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Justin Houston, Dee Ford and the switch to the 4-3 defense

Will someone be the odd man out in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense?

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday’s conference call with Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach addressed many topics, and one of them was the switch from Bob Sutton’s base 3-4 defense to Steve Spagnuolo’s base 4-3 defense.

I covered some of the scheme fits from the Chiefs current personnel in an insta-reaction post a couple weeks ago, but Veach’s conference call brought up a few more questions about scheme fits with the current personnel — primarily involving Dee Ford and Justin Houston.

One of the early questions Veach was asked regarded the fit of the current personnel into the Chiefs new 4-3 scheme.

VEACH: “Obviously, Chris (Jones) is a type of guy that can play in any scheme and having a premier pass rusher is a good thing to have, so Chris can do anything, he can play all along the line. Certainly, (Derrick) Nnadi will have a role as such a good stout run defender. Breeland (Speaks), most people and even our organization too, thought his natural fit was more of a 4-3 D-end, but we liked his versatility back a year ago as potentially a 3-4 5-technique, too. I certainly think that we have a bunch of versatility along the line there. Justin (Houston) and Dee (Ford) too, both of those guys can play in this scheme and do well. We like the pieces that are in place and we’re anxious to get this offseason started.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Veach couldn’t be more direct about Speaks’ fit as a 4-3 defensive end in the new scheme — which is his ideal fit. Nnadi garnered plenty of praise as a “starter” throughout the conference call from Veach, further enforcing his role in this team going forward.

The Jones comment was also interesting to me. By stating that he can play “all along the line,” Veach has indicated an ability for Jones to rotate in on occasion at strong side defensive end next year. This makes some sense — Jones would not have to set the edge but would still able to use his penetrating ability to close the C-gap. That’s also where Speaks should slot in, giving the team some versatility with Jones’ ability to play several positions effectively — although Jones should still primarily be a 3-tech.

That leaves just Ford and Houston’s fit along the defensive line and how the Chiefs will prioritize those assets. Even though Veach spoke to their fit above, when asked about each player individually, he echoed the same sentiment.

VEACH: “We are running a different scheme now and Steve (Spagnuolo) has had the chance to start the process on Monday of going through the roster and kind of look at these guys not knowing where they were drafted or how much money they are making. He will just give you a pure feel on strengths, weaknesses and how we can get better. And then we will throw our dialogue in there with the other information in regard to what we can do to get creative in regard to structuring things from a cap standpoint.”

While that speaks to the entirety of the personnel on the team, the fact that Veach went to that stance twice — once for each pass rusher — speaks volumes to me. Gushing about the flexibility, fit and potential impact of the other players on the defensive line — and then going with “Spagnuolo needs to take a look at these guys so we can look at the cap” for Ford and Houston — tells me that the team is evaluating both of these players and potentially moving on from one of them.

Barring new contracts or restructures, both players will be in excess of $15 million against the cap this year — Ford on the tag and Houston on his current contract. Spagnuolo will likely be looking for team speed at the SAM linebacker role, much like in his second stint with the New York Giants. That would leave two players in one role in the base defense — the weak side defensive end position.

Even in sub packages — more than 70 percent of the snaps — when two true EDGE defenders would be utilized more readily, Veach’s comments indicate that spending $36 million on two pass rushers would be a tough pill to swallow. With Spagnuolo bringing regular blitzes and mixing up the rush plan, I can see a path to fabricating pressure rather than simply relying on the front four.

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

When asked about Houston’s future with the squad — specifically a restructure to free up cap space and help the team out in 2019 and 2020 — Veach left the door open, but remained non-committal.

VEACH: “Certainly, Justin is a big member of that defense and a huge part of what we do. There will be a time and place that at a certain point we can go through some different scenarios, but no, we have not had that type of discussion yet. We are still early on in this process. Even though free agency and the league year is right around the corner, there is a lot of time to work through some of these questions and work through some things. And there are a bunch of different scenarios that could happen. You have a draft coming up, trade talks will begin at the combine. We have a lot of time. Justin being how valuable he is to our team is something that I am excited to talk to Steve about.”

When you compare that to the comments he made on Ford, there’s a definite difference (the emphasis in the quote is mine).

VEACH: “First with Dee (Ford), he had an outstanding season. He was at the top of his game. Really, when we drafted Dee (Ford) a few years ago, all those things that we envisioned for him, he kind of showed that he was that player...Obviously, Dee is a player that has done so much for us, in particular last year. We are excited about bringing him back.”

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

While the team still has a “wait-and-see” approach with both players, the last line from Veach is fairly telling. In multiple interviews, he’s stated the need for Spagnuolo to review the players and find which players fit in this rotation. However, only one of those players has been referred to as being “back” next year in Ford.

Spagnuolo will have the ultimate say in the matter, and it’s not out of the question that both could return under new contracts, but Thursday’s conference call may have given a glimpse into the potential future of the Chiefs best two EDGE rushers from 2018.

Based on Veach’s comments, Ford may be the current leader in the clubhouse for the starting weak-side defensive end in 2019.

Will Dee Ford be the starting LEO in 2019, or will Justin Houston? Did Thursday’s conference call change your opinion on the rotation in the front seven this year?

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