This season, the Chiefs will trot out a mostly revamped secondary unit that replaces a 2018 group that was consistently seen as a problem. But have they improved enough?
Our prediction at this stage in the process features 11 defensive backs. The safeties feel pretty much set, with two new starters (Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu) and three returning depth players. But there is a little less certainty in the cornerback position, where a sixth-round pick and an undrafted free agent are the main hopes for improvement.
1. What if all the secondary does is communicate better?
Seeing guys in 2018 struggle pre and post-snap to know their responsibilities was beyond maddening. When Eric Berry made his cameo appearance on Thursday Night Football against the Chargers, he was visibly barking at guys in order to get them lined up. Now, with new leadership in place, both on-field with Mathieu and off-field with Dave Merritt and Sam Madison, things will be different. We think they’ve upgraded talent in the secondary, and will have a fresh defensive viewpoint. But if the least they do is figure out how to communicate and know what they are doing on the field, they will be better.
2. Will the “Honey Badger” be better than Eric Berry?
Look (in my Andy Reid voice), I love Eric Berry. He should have been an all-time great—not just in Kansas City but in NFL history. Sadly, because of injuries, we’ll see about the same amount of on-field contributions from Berry this year as we did over the last couple of years. On the contrary, the “Honey Badger” should actually be on the field, making a difference. This is a significant upgrade, because in part, we’re actually comparing the skills of Mathieu against the 2018 skills of Daniel Sorensen or Eric Murray. The leadership, communication, run defense and coverage should all make a difference this season, and that’s before you factor in Mathieu’s blitzing ability (Steve Spagnuolo shows a tendency to blitz his defensive backs) and the turnovers he might contribute.
3. Are the most pivotal players on the Chiefs’ roster cornerbacks No. 2 and No. 3?
Certainly not the best or most important—those titles are with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce on offense and Frank Clark, Chris Jones and Mathieu on defense. But, as we currently stand, the Chiefs are betting a lot on these two corners, and the range of outcomes is broad. Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward might continue their positive career trajectory and re-establish (or establish, in Ward’s case) themselves as competent NFL starters or better. Or, they could struggle— leaving the Chiefs with only one starting caliber cornerback on the roster. That would be a huge problem.
4. How will the scheme and coaching changes affect this group?
Pattern-matching coverage, different techniques, More zone, less man, simpler assignments, more three-cornerback groupings, less three-safety groupings—a lot is going to be different this year. That includes both of the assistants working with the defensive backs. Perhaps the new staff will be able to put these guys in better positions to succeed, instead of hanging cornerbacks out there on an island where they can get picked on by the league’s best quarterbacks. Perhaps the corners will benefit from more dynamic safety play. Frankly, I’m much less sure of the outcome for defensive backs as compared to the front seven. I’ll be really interested to see what they look like in camp. I’m sure Brett Veach will be as well.
5. Speaking of Veach, will he add a cornerback to the Chiefs secondary prior to the season?
It’s clear that Brett Veach was interested in drafting a cornerback earlier this year, based on episode one of “The Franchise,” among other offseason hints. Given the high-profile additions across the rest of the defense and the notable lack of significant investment at corner, it would make sense that they are still in the market for one. It also appears that the Chiefs structured other contracts to leave significant available cap space in 2019. Other than Chris Jones, what else do they need to spend money on? Perhaps the final defensive piece that could cement their status as a Super Bowl favorite?
From the upside down: in honor of SB Nation’s “What-If Week,” what if the Chiefs had signed Earl Thomas?
They were this close.
What if Baltimore hadn’t called, and Thomas was a Chief? How would this defensive back group look different?
There is a pretty good chance they don’t draft Thornhill if they already have Thomas and Mathieu on the roster. Maybe that 63rd pick is David Long or Justin Layne, a couple of corners that many of us liked. Each went a few picks later in the third round. Would we feel better about this defensive back room if it included Thomas and a third-round rookie instead of Thornhill and the current cornerbacks?
I’m pretty sure the Chiefs aren’t regretting the Thornhill pick, so perhaps it worked out for the better. But the team has been forced to work through a variety of alternate paths to address the secondary, and this is one that would have been interesting.