (-0.33), third in passer rating allowed when targeted (55.5) and fourth in completion rate allowed (50.0%).
Sneed also tied for eighth among all players with 14 pass breakups and had two interceptions. He’s had at least two picks every year since being drafted in 2020.
“Sneed presents a fear to receivers, and they know what they’re going up against,” Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson told FOX Sports. “I see a lot of times receivers change their stance — they get lower or have their hands up because he’s just so great at putting hands on guys and he’s so quick. It’s such a hard thing to do and such a hard technique to do. I think he’s the best I’ve ever seen at it.”
In addition to Jones and linebacker Nick Bolton, Sneed is regarded as a leader for Kansas City’s defense.
It’s just that he leads without saying much. He’s not a talker.
“You’ll probably hear more on the NFL mic’d up than we do, to be honest,” Chiefs nickelback Trent McDuffie said Monday.
“You talk about LJ, you’re talking about someone who is going to guard the best receiver,” he added. “Someone who’s going to come hit you. Someone who’s going to show multiple techniques. That’s one of the leaders of this defense. I know at least as DBs, we ride for that dude, you know? He’s one of those dudes who, when we’re out there playing, you look over there and see him battling. It makes you want to go harder. He definitely brings that mental aspect to this defense of, ‘We just have to be dogs.'”
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While Sneed has a quiet demeanor, he has a hidden talent: singing.
Chiefs coaches and players believe he could be an R&B artist if he wanted to be.
“Just ask him to sing,” Merritt said. “Just ask him, ‘LJ, I heard you can sing. Give me a little bit.’ He stood up as a rookie [in a meeting]sang one time. I said, ‘You’re done. You’re not singing anymore.’ I kid you not.”
Watson says his close friend doesn’t concern himself with outside validation, which has come in droves since the AFC title game.
“He doesn’t care about the glitz and glam,” Watson said. “He just wants to go out and compete at the highest level and guard the best players and shut them down.”
That’s when Sneed is at home.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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