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Shocker: the Chiefs’ defensive line actually performs above expectation

All season, we’ve wondered if the Kansas City defensive line is worth the money being spent on it. It is.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

If I took a survey of Kansas City Chiefs fans and their biggest complaints about the team, one of the most common complaints would likely be about the lack of pass rush from the defensive line. This season, I’ve spent a fair amount of time covering the topic — and looking at the weekly film. it does appear to be an issue.

But the stats don’t necessarily back that up. As of Week 15, the Chiefs rank fourth in both total pressures and sacks and eighth in overall pressure rate. It’s true that some of this is because Kansas City is 13th in blitz rate. Still, the numbers show that the Chiefs have been one of most league’s most effective teams at getting to the quarterback.

This conundrum has fascinated me. How could we think that the pass rush isn’t producing well enough when every statistic indicates the team’s pass rush is strong? Are the Chiefs underperforming on the defensive line relative to the investment that the organization has placed in that unit?

I decided to take a look — and found some surprising results.

Pressures and sacks by defensive linemen in 2022

Because Kansas City blitzes a lot, I wanted to isolate defensive line pressures and sacks from overall team pressures and sacks. For example, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has 10 pressures and 3.5 sacks on the season, which would affect some of those totals. In this way, I could get a true understanding of how the defensive line is performing when compared to the rest of the league. Here’s how that looks across the whole league.

Team Press Rnk Sacks Rnk
Patriots 125 1 31.5 7
Cowboys 124 2 52.0 1
Eagles 123 3 51.0 2
Titans 122 4 35.0 3
Bills 117 5 32.0 6
Jets 115 6 35.0 3
Jaguars 114 7 23.5 21
Dolphins 111 8 23.0 24
Chiefs 108 9 30.5 9
49ers 107 10 31.0 8
Cardinals 106 11 25.5 17
Commanders 105 12 28.0 14
Giants 105 12 24.5 20
Vikings 105 12 29.0 11
Bengals 104 15 18.5 30
Colts 101 16 34.0 5
Lions 95 17 23.5 21
Panthers 88 18 25.0 18
Broncos 87 19 29.5 10
Raiders 86 20 20.0 28
Packers 85 21 23.5 21
Seahawks 84 22 29.0 11
Buccaneers 83 23 27.0 16
Texans 79 24 22.0 25
Ravens 78 25 28.5 13
Steelers 78 25 25.0 18
Saints 76 27 28.0 14
Browns 72 28 22.0 25
Chargers 64 29 19.0 29
Rams 64 29 21.0 27
Falcons 62 31 15.5 31
Bears 55 32 8.5 32

Note: All data comes from Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Defensive Stats

When considering only the production of defensive linemen, the Chiefs rank ninth in both in total pressures and sacks. Being in the top 10 in either pressures and sacks is a strong indicator of good performance — and the Kansas City’s defensive line meets both of those qualifications.

Resources spent on defensive linemen in 2022

With this information in hand — but considering the Chiefs rank first in 2022 cap spending and fourth in 2022 cash spending on the defensive line — is it fair to say that the team’s defensive line is underperforming when compared to the resources used there? Using only those metrics, you can easily conclude that this might be true.

But is that a fair way of judging the resources used on a position group?

For example, defensive tackle Chris Jones’ 2022 cap dollars are at $29.4 million, compared to Cleveland Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett at $12.9 million — even though Garret’s annual salary is $5 million more. So it makes more sense to judge the salary resources used for a player by their APY (average per year) value. So I acquired these figures for all of the league’s defensive linemen. Every $1 million in APY was given a value of one point.

But what about the draft resources used? Those should also be part of the equation. So I also gave point values to the draft resources used for each player, assigning points on this scale:

  • Top 10 pick = 10 points
  • Other first-round pick = 8 points
  • Second-round pick = 6 points
  • Third or fourth-round pick = 4 points
  • Fifth to seventh-round picks = 2 points
  • Undrafted free agents = 1 point

When players changed teams during the season, I made adjustments, For example, Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Jerry Tillery is worth 8 points to the Los Angeles Chargers since he was a first-round pick from that organization — but is only worth 2.9 points to the Raiders, since they didn’t invest that resource into Tillery.

After assigning a value to each defensive lineman in the league, I totaled up all the points from every team. Here’s how that plays out.

Team Resources Rnk
Eagles 109.9 1
Chargers 86.9 2
Steelers 77.3 3
Raiders 75.2 4
Dolphins 73.7 5
Rams 72.9 6
Colts 72.4 7
Buccaneers 72.2 8
Bills 67.7 9
Packers 67.1 10
Broncos 66.9 11
Jaguars 66.4 12
Jets 66.3 13
Vikings 66.2 14
Lions 66.1 15
Seahawks 66 16
Bengals 64.9 17
Titans 64.8 18
Giants 61.5 19
Browns 61.3 20
Patriots 61.1 21
49ers 59.8 22
Chiefs 58.9 23
Cowboys 58.6 24
Commanders 57.8 25
Saints 55 26
Ravens 51 27
Cardinals 48.8 28
Panthers 46.3 29
Falcons 40.7 30
Texans 38.4 31
Bears 35.4 32

The Chiefs rank 23rd in total resources spent on their defensive line. Relative to the rest of the league, Kansas City is actually using significantly fewer resources.

Pressures and sacks based on resources used

Then I wanted to see how the total defensive line production compared to the resources being used. In this scatter chart, the teams more towards the upper left (above average in production, but below average in resources used) are doing better. The blue dashed line represents the league average.

Here we see the Chiefs are actually doing pretty well. While some teams are getting more production for a similar outlay in resources, the Chiefs aren’t overspending for the production they’re getting.

We see similar results when we compare sack production to resources used.

Here we see that most of the league’s teams are clustered much more closely to each other — but with a handful of significant outliers. The Chiefs are still in pretty good shape. Don’t forget: we’re only looking at production from the defensive line.

If you’d rather see that same data in numeric form, here it is.

Team Press/Rsrc Rnk Sack/Rsrc Rnk
Cardinals 2.17 1 0.52 7
Cowboys 2.12 2 0.89 1
Texans 2.06 3 0.57 2
Patriots 2.05 4 0.52 10
Panthers 1.90 5 0.54 5
Titans 1.88 6 0.54 4
Chiefs 1.83 7 0.52 9
Commanders 1.82 8 0.48 12
49ers 1.79 9 0.52 8
Jets 1.73 10 0.53 6
Bills 1.73 11 0.47 13
Jaguars 1.72 12 0.35 24
Giants 1.71 13 0.40 19
Bengals 1.60 14 0.29 29
Vikings 1.59 15 0.44 18
Bears 1.55 16 0.24 31
Ravens 1.53 17 0.56 3
Falcons 1.52 18 0.38 20
Dolphins 1.51 19 0.31 27
Lions 1.44 20 0.36 23
Colts 1.40 21 0.47 14
Saints 1.38 22 0.51 11
Broncos 1.30 23 0.44 16
Seahawks 1.27 24 0.44 17
Packers 1.27 25 0.35 25
Browns 1.17 26 0.36 22
Buccaneers 1.15 27 0.37 21
Raiders 1.14 28 0.27 30
Eagles 1.12 29 0.46 15
Steelers 1.01 30 0.32 26
Rams 0.88 31 0.29 28
Chargers 0.74 32 0.22 32

The bottom line

This certainly isn’t a perfect measure for defensive line performance. Not all sacks and pressures are made equally. Factors like injuries — or how much is spent on the defensive line — can swing some of these statistics. The eye test — as always — still matters with these results, too. By that standard, I generally agree that the pass rush from the Chiefs’ defensive line hasn’t been consistent.

Still, what this analysis shows is that Kansas City’s defensive line is actually performing well above the expectation set by the investment made into it. Even though the Chiefs rank first in cap spending on the defensive line this year, taking a fairer long-term perspective shows their overall resources spent are much closer to the bottom of the league. Some of that is because the team only pays two pass rushers — Frank Clark and Chris Jones — significant money. But it’s also true that Kansas City is not spending on the defensive line at a level consistent with most other contenders.

Even without the larger investments made by other clubs, the Chiefs are getting good performance from their defensive line. Being top 10 in total pressures, sacks, pressures/resources, and sacks/resources are all indicators that a defensive line is giving a good return on the investment made in it.

One could argue that Kansas City needs to spend more on the defensive line. That’s a fair point — but in terms of the team’s investment in the defensive line, it’s performing above reasonable expectations.

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