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If I were Chiefs GM Brett Veach: Defensive free agency

The offseason is a magical time of the year, wherein we get to imagine exactly how the Chiefs will fix any and all weaknesses while maintaining all of their strengths. It’s a dizzying time of projection and conjecture, and it’s an absolute world of fun (a big part of Madden’s success for years was how much fun franchise mode was. At a certain point I enjoyed it more than the games themselves).

I’ve already discussed what the Chiefs should do to clear up cap space, as well as guys entering the free agent market I believe the team should retain. Now it’s on to part 3, and something every fan loves to dream about... free agency.

Since we’re going for continuity, here’s what I’ve done so far in my imaginary world: traded Alex Smith, cut Derrick Johnson, cut Tamba Hali, cut Allen Bailey, and cut Demetrius Harris. I decided since writing the article that Darrelle Revis is just too expensive to keep, so he’s now been cut in my imaginary world as well.

For the sake of creating our own little universe, we’re going to pretend we’ve tendered Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Terrance Mitchell, as well as re-signed Steven Terrell, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Anthony Sherman. In my world of fiction, the Chiefs didn’t offer Albert Wilson and Zach Fulton enough to keep them off the market.

All right, now that we’re caught up to my pretend GM universe, I want to talk about how I approach free agency.

I’m not a guy who gets obsessed with landing this player or that player. I take a “needs-based” approach to FA (the opposite of my approach to the draft, which is more “best player available”). Free agents are NFL vets who are much more of a known quantity than rookies. For me, free agents should be used to fill obvious, immediate needs with players who have shown they can contribute. Next, you take flyers on high-talent players if you’ve got the space.

So for me, it’s not about “they need Player X at any cost!” It’s about “this position group is desperately short of talent, so we need to do something about it.” From there, I will identify several players I believe would be a good fit and affordable as a whole. I’ll pick out players for the sake of continuing our pretend Chiefs universe, but keep in mind my “shotgun” approach here.

The longer I contemplated how I thought the Chiefs should proceed in free agency, the more certain I became of one thing: the defense should be the primary focus. I know we’re all very down on Bob Sutton right now (and I get why), but the reality is the defense just isn’t nearly as talented as it was a few years ago. It’s in desperate need of a talent infusion, much more so than the offense.

While the offense could use some tweaks (LG, WR, and TE2 most specifically), we need to remember that the Chiefs ended the season ranked 7th in weighted DVOA. Yes, there are holes. But there’s nothing THAT urgent, particularly if you believe that Patrick Mahomes is what he has appeared to be in his limited action. So for me, the focus is the defense. That’s where we’ll start.

Another thing to keep in mind regarding free agent signings. The “average” salary a player receives per year is not what their cap hit is every year. So if the Chiefs have, say, $25 million dollars to start FA with, that doesn’t mean they can only spend up to $25 million per year for salaries. For example, if they sign a CB for $10 million a year and 5 years, they can structure the cap hit to be $5 million in 2018 as opposed to the “average.” While you don’t want to do that with ALL your contracts, it leaves a ton of flexibility as long as you’re smart with structure. Because of that (and the vast amounts of cap room the Chiefs have beginning in 2019), the Chiefs have quite a bit to work with.

All right, enough preview stuff. Let’s get into what I’d do in free agency as Brett Veach (leaving out the happens-every-year nickel and dime signings to fill out the roster):

Cornerback

It appears more and more likely that the Chiefs are going to stick with Bob Sutton. While I don’t necessarily agree with that decision, I decided to take a look at when Sutton’s defense was at its most successful from a DVOA standpoint. What I found was that the very best defense Sutton had was in 2015, when the Chiefs had Sean Smith playing at a high level and Marcus Peters ball hawking on the other side.

Sutton asks his corners to play man coverage on an island more than almost any other defensive coordinator in the league. Because of this, a weakness at CB means more for the Chiefs than almost any other team. They need to get back to being solid across the board. We all saw the improvement in the pass defense defense when Revis began playing well (I know, I cut him, but the lack of effort against the run scares me), and I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Here’s where the Chiefs should make their first “splash” signing. Any of the following players would do (since I don’t have time to review every single player, I used Ian Wharton’s lengthy rankings of CB’s to help me, as well as PFF. I relied more on Wharton, as I deeply respect his analysis):

Trumaine Johnson

Considered one of the premier free agent CB’s, Johnson won’t be cheap. But then again, that’s what a “splash” signing is. Johnson enjoyed a career year with the Rams, in large part because of the role he was asked to play as a physical press corner. At 6’2” and (a listed) 213 pounds, Johnson is nearly as big as Sean Smith and should be able to effectively handle the wildly difficult role of playing corner opposite Marcus Peters. He’d be my first choice given his physical press style.

E.J. Gaines

Gaines lacks Johnson’s size, but he’s another player who is willing to play physically. He is more of a risk, having only recently seen success, but I tend to not blame players who didn’t perform well for the Rams prior to 2017. He’s not a turnover-creating corner, but he’s solid in coverage and plays well against the run from all reports, which would be a huge deal for a Chiefs defense that has struggled against the run.

Kyle Fuller

Guys who have an unexpected career resurgence in a contract season worry me, but Fuller was good enough in 2017 that I’m not overly concerned. Fuller knocked down or defended 22 passes this year, and I love a corner who has a knack for playing the ball. Again, whoever plays opposite Peters is going to see a ton of work, and Fuller seems up to the challenge.

Malcolm Butler

I wouldn’t prioritize Butler as much as the previous 3, as I don’t believe he’s as good a player (his reputation is always going to be tied to one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history). However, he’s another big, physical corner who can handle being tossed into the fire. His lack of speed scares me a bit, but it never seemed to hurt Smith during his time with the Chiefs.

There are a number of other CB’s that could make sense as rentals, but my hope is the Chiefs make a splash at this position. Steven Nelson and Terrance Mitchell being relegated to the numbers 3 and 4 CB’s would create a very sound overall position group.

Defensive Line

The other splash I’d like to see the Chiefs make (affording more than 2 splash signings is unlikely) may surprise you. I thought long and hard about edge rusher, but the reality is there’s no stud pass rusher who is going to make it to free agency in all likelihood (at least one that can be identified right now). So for me, it becomes necessary to improve a unit that by and large disappointed last year, struggling to get off blocks and generate pressure (with the exception of Chris Jones).

The Eagles have demonstrated the value of interior pressure, and the Chiefs would do well to upgrade this group talent-wise with multiple signings. I’d pursue all 3 of the following and try to snag every one of them.

Sheldon Richardson

After years of making the headlines for a lot of wrong reasons in New York, Richardson enjoyed a solid (if quiet) season in Seattle. He did not enjoy the same success rushing the passer he had with the Jets, but looking at the tape (briefly) the material was absolutely still there.

Richardson is a big, physical player with impressive strength who can line up all over the line and help generate pressure. he also shouldn’t break the bank completely. He would go a long ways towards increasing the “nasty” up front for the Chiefs. He would be my primary target, as pass rushing linemen are not plentiful in this year’s FA group.

Justin Ellis

This isn’t really a “splash” signing, as Ellis is a NT who won’t help with the pass rush. But he’s a huge, physical player who is tough to move at the point of attack. In short, he’s ideally what we hoped Bennie Logan would be for the Chiefs in 2017, except at less of a price. With Logan walking in free agency, Ellis would be an ideal replacement for the limited role of NT.

DaQuan Jones

Jones is another big, physical player against the run who can play all over the line. He’s shown SOME ability to help with the rush, but not much. If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right: I want the Chiefs to be stronger at the point of attack this season and more capable of winning one-on-one battles.

Much like at CB, there are a few other guys who would make sense at the right price (Kyle Williams, Kony Ealy, or even bringing back Bennie Logan on a cheaper deal). But this is an area I’d like to see the Chiefs throw money at to help with the pass rush, and Richardson is far and away the best option for that.

Edge Rusher

The Chiefs edge rush is in dire need of help, but this is not a star-laden group in free agency this season. However, it makes sense to try and snag someone who can at least be a decent player on the outside, as they wait and see what happens with Tanoh Kpassagnon. IF they are able to do so, I would walk away from Dee Ford’s last year (assuming they are able to get away from that injury guarantee). There are a few guys I’d pursue.

Shaq Barrett

Barrett has been more promise than production at this point, but you can see the talent there. This may be a case of “he played well against my team” affecting my judgment, but he’s looked solid as a rusher and as an edge defender whenever I’ve reviewed the Chiefs’ offense against Denver.

Conner Barwin

This would be a pure rental situation, as Barwin has aged. But he’s a reliable run defender and an OK pass rusher. You know what you’re getting with him, which would be nice opposite Houston rather than the boom-or-bust of Dee Ford.

Erik Walden

Another short-term rental situation, but Walden has had a pretty productive career rushing the passer and is a capable overall player. Again, we’re not looking to snag a star at every position. We’re looking for consistency across the board.

Safety

This is complicated. The Chiefs already have a lot of money invested in safety (between Eric Berry, Ron Parker, and Daniel Sorensen), and both Parker and Sorensen have demonstrated themselves to do well in certain roles. But Sorensen in particular played poorly last season, and Parker demonstrated the same issues with tackling he’s had throughout his career (though I’m still pretty certain that some of the issues he had were in trying to clean up the mistakes of others in the secondary).

This isn’t a situation of any certain player drawing my particular attention, but I would love to see the Chiefs pursue a solid veteran here like Eric Reid or Reggie Nelson, or bring back Tyvon Branch. Again, it’s about solidifying things across the board.

The best Chiefs defenses under Sutton have had high level play at safety, and I’d like to see them return to that.

Overall “Final Moves”

All right, since we’re operating in an imaginary universe, I need to make contracts and signings happen with some form of realism. So I went to Over the Cap, inserted my previous “moves” as GM (cuts and FA re-signings), and then did the following...

(note: I’m not going to give all the details about how I fiddled with the various contracts, as this has already gotten WAY too wordy, even for me. I’m going to give the basic contract numbers and call it a day).

  1. Signed Trumaine Johnson to a 5 year, $75 million dollar contract.
  2. Signed Sheldon Richardson to a 4 year, $36 million dollar contract.
  3. Signed Justin Ellis to a 3 year, $9 million dollar contract.
  4. Signed Erik Walden to a 2 year, $10 million dollar contract.
  5. Signed Eric Reid to a 4 year, $32 million dollar contract.

If you’re about to shout “HOW ON EARTH CAN YOU AFFORD ALL OF THAT!!!!” at me, hold on a second.

Because of these moves, I was able to feel comfortable moving on from both Dee Ford and Daniel Sorensen (Sorensen only saving $1.8 million is a bummer, but sunk cost is what it is), which saved the Chiefs well over $9 million dollars in 2018 as well as nearly $3 million in 2019 and $4 million in 2019 (Sorensen’s deal).

After making all of the moves I’ve detailed, the Chiefs cap per Over the Cap stands as follows:

2018- $17.3 million available

2019- $46.7 million available

2020- $72.4 million available

The defensive roster (starters and relevant depth players) now looks like this...

CB- Peters, Johnson, Nelson, Mitchell

S- Berry, Reid, Parker, Terrell

OLB- Houston, Walden, Kpassagnon, Zombo

ILB- Ragland, KPL, Eligwe

DE/DT- Jones, Richardson, Nacho (they’ll need depth here, perhaps bringing back Jarvis Jenkins?)

NT- Justin Ellis

This is not a perfect group. I’m still concerned about depth along the defensive line. However, with plenty of cap space to still play with, the Chiefs could even afford to make another semi-big signing in that area to solidify depth, or bring back Logan to shore things up (though whether he’d be willing to do so on a reduced contract is anyone’s guess).

However, from top to bottom, this is a significantly more talented group than what the Chiefs fielded last season. The secondary would be greatly improved, and Richardson’s addition on the line should help with pass rush. While Walden isn’t a splash signing, he would certainly be an upgrade over what the Chiefs had last season and would serve as a valuable player to have if Kpass proves not ready to go.

A team cannot be “fixed” with a bunch of free agent signings. However, the Chiefs defense is in a unique situation where the core players (Houston, Berry, Peters, Jones, and Ragland) are in place, as are some role players (Nelson, Mitchell, Parker, Nacho) who were asked to do way too much last season.

By adding the above group of free agents (or a similar group), the Chiefs would relegate role players back into those limited roles and provide support for the core group at a much higher level than last season. While there are no guarantees in the NFL, I think this is the year to be highly aggressive in adding talent to the defense. Especially now that we’ve seen we can do it without killing the cap.

Part 4 (the offense) will be next, and shouldn’t be nearly as extensive. But for now, I’m going to dream dreams of a highly upgraded Chiefs defense.