While the Kansas City Chiefs are enjoying their summer break, we’ll take a look at how we think the position groups are shaping up, and where we’re worried.
Today, we’ll look at the front seven. In the coming weeks, we’ll talk defensive backs, offensive skill players and blockers. This article — and the ones to come — aren’t going to be about debating who should make the team. We’re just going to take AP’s 53 man roster assumptions at face value and see how the Chiefs defensive front looks overall.
I’ll also leave the Xs and Os to the AP Nerd Squad, who are crushing it with pieces like this one. I’ll just spend this time talking about what’s possible — and what’s concerning — given the state of the team heading into training camp.
The beauty of this time of year is that it’s all about hope and projection; we aren’t constrained with current results or evidence. This is especially true after a dramatic rebuild like the one we’re witnessing on the Chiefs defense.
Nobody can tell you exactly how this team is going to look. We have some hints based on the past defenses of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the other assistant coaches like Dave Merritt, Sam Madison and Brendan Daly. It’s all projection at this point.
1. The pass rush has a chance to be as good or better than last season
At this point, we should start moving on from how they got here and start appreciating the potential of the new group — independent of who was in the old group.
Frank Clark and Chris Jones are elite pass rushers for their respective positions. Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Breeland Speaks, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Jeremiah Attaochu are all capable of getting four to six sacks apiece.
So before they even start blitzing (and they’ll do plenty of that), they’ll affect the quarterback from multiple places with a deep rotation. Just based on depth and unpredictability, they may very well be better than in 2018.
2. The run defense should be better as well
In large part, the New England Patriots won the AFC Championship game because they knew they could run on the Chiefs at will. Backbreaking runs late in the game on 3rd and 4th down, and the sense that the Chiefs had no chance to stop them on short yardage.
The Chiefs actually went into the 2018 season determined that their deficiencies against the run were personnel-based. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was both personnel and scheme. So in came Spagnuolo with a total scheme change — along with questions about how many of the returning players would fit.
The physical types of players Spagnuolo like are well documented. The Chiefs brought in a bunch of guys with the strength and length to rotate inside and outside, and with the ability to win one on one against linemen. Time will tell whether it will work or not, but it certainly appears they’ve invested enough in both scheme, coaching and personnel that the run defense shouldn’t be a glaring weakness.
What else can we ask for at this point?
3. More depth should help everything except individual stats
This year’s team can roll out a crazy array of combinations; nearly everyone across the front seven will be able to play multiple positions and keep opponents guessing. Teams likely won’t be able to stay on the field for 90+ plays on this defense very often — but when they do, the Chiefs just might have enough bodies to keep fresh legs on the field and get a stop when needed.
4. If you’re looking for camp intrigue, there should be plenty
- Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks: Which former second-round pick can carve out a role for himself? Maybe both. Maybe neither. Expect the Chiefs to give them both a lot of reps in camp to see if they can develop these guys. But given the new acquisitions, it’s possible that neither gets many snaps in the regular season.
- Darron Lee and Dorian O’Daniel: It’s safe to say that both are on the roster, but Lee is now what we are hoping O’Daniel would be. There’s room for more than one speedy linebacker that can cover, but it’ll be interesting to see how they divide up snaps — and if the Chiefs can use both of them together in sub-packages.
- Justin Hamilton and Xavier Williams: We haven’t seen either of these players in this defense, so we don’t know what to expect. But it’s quite possible they are competing for the final defensive line spot.
5. Two assistant coaches could be among the biggest additions of the offseason
Defensive line coach Brendan Daly brings his Belichickian teachings to Kansas City, where stunts and discipline can get production — even without elite athletes or big names. Linebackers coach Matt House takes over a revamped group after a celebrated college coaching career.
The new perspective of these two guys — along with Spagnuolo’s individual coaching style — could mean that we’ll see a higher ceiling and higher floor from the returning players. We have every reason to believe these guys will put the Chiefs front seven in positions to do what they do best. In offseason workouts, players have raved about the new coaching and the simplified approach that should have these guys playing fast without making as many mistakes.
What are the fears?
The fear is that the Chiefs are counting on hope.
They are counting on the idea that Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens are better than they showed in 2018. They are hoping that Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon can develop, but they aren’t counting on it; they brought in Clark, Okafor and Ogbah to play ahead of them. But at linebacker, they appear to be counting on Ragland and Hitchens to be starters in the base defense — and for Hitchens to be a leader and three-down player.
For either player, there isn’t much of an alternative on the roster; for the defense to thrive, these two guys have to be good. Yes... they will likely be in sub-packages 80% of the time, and they have some guys with speed to play on passing downs. But there aren’t any real challengers for the roles set aside for the “dynamic duo” of Ragland and Hitchens.
From the upside down:
We might actually be underestimating Frank Clark.
Look... I get that the trade was crazy. The huge draft compensation and contract could have ramifications for the Chiefs’ ability to make moves for the next few years. But Brett Veach and Andy Reid wouldn’t make a move like that if they didn’t feel they were getting a one-of-a-kind player.
So far, Clark appears to be just that. He can be an absolute game-wrecker with a non-stop motor and a nasty demeanor. He can win with speed or power in the pass rush or against the run. He’s proving to be a leader and motivator off the field, and giving offensive tackles fits on the field.
In short, Frank Clark is the personification of the Chiefs defensive rebuild.
So the question should no longer be, “Did the Chiefs give up too much for Clark?” Instead, the question should be: “How good can the Chiefs be with Frank Clark?”