On Wednesday, the football analytics site Pro Football Focus published an article ranking all 32 NFL defenses going into the 2020 season.
The day before, PFF’s Anthony Treash had ranked the Kansas City Chiefs offense as the league’s best.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The reigning Super Bowl Champions are here for obvious reasons. For starters, they have Patrick Mahomes, who is on the path to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. The Super Bowl 54 MVP has produced the second-best PFF grade at the position (93.7) in his two years starting for the Chiefs, and he has recorded the second-most big-time throws in the NFL over that time (87, 11 more than third).
And, of course, when you pair a talent like Mahomes with a wide receiver like Tyreek Hill, you get fireworks. On targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield since 2018, the Cheetah ranks first in receiving grade, catches (34), yards (1,269) and touchdowns (12). He’s also been charted as “open” — per PFF’s QB charting data — on 22 targets over that same span, six more than anyone else.
As long as everyone stays healthy, it’ll be hard for any defense to stop this passing attack in 2020.
But on Wednesday, Treash wasn’t nearly as high on the Chiefs’ defensive unit, ranking them in the middle of the pack.
17. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have a couple superstars on their defense. Interior defensive lineman Chris Jones he has firmly established himself as the second-best 3-tech in the NFL behind Aaron Donald these last couple of seasons. He’s produced a 93.2 pass-rush grade at the alignment in that span, well ahead of third at 90.7.
The “Honey Badger” — Tyrann Mathieu — is a versatile piece and great wherever he is on the field, but his slot coverage came in huge for the Chiefs down the stretch in their Super Bowl run. Matheiu’s usage there increased during the season and no one played better there in the second half. From Week 11 through their Super Bowl victory over the ‘Niners, Mathieu produced the highest slot coverage grade in the NFL and led the league in plays made on ball with seven.
Treash had the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills as the league’s top defenses. The Chiefs will face three of those units in 2020, so we’d better hope that Treash’s confidence in the Chiefs’ offense is well-justified.
Of course, these rankings tend to be based largely on PFF’s ratings of individual players. Over the past couple of weeks — while NFL teams have been cramming five or six weeks of training camp into about half of that time — PFF has been releasing their rankings of the top 25 players in each defensive position group. One Chief made the list of top interior linemen.
3. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
The other player with a very good claim to be seen as the best non-Donald player at the position is Chris Jones. We saw the kind of direct impact he can have on a game in the Super Bowl when he batted down a couple of key passes and flashed the ability to dominate up front. Jones trails only Donald over the past two seasons in pass-rush win rate (18.6%) and has shown a consistent knack for those batted passes, with seven in just those two regular seasons of play. Jones has quickness and power and is a well-rounded pass-rush threat. The Chiefs did good business by locking him up long term.
This is completely fair; Jones is clearly among the league’s best players at his position. He was preceded by the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Fletcher Cox, while Grady Jarrett of the Atlanta Falcons and Calais Campbell of the Ravens rounded out the top five.
In PFF’s estimation, just one Chief deserved mention in their ranking of top 25 edge defenders.
25. Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs
Frank Clark’s best 20 plays are as good as any edge rusher’s in the league. His issue is the next 20 and beyond. He remains more an example of a “can-do” player who has the skills to be the best in the league but just doesn’t showcase them consistently the way the players at the other end of this list do. Clark has topped 55 total pressures in each of the past three seasons, but he has yet to break 70, and his run defense has been good, not great. Clark’s ability is rare, but his consistency is what keeps him below 24 other edge rushers.
Even Clark would be likely to acknowledge that he didn’t have the season he wanted (or expected) in 2019. If he can remain healthy through the 2020 campaign, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be a player more like he was through the latter part of the regular season — and especially the postseason — where he made key plays in big moments. In addition, the veteran leadership he has brought to the Chiefs is difficult to quantify; he played a role in making the defense come together in the stretch run.
Speaking of team leaders... PFF had one more Chief who made one of their lists: the top 25 safeties.
6. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
We’ve talked about the impact Mathieu’s versatility brought to the Chiefs’ defense last season, allowing them to play fewer players in positions where they could be exploited. Part of that for Mathieu was significant playing time in the slot in 2019 — a position he has played often throughout his career and has played well. Since entering the NFL in 2013, Mathieu has earned the fourth-highest slot coverage grade in the league, and his 13 interceptions when lined up in the slot are five more than any other player. With the departure of Kendall Fuller and limited cornerback depth, he should see a heavy workload in the slot again in 2020.
Mathieu was ranked behind the Seattle Seahawks’ Jamal Adams, the Minnesota Vikings’ Anthony Harris, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James (who will now miss the season with a knee injury), the Vikings’ Harrison Smith and the Tennessee Titans’ Kevin Byard.
But again, Mathieu’s leadership skills simply cannot be measured; his ability to help the defense succeed goes well beyond his substantial on-field skills.
So by PFF’s reckoning, just three Chiefs defenders are among the league’s best at their positions; they didn’t name any Kansas City players to their rankings of top linebackers or cornerbacks. Most Chiefs fans would likely agree that these areas are where the Chiefs defense is weakest. On that basis, ranking the team’s defense somewhere around the middle is not unjustified.
But this ignores the work of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who in 2019 became the first-ever NFL coordinator to win a second Super Bowl with another team. While PFF didn’t name him as one of the league’s top defensive playcallers — as they did with head coach Andy Reid — Spagnuolo has nonetheless displayed an impressive ability to get the most out of the players available to him, designing schemes that can be successful against specific opponents. Halfway through his first season with the Chiefs, his defense started to grasp how (and what) he was doing — and began playing at a level significantly above its collective talent.
If the defense can keep that going from the beginning of the 2020 season, it stands to be much more effective than PFF is advertising.