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Where the Chiefs defense stands a month out from the draft

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With the big moves of free agency behind us, how does the defense now look for 2019 — and beyond?

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The free agent blitz has come and gone, and the NFL draft is a month away.

Going into the offseason, we expected that the biggest changeon the Kansas City Chiefs would be on defense. Thus far, that’s been the case. The firing of longtime defensive coordinator Bob Sutton led to the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo and the complete overhaul of the defensive coaching staff.

On the field, the departures of safety Eric Berry — along with linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford — cleared out a lot of the old guard; a defense that just two years ago had five former Chiefs first-round draft picks is now left with none.

While the Chiefs have made some moves — adding safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Alex Okafor, linebacker Damien Wilson and cornerback Bashaud Breeland — there are still some question marks on the defensive side of the ball. More free agency moves could still be made.

So let’s go through the Chiefs defense position-by-position. We’ll look at the starters, depth, and the future at each spot — and where the Chiefs may still add to the defense before the start of the 2019 season.

Defensive tackle

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When the Chiefs decided to let Allen Bailey test free agency, 2018 second-team All Pro — and now highest-drafted player on the Chiefs defense at pick 37 — Chris Jones has now become the longest-tenured defensive lineman in Kansas City.

With Ford and Houston’s departure, he is easily the biggest impact player in the front seven, and a lot will be expected of him as a three-technique in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under scheme — and as a sub-package rusher. He’ll likely start next to 2018 third-round pick Derrick Nnadi, who will playing as a one-technique in the base defense. But Nnadi will have to show some more flashes as a pass rusher to seriously contribute in the sub packages next to Jones.

The depth at the position is stronger than some others, with Xavier Williams and Justin Hamilton backing up Nnadi and Jones. Hamilton — a player that Brett Veach was high on after claiming him from the Green Bay Packers practice squad in 2017 — showed us some good moments last year.

Looking to 2020, there are significantly more questions than answers. While Jones has been touted as a priority to have his contract extended, 2019 is the last year of his current deal — and extending him will definitely be expensive. This is also the last year for Williams and Hamilton’s contracts in Kansas City, and both will need to have good years to be re-upped. Even with Jones re-signed and Nnadi on board for 2020, bodies will need to be added to the position.

The free agent cupboard is mostly bare; Ndamukong Suh or a returning Allen Bailey are the likely major free agent candidates left in 2019, but if either player ended up with the Chiefs, they might be on board for just a one-year rental. I’d expect the Chiefs to add another developmental player through the draft at this spot — if not an impact player early.

Defensive end

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots

The Chiefs have moved on from two of the three biggest components of 2018’s NFL-best pass rush, so there’s obviously major questions about this spot.

Currently the team touts last year’s second round draft pick Breeland Speaks as a starting strong side defensive end. While he is a decisively better fit as a defensive end in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under than he was in as a stand-up linebacker in Bob Sutton’s 3-4, Speaks still has a lot of questions about his productivity in the coming season. Okafor is currently projected to line up opposite Speaks, and fits Spagnuolo’s preferred profile of a long, smart defensive end that can stop the run well.

Behind the two starters is where things get dicey. Tanoh Kpassagnon — 2017’s second round pick — fits the size and length requirements to be a contributor for Spagnuolo, but his inability to get regular playing time thus far is a little concerning. Veach went out of his way to praise Speaks’ fit in the new system, but he didn’t mention Kpassagnon — which may be an insight into the way the Chiefs view him.

After Kpassagnon, the Chiefs have no proven players to take snaps — and with the rotation that defensive line coach Brendan Daly has utilized in the past, adding another body will be paramount. However, all three of the current contributors on the roster are under contract through 2020.

The free agent market at this position has all but dried up, leaving the Chiefs two options: either making a blockbuster trade to add another solid defensive end, or taking one early in the draft that can contribute immediately. With the depth of this year’s draft, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a player targeted in the upper rounds to help push Speaks and Okafor and add a little more pass rushing juice to the rotation.

Linebacker

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After the acquisition of fifth year pro Damien Wilson to man the Sam linebacker role in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under defense, the Chiefs finally have a starting set of linebackers. Wilson will primarily be a run-stuffer, and should come off the field in sub-packages to allow another cornerback on the field.

The Chiefs have publicly stated that Reggie Ragland will play the Mike linebacker position — with Anthony Hitchens playing the Will — but made sure to mention that 2018 third-round pick Dorian O’Daniel will have the opportunity to work into that lineup. With the Chiefs needing a rangier Mike than Ragland has shown to this point in his career — and needing a Will that can run with running backs in coverage — a starting lineup of Wilson, Hitchens, and O’Daniel seems the most likely outcome to start 2019.

But giving Ragland the opportunity at Mike does bode well for his position on the roster as a depth piece. His ability to play both the Sam and Mike positions in a pinch could help earn him a spot.

2018 undrafted free agent Ben Niemann is the other returning depth piece from 2019. He showed some nice moments in preseason last year, and he could also slot into the Mike linebacker spot in an emergency situation.

Of these players, the only player not under contract for 2020 is Ragland.

The Chiefs linebackers likely won’t undergo the same amount of rotation that the defensive line will, so having starters cemented makes this a lower priority for additions before the start of the season. I can see the team adding a player during cutdowns that can be a special teams contributor and be a depth Will linebacker. There are also several developmental Will and Sam linebacker prospects in the later rounds of the draft that could be targeted if the Chiefs want to add a player to play special teams and take over in the future.

Cornerback

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After the addition of Breeland (FINALLY!), the Chiefs have three players to man their sub-package defenses. Kendall Fuller — whom the Chiefs acquired in the Alex Smith trade last offseason — will man the cornerback position opposite Breeland in the base defense, and is a great fit as a slot cornerback in Spagnuolo’s pattern-matching zone defense. Charvarius Ward will likely enter games as a boundary cornerback when the Chiefs shift Fuller inside; Ward held his own at the end of last season after he arrived in Kansas City through a preseason trade.

Last year’s sixth-round pick Tremon Smith has so far been used primarily a kick returner, and needs to make significant improvements in order to be counted upon when needed in spot duty. D’Montre Wade and Step Durham round out the cornerback depth — and don’t inspire much confidence should any of the starters see injuries or a rough patch.

The future at this position is especially bleak. Currently, Ward and Smith are the only two contributing members that are under contract for 2020 and beyond. Breeland is on a one-year deal, and Fuller’s contract ends after this season. While the team could extend either (or both) during the season, they will need to show consistent, positive play to earn long-term deals.

With free agency all but done at cornerback, the Chiefs would have to make a big trade to add a contributing veteran. Giving up assets for a player like Xavier Rhodes or Ronald Darby has been discussed by Chiefs fans, and both moves would likely require giving up a sizable asset to get the job done. This year’s draft has some intriguing names that would certainly improve the depth on the squad, and I’d look for the Chiefs to add at least one player to the mix.

Safety

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The final position on the defense — and arguably the most settled — is headlined by Mathieu’s addition. His versatility in Spagnuolo’s coverage schemes should pay the dividends Chiefs fans have been hoping to see at the position for the last two years.

The other starting position is up in the air, with Jordan Lucas, Armani Watts, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray all under contract for 2019. With his range and versatility as a slot defender, Lucas is probably the best fit next to Mathieu, but Sorensen and Watts could bring something to the table in split-safety looks. Regardless, the Chiefs have plenty of depth after they choose the other starter — and Mathieu, Watts, and Sorensen are all under contract for 2020.

Should the Chiefs want to add a free agent, Tre Boston is still lurking on the open market, and has familiarity with defensive backs coach Dave Merritt. But if the team chooses to go with a late pick in the draft, there are plenty of players that could fit in the back end — along with some cornerbacks that could transition to safety.


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