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Chiefs’ free agency: is the defense better or worse?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

So I don’t know if you have heard this, but the Kansas City Chiefs had a bad defense last year.

Oh, you knew that? Cool. Me too.

Well, did you also know that the Chiefs offense, while a bit inconsistent, was quite good last year?

You knew that too, you say? Fair enough.

I guess I’m bringing all this up because I’m not quite sure what the Chiefs are doing right now in regard to their defense.

(The above-embedded podcast is me, MNchiefsfan. It’s called “The Chief In the North,” because I’m from the north, ya know, and it addresses some of the stuff I’m about to talk about. You should listen to it.)

So for a second, I’m going to ignore the totally awesome reality that Patrick Mahomes is going to be throwing to one of the most talented groups of skill position players in the entire league next season. As much fun as it is to think about Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins (seriously, how much fun is it to look at that group side by side and know they’re all going to be together next year?), there is sort of this whole other half of football that I think we need to talk about.

The Chiefs fielded their worst defense in years last season. While from a points-allowed-per-game standpoint they were average (15th in the league), literally everyone who watched the Chiefs could see some serious issues on the field.

When gauging a team’s overall performance I prefer to use Football Outsider’s DVOA (explained here). When measuring team offenses or defenses, it’s the most context-savvy stat I’m aware of, and it generally provides an accurate look at how a team (Note: not individual players) performed in a given year.

The Chiefs, if you go by weighted DVOA (which is simply DVOA that measures the end of the year with more weight than the beginning of the year, taking into account team adjustments, injuries, etc.), were 32nd in the league.

Dead. Last.

And just in case you think the picture improves if you use non-weighted DVOA, it’s not much better: the Chiefs were 30th in that category.

In short, your eye test did not fail you: the defense was not good. It was, in fact, quite bad.

It seemed like the Chiefs would agree. Both Andy Reid and Clark Hunt made comments this offseason that indicated they believed there were some issues with the defensive personnel last season. That appeared, on the surface, to be the reason Reid rolled with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton despite very loud calls for his head after the playoff collapse (which, to be fair, was on both the offense and the defense... but I digress).

I wrote extensively about what I wanted the Chiefs to do in free agency, particularly on defense. My basic premise was as follows: the Chiefs already have a good offense, so they ought to be highly aggressive in upgrading the defense in order to field a good offense and a good defense.

My thoughts on offense were (roughly) this: “Snag a wide receiver if you can get one, maybe a TE, but spend most of the money on defense.”

Well, we know that’s not how things have gone down so far. The Chiefs signed Sammy Watkins to a huge deal, spending a lot of their “splurge” money. They also went out and gave Anthony Hitchens a big deal as well to upgrade the inside linebacker spot. Beyond those two moves, they’ve been... quiet.

After trading away Marcus Peters and releasing Ron Parker, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, it looked like the defense was in for a wholesale makeover. And indeed, the Chiefs were connected with Mo Wilkerson and Tyrann Mathieu. Word also is that the Chiefs made an offer to Kyle Fuller, which was rejected (and so died many “Fuller House” jokes). But at the end of the day, there’s Hitchens and... no one else, really.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bringing Jarvis Jenkins back for cheap was nice, as was tendering Rakeem Nunez-Roches. But those are hardly “makeover” moves considering both guys were on the roster last season.

Of course, we’re only a week into free agency. But things have slowed way down and the Chiefs haven’t been linked to any names in a while. So I had to ask myself... is the defense really any better off than it was a year ago?

Here’s where it gets tough... injuries took a drastic toll on the Chiefs last season. Losing Eric Berry was a killer. Losing Dee Ford hurt the pass rush a great deal (not because he’s a great rusher but because his replacements were so much worse). Steven Nelson’s absence hurt more than it should have, as the corner play was abysmal for three-fourths of the season. So it’s tough to gauge what the defense would have been.

My questions are this:

  1. is the roster that is currently assembled better than the roster that struggled through most of last season?
  2. Have we really seen enough urgency from general manager Brett Veach on this, even considering where we’re at (with plenty of time until Week 1)?

My answer to the first one is “yes” without much hesitation, but with a qualifier: a big part of that reason is simply guys currently slated to be healthy who were injured last season.

If you look at the defensive roster, things are largely unchanged. The only difference along the defensive line is that Bennie Logan is now gone. The only change at edge rusher is that Dee Ford is hopefully healthy and Tamba Hali is now gone. At safety, the Chiefs are getting back Eric Berry (obviously huge), but have acquired no talent despite a very soft safety market that should make upgrading over Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray pretty simple.

Cornerback is... messy. Losing Marcus Peters is a massive blow, and adding Kendall Fuller is a massive influx of talent. The problem is that even if you’re very optimistic, it’s hard to imagine Fuller actively improving on what we saw from Peters last season. So then it’s down to the addition of David Amerson, which is... underwhelming. Steven Nelson being healthy will help, but does anyone feel great with a corner group of Fuller, Amerson, Nelson and “who knows” as the fourth corner? Yes, there’s more talent at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots than there was for much of 2018, but there are far too many question marks around it for me to be confident. Amerson was not good last season, and Nelson has been “competent” at best.

Inside linebacker is clearly upgraded with Anthony Hitchens, and that should be a nice addition to the defense. But besides that, the only reason I can call this group better than the 2017 roster is because Berry, Ford and Nelson are slated to be healthy.

Which brings me to my second question... has there been enough urgency on the defensive side of the ball? Well... no. No there hasn’t.

Again, there is still plenty of time before next season begins, and there is always the draft. But as of now, the Chiefs have done very little to upgrade a defense that was (sorry for the all caps that are about to happen but I really think it’s necessary) LITERALLY THE WORST DEFENSE IN THE NFL DOWN THE STRETCH LAST YEAR STATISTICALLY.

And it’s not like the Chiefs aren’t aware of these issues.

The fact that they were linked to guys like Wilkerson, Mathieu, and Fuller tell me that they realize there are problems. The reality is that while this defense does have some very good talent (Justin Houston, Chris Jones, Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, Fuller and Berry are a very nice base to build around), there are gaping holes on the roster (pass rusher along the defensive line besides Jones, safety outside of Berry, cornerback outside of Fuller, even arguably edge rusher given Ford’s inconsistency).

Now before you tell me not to panic... I’m not panicking. As I said earlier, there’s time to address these issues. And of course, the fact of the matter is that we never know what a team will look like prior to the season beginning. It could be that Amerson and Nelson play their best ball and Murray takes a big step forward. Sorensen thrives again in a limited role, Jones takes that final step to top-five defensive lineman and Allen Bailey plays more consistently... all while Berry, Houston, Fuller, Hitchens, and Ragland play as well as they’ve played in the past. Sure, it could happen.

But right now, the defense as constructed feels a little too dependent on hopeful scenarios. Yes, the draft can be used to plug some holes, but I’m wildly uncomfortable with the idea of counting on multiple rookies to step in and play well immediately. One or two, perhaps. But the Chiefs currently have more than one or two spots that look problematic.

Again, we’ll see where this all goes. The core is there for a good defense. But until I see some of the holes around that core filled in, I’m going to be worried about 2018 no matter how “shock and awe” I think the offense might be.

Going into the offseason, the defense was supposedly the problem to be fixed. And so far it looks a whole lot like it did last season. I’m hoping Veach has something up his sleeve here.

Seriously, though, the offense might be AWESOME. It really might.

But still.