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Will the Chiefs defense improve in 2018?

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The burning question on the minds of Chiefs fans.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs defense was not very well behaved in 2017. In fact, they had the sixth-worst yards-per-play defense in the NFL last season.

I wrote an article earlier this offseason that took a look at the Chiefs defensive talent in 2017, and the results were not pretty.

In a sampling of nine teams, the Chiefs defensive personnel was by far the least talented group. It’s almost amazing to me defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and the Chiefs were able to finish near the middle of the NFL in points per game allowed (Seriously, they should be thanking Alex Smith for taking care of the ball so well).

The question we’re all wanting to know is whether or not the Chiefs defense will be better in 2018 thanks to some free agent acquisitions and the draft. Fortunately for you (and your Chiefs offseason boredom), I’m going to try and answer that question.

Defensive transactions

Just to catch you up to speed, here ia a list of the Chiefs defensive moves so far this offseason (2017 PFF grades are in parentheses).

Out: Ron Parker (40.1), Marcus Peters (85.7), Darrelle Revis (57.2), Terrance Mitchell (52.3), Philip Gaines (35.9), Kenneth Acker (57.1), Ramik Wilson (41.2), Kevin Pierre-Louis (45.2), Tamba Hali (54.2), Derrick Johnson (77.3), Bennie Logan (68.6), Rakeem Nunez-Roches (57.7).

Other than Peters and DJ, every Chiefs defensive player who is no longer on the team was ranked poorly by Pro Football Focus. This mean the Chiefs got rid of a lot of poor talent in the offseason.

In: Xavier Williams (80.8), Derrick Nnadi, Anthony Hitchens (80.8), Breeland Speaks, Dorian O’Daniel, Kendall Fuller (90.0), David Amerson (39.7), Tremon Smith, Armani Watts, several undrafted free agents.

Overall defense for 2018

I used the snap counts from the 2017 season, updated the roster, checked the PFF grades for each player and then made this table:

Chiefs Defensive Change from 2017 to 2018

Player Change Snaps Grade Change
Player Change Snaps Grade Change
A. Bailey 626 Avg
C. Jones 678 High Quality
RNR ► Bubble 392 Poor ► Poor
J. Jenkins 220 Below Avg
J. Hamilton 45 Avg
C. Thomas ► Bubble 15 Below Avg ► Below Avg
B. Logan ► X. Williams 572 Below Avg ► Above Avg
R. Miller ► D. Nnadi 77 Avg ► Below Avg
T. Kpassagnon 158 Poor
J. Houston 950 High Quality
DJ ► A. Hitchens 845 Avg ► Above Avg
F. Zombo 588 Poor
D. Ford 316 Poor
T. Hali ► B. Speaks 99 Poor ► Below Avg
KPL ► D. O'Daniel 251 Poor ► Below Avg
T. Smith 65 Avg
R. Ragland 322 Avg
R. Wilson ► Bubble 125 Poor ► Poor
U. Eligwe 65 Poor
K. Acker ► Bubble 208 Poor ► Poor
K. Reaser 50 Poor
M. Peters ► K. Fuller 967 High Quality ► Elite
S. Nelson 512 Avg
D. Revis 191 Poor
T. Mitchell ► D. Amerson 705 Poor ► Poor
P. Gaines ► T. Smith 419 Poor
D. Sorensen 991 Poor
E. Berry ► A. Watts 70 Avg ► Below Avg
E. Murray 438 Poor
R. Parker ► Eric Berry 1032 Poor ► Avg
S. Terrell 71 Above Avg
L. McQuay 46 Avg

Some Notes:
- The ‘►’ indicates a change. For instance, B. Logan ► X. Williams shows the change from Logan to Williams.
- The grades are from Pro Football Focus (2017).
- The snap counts are from 2017.
- Eric Berry is rated average because that’s what PFF graded him before his Week 1 injury.
- Eric Berry’s snaps replaced Ron Parker’s.
- Rookies were assumed to be below average.
- “Bubble” represents a player on the roster bubble who is currently competing for a spot on the team.

Pretty interesting table, eh? I liked it at least.

Obviously, there are some troubles with the data.

For instance, there is no way to know how many snaps players will have in 2018. Either way, I feel that using 2017’s snap percentages is the best approach for observing improvement (If you have a better way, please let me know in the comments).

Using the data above, let’s see how the Chiefs 2018 defense looks when compared against the Chiefs defense from 2017.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, even after an offseason of upgrading the roster, they still have the most “poor” graded players of the nine teams sampled in 2017. This is not good. Looks like Sutton has his work cut out for him again.

However, that doesn’t mean the Chiefs defense hasn’t improved.

Areas of improvement

Safety - The biggest area of improvement for the Chiefs defense going into 2018 is at the safety position. This is due to Eric Berry’s return.

Poor snaps in 2017: 2,461
Projected poor snaps in 2018: 1,429

Defensive Line - The second biggest area of improvement is along the defensive line. Xavier Williams graded much better than Bennie Logan in 2017. With Williams still being young, Chiefs fans should expect improved play at nose tackle in 2018.

Poor and below avg snaps in 2017: 1,299
Projected poor and below avg snaps in 2018: 704

Linebacker - DJ graded as an average inside linebacker in 2017, while Hitchens graded above average. This is the third largest area of improvement for the Chiefs defense in 2018.

Above avg and high-quality snaps in 2017: 950
Projected above avg and high-quality snaps in 2018: 1,795

Problem areas

Now comes the scary part: we’re looking at areas of weakness on the Chiefs defense.

NFL offenses thrive on attacking the weakest link of any defense. Teams would rarely throw the ball to Marcus Peters’ side of the field in 2017, and why would they when they have greener pastures elsewhere?

For the Chiefs defense, these particular areas have to be addressed if significant improvement is to be made.

Safety - The safety position was a major problem area for the Chiefs in 2017, as this position group posted a staggering 2,461 poor snaps. Fortunately, Eric Berry will be back, but that doesn’t change glaring issues with the second safety position.

Potential heroes: Daniel Sorensen, Armani Watts, Eric Murray, Leon McQuay

Is there anything to the “Berry makes Sorensen better” line of thought? I’m not sure, but either way, if Sorensen is going to be on the field in 2018, he has to play better than he did in 2017 (Sorensen posted a 40.7 PFF grade in 2017, which was the 82nd ranked safety...ouch).

Armani Watts has generated some excellent praise before taking a single NFL snap. Some have said he’s the most clutch player in the NFL draft, and others have said he’s in a prime spot to garner immediate playing time.

Brett Veach himself said the following about Watts:

“We didn’t anticipate Armani Watts falling that low” ... “This guy’s a really good player and we had some big grades on this guy.”

At a minimum, Sorensen and Watts should compete for a starting job going into the season. Unlike last year, the second safety position should be filled by the best player, rather than injury dictating who will play.

2018 outlook: Slightly better than last year

Outside Linebacker - Outside of Justin Houston, the 2017 Chiefs did not get much from their linebackers in terms of pass rush.

Potential heroes: Dee Ford, Breeland Speaks, Tanoh Kpassagnon

Dee Ford’s PFF grade at the end of 2017 was an abysmal 48.7, which was good for the 99th best edge defender last year. Ford will be playing in a contract season, but if his current trajectory continues, the Chiefs will part ways with him.

Aside from Ford, the Chiefs have young up-and-comers in Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon. Speaks has had a lot of praise before and after the draft.

Here are a series of quotes from ESPN’s Mel Kiper:

“He was dynamic (at Ole Miss)” ... “The games this year against Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State, he was unblockable.” .... “He runs well. Quick. Athletic. Didn’t have a lot of production before this year. I really like him as a 2nd or 3rd round pick.”

Veach also gave Speaks high praise in a segment in which he reviewed his film.

Not to be forgotten, Kpassagnon has also impressed scouts this offseason.

Mike Smith, the Chiefs linebackers coach, had the following to say about Kpassagnon:

“He’s just got to get better at using his arms, keeping people off of him. He’s good with steps—same thing with him dropping, he’s getting comfortable with that. But I truly believe this and I say it all the time with these guys around here—TK’s got a really bright future. He’s just got to continue to learn, like all these guys.”

The Chiefs appear to be playing the numbers game in areas of weakness, and I like the approach.

2018 Outlook: Better than last year

Cornerback - The Chiefs are putting a lot of faith in David Amerson, who was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus.

Potential heroes: David Amerson, Tremon Smith, Bubble Player

As of right now, the Chiefs should have competition for their starting nickel and dime CBs. This is probably the biggest question mark on the roster.

2018 Outlook: Same as last year, too many question marks

Depth - The Chiefs defense will be an injury or two away from disaster in 2018. If the Chiefs defense faces injuries, they will have to cope with poor depth players inheriting a large number of plays.

2018 Outlook: Major concern, just like last year

The big IFs

We’re going to play a little game here....

The Chiefs defense will be very good IF:

  1. Two of Tahon Kpassagnon, Dee Ford, and Breeland Speaks play as above average edge defenders.
  2. David Amerson or Tremon Smith plays as an above average cornerback.
  3. Daniel Sorensen or Armani Watts plays as an above average safety.
  4. They remain healthy.

The Chiefs defense will be “meh” IF:

  1. One or two of the draft picks turns into an above average defender.
  2. The younger players continue to grow and improve.
  3. David Amerson can play better than he did in 2017.
  4. Injuries are not a major factor.

The Chiefs defense will be bad IF:

  1. No rookies step up.
  2. David Amerson plays like he did in 2017.
  3. Dee Ford plays like he did in 2017, and Tanoh Kpassagnon doesn’t step up.
  4. Injuries pile up.

Key Players

I will be watching these players closely in training camp because they will likely have the biggest impact on whether or not the Chiefs defense will improve:

  • Breeland Speaks, Dee Ford, Tanoh Kpassagnon
  • Tremon Smith, David Amerson
  • Armani Watts, Daniel Sorensen

If we start to hear positive things about several of these players, it could be very good news for the defense. If the players struggle, we could be in for a long season.

So...will the defense improve?

Given the transactions, strength in numbers at positions of need and drop in players who played poorly in 2017, I believe the Chiefs defense will be improved in 2018.

The strength in numbers at position of need is very, very important and I commend Veach for adding so many pass rushers to the roster.

Having numbers at positions of need strengthens the Chiefs chances of landing a good player. I like the strategy, particularly at pass rusher.