Approximately a year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were getting ready to start training camp with an almost entirely new defensive staff. While the focus was largely on Steve Spagnuolo’s introduction to Kansas City — hello, Summer of Spags — it was also the start for a group of defensive assistants new to the Chiefs.
We at Arrowhead Pride spent a lot of time discussing an all-star assistant coaching staff last offseason. Adding Brendan Daly, Matt House, Dave Merritt, and Sam Madison had Chiefs fans placing some high expectations on a quick defensive turnaround. Lo and behold, all of these coaches made their presence felt developing depth and installing Spagnuolo’s scheme en route to a Super Bowl championship.
The NFL managed to let the Chiefs keep all of these Super Bowl-winning assistant coaches, returning the entire group for the 2020 season. With the adjustment period out of the way for the new defensive staff — and the majority of the personnel returning — what is it that Chiefs fans could expect from this group in year two?
Brendan Daly got the most out of an injury-riddled group in 2019, so simply having healthy bodies should make for an easier task in 2020. He was able to maximize the talents of Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Derrick Nnadi. Each player returns with a better understanding of the scheme, and Clark and Jones could have a healthier year to help increase production.
Daly doesn’t have many new players to work with along the line. The most notable addition this offseason is Mike Danna — admittedly a Daly pet project. However, Daly was able to develop raw players in Tanoh Kpassagnon and Khalen Saunders and was able to turn castoffs in Emmanuel Ogbah and Mike Pennel into major contributors. Based on the returns from last year, it’s reasonable to expect that Daly is doing to help his defensive linemen climb every developmental rung that they can in 2020.
Steve Spagnuolo trusts his assistants to bring new concepts to the table, and he isn’t afraid to implement their suggested wrinkles. Daly’s stunts and twists were prevalent in 2019, and should only get more complex with the foundational blocks laid. I would expect Daly to play a significant role in developing pressure packages, and I anticipate some exotic blitzes in the early big games to rattle teams adjusting to the COVID offseason.
Matt House had his work cut out for him in 2019. The Chiefs entered the offseason with Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Reggie Ragland, Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel on the roster. They added Darron Lee in May to try to improve their speed and instincts at the second level and tasked House with their development. Lee started the year at the WILL linebacker spot but was replaced after a poor game against the Houston Texans. Wilson was moved to the WILL and Ragland took his spot at the SAM, kickstarting some better performances against the run to finish the season.
By and large, the linebacker play in Kansas City wasn’t up to snuff in 2019, but the Chiefs get to start 2020 off in a better situation due to returning personnel. Hitchens and Wilson know the structure of the front better and should be able to play faster from the start of the year. I expect House to get the best version of Wilson early, and I expect Hitchens to be better as he’s not having to learn a new scheme this year.
House does get a super-athlete added to the mix in rookie Willie Gay Jr., expected to play the SAM linebacker early in the year. If House can develop Gay quickly, he could take over from Wilson on passing downs and make the Chiefs more dynamic in their sub-packages. While House has his work cut out for him again in 2020, with less scheme to teach and a higher ceiling athlete in the group, he might help the linebacker group make the biggest jump on the defensive side of the ball.
Dave Merritt is the overall coach for the defensive backs, but his expertise is in safety play. In 2019, we saw that expertise in full display. Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best defensive players in the league last year, exceeding expectations to become a true leader and impact player for Spagnuolo’s defense. While Mathieu’s dominance may have been expected by most, even Juan Thornhill’s most ardent supporters pre-draft could not have expected the impact the rookie safety would have in 2019. Merritt was able to get the most out of Thornhill immediately and his developmental growth curve was accelerated because of it.
Dan Sorensen grew from a role player to a major contributor in 2019 under Merritt’s guidance. No longer just a “depth piece”, Sorensen’s impact plays are needed to tell the story of the Chiefs Super Bowl season. Kendall Fuller — miscast as a slot cornerback early on for Spagnuolo — was able to step in at the end of the year and played arguably the best football in his career at safety with Merritt as his coach.
The personnel is largely the same, so Merritt’s task in 2020 is mostly developmental in nature. Mathieu is expected to have yet another All-Pro year, but Thornhill could find himself climbing into the upper echelons of safety play with his current tutelage. Merritt will have to develop some depth pieces into potential contributors, but if 2019 is any example, the Chiefs’ fourth and fifth safeties are in good hands.
Finally, Sam Madison may have done the most with the least in 2019, proving his addition an extremely important one for Spagnuolo. The Chiefs were near the bottom of the league in spending at the cornerback position. They didn’t invest heavily in free agency or the draft, which was a bit of a surprise for Spagnuolo. Nevertheless, Madison was able to get Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton up to speed quickly for the defense.
All three players return in 2020, but Madison gets some new toys to play with as well. The Chiefs spent draft capital in some raw, athletic cornerbacks to put some length and speed on the field. Both L’Jarius Sneed and BoPete Keyes are ballhawks, giving Madison a nice foundation to build upon in their development. Madison was practically giddy in the post-draft press conferences for each player, and rightfully so. If Madison can accelerate the growth curve for these new cornerbacks, their ceiling is especially high.
Madison could be without Breeland as a starting cornerback at the beginning of 2020, likely thrusting Fenton or Sneed into the lineup Week 1. The preparation that Madison brings to the room should have these players ready to go early in the season. I’m keeping an eye on Sneed and Keyes as the season goes along to see if Madison can work his magic yet again and get these high ceiling players to hit significant developmental milestones.
The bottom line
When the Chiefs made such a significant investment in the defensive coaching staff for 2019, there was plenty of buzz about the turnaround they could help make. Through the early part of the season, some fans doubted their effectiveness and the assets spent to obtain these coaches. By the time the playoffs rolled around and the defense was performing closer to its peak efficiency, the efforts of Daly, House, Merritt and Madison became more clear.
In 2020, Spagnuolo once again will lean on these excellent assistants to help repeat as champions. If those coaches perform as they did in 2019 — or better — the entirety of the league may just regret not poaching a member or two of the Chiefs en route to another Super Bowl.