For as long as Patrick Mahomes is the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback, the defense is bound to be overshadowed. For a perennial Super Bowl contender, it’s a good problem to have — and the team’s fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
This offseason, the main talking points surrounding defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit have centered on Chris Jones playing defensive end — along with depth concerns at linebacker, cornerback and defensive end.
But when taking a step back to examine the defense’s potential in the grand scheme of things, there are actually several reasons to believe we are about to see the best Chiefs defensive unit in quite some time. Let’s take a look at some of them.
1. Spagnuolo’s Year 3: continuity for the veterans
When Spagnuolo was hired before the 2019 season, general manager Brett Veach immediately began to revamp the defense to align with his vision. An entirely new, high-quality defensive coaching staff was hired. The vast majority of those coaches remain in place for 2021.
This means that rather than having to get new coaches acclimated with players — or start anything from scratch — the defensive staff has been able to simply build upon the foundation they created in 2019.
This is great for the veteran players — especially for those who have been on the roster since 2019 or 2020. At this point, they all should have a firm grasp on the scheme and playbook, along with their own specific roles and responsibilities. For players both on and off the field, the communication component also stands to benefit — and for NFL defenses to play well, the importance of that factor cannot be understated.
Now three years into the process, this Kansas City defense has a full collection of players that Spagnuolo and his staff have truly coveted in order to execute their vision. That’s a good thing.
2. Key players have largely been retained
Building on the previous point, the Chiefs’ front office has not yet had to replace many significant contributors from Spagnuolo’s defensive squads. So far, the biggest departure would almost certainly be cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings in June.
This equation from the past two offseasons — where few impactful defenders have departed while Veach has continued to stock the defensive depth chart with new players who fit Spagnuolo’s scheme — is a recipe for greater production. Young, gifted draft picks like L’Jarius Sneed — as well as proven veteran signings such as Jarran Reed — all bring diverse skill sets that will allow the defense to function at a high level.
But it won’t always be this way. Some combination of these impending free agents could be with new teams in 2022: defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Jarran Reed, safety Daniel Sorensen, defensive end Taco Charlton and cornerback Charvarius Ward. Furthermore, players like defensive end Frank Clark and linebacker Anthony Hitchens could become salary-cap casualties — and although the expectation is that there will soon be a contract extension, All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu could also hit the free-agent market.
3. Young talent looking to break out
With the additions of several young, budding playmakers in recent years, Kansas City’s overall defensive team speed has been rising steadily. Already a significant name in Chiefs Kingdom, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed is aiming to earn his first Pro Bowl nod in 2021. Prior to an ACL injury, free safety Juan Thornhill was extremely impressive during his 2019 rookie season — and during the team’s 2020 playoff run, he really started to return to form. Another cornerback — former first-round pick Mike Hughes, for whom the Chiefs traded earlier this offseason — is lining up with the nickel-package starters in training camp. Second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is already off to a red-hot start in the early days of training camp, too.
Other potential key contributors looking to expand their roles and overall impact include defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton, defensive end Mike Danna, defensive end Taco Charlton, rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, cornerback Rashad Fenton, cornerback Deandre Baker — another former first-round pick. An underrated player to watch is undrafted free agent safety Devon Key, who was already lining up with the second-team defense on the first day of training camp.
The bottom line
The big caveat to all of this — which applies to every NFL team — is injuries. If the Chiefs can get by with a normal, average season in terms of defensive injuries, there is no reason they can’t ride all of this to something near a top-10 overall performance — not just in yardage allowed, but in the more important points allowed statistic, in which they finished 11th in 2020 and seventh in 2019.
This is before even considering the possibility that the team could add more quality players during camp — like first-team All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard, who has asked to be traded from the Miami Dolphins. While such a move could have questionable long-term implications, it would almost certainly boost this present Chiefs defense to one of the absolute best groups in the league.
With a defensive unit led by a superb coaching staff and a core of legitimate playmakers at all three levels, Kansas City has the necessary components to make the NFL take notice of more than just their Mahomes-led offense in 2021. It might take some time for the staff to identify where each player best fits in their scheme — but once that is figured out, the Chiefs defense should be fun to watch.