Three years ago, a crushing loss at home in the AFC Championship left the Kansas City Chiefs to overhaul their defense. The coaching staff was replaced — and so were many of the veteran starters. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired — and the signings of Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu followed.
That decision paid off handsomely — with two Super Bowl appearances and a championship — but three seasons later, expiring contracts and other salary-cap considerations may lead to another defensive transition.
It won’t be as drastic.
Spagnuolo and his assistants should be back for 2022, but a handful of key players on the defense will be unrestricted free agents when that phase of the spring begins: cornerback Charvarius Ward, edge rusher Melvin Ingram, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, safety Dan Sorensen, defensive tackle Jarran Reed and linebacker Ben Niemann — but none as significant as the veteran leader, three-time All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu.
One World Championship— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) February 1, 2022
Two Lamar Hunt Trophies
2x 1st team All Pro
1x 2nd team All Pro
2x Team MVP
More than blessed! Grateful
So much more to accomplish! pic.twitter.com/1eV0CpBgRD
John Dixon summed up Veach’s thoughts on Mathieu, which included his reaction to Mathieu’s cryptic tweet using the phrase “I leave with a grateful heart” in one post. He hinted at joining the Baltimore Ravens in another.
— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) February 2, 2022
Besides Mathieu as the headliner, Veach recognized the Chiefs’ need to stay strong in the trenches. The GM’s work on the offensive line last offseason paid huge dividends — so the side of the line of scrimmage needing the most attention is defense. Three key linemen will hit free agency as noted earlier, while defensive end Clark’s huge contract may require a closer look.
“On the defensive line, we’ll have some decisions to make,” Veach understood. “We’ll always prioritize the offensive and defensive lines. If you look at the track record that coach (Andy Reid) had in Philly and that I have carried over here, it’s always going to be: once you get the quarterback, you’re going to invest in the O-line and D-line. I think we did that early on with (Chris) Jones and Clark and (Jarran) Reed... I don’t think it’s far-fetched to think that we’ll prioritize the lines like we always do. Knowing that we have a good offensive line in place, defensive line probably makes the most sense. I think the defensive side is one that we’ll probably focus on right off the bat.”
With as many veterans hitting free agency, the Chiefs may feel the need to prioritize keeping one or two — just to have some continuity in veteran leadership. Even though he was in Kansas City for only half the season, Melvin Ingram made a noticeable impact — he looked like the best pass rusher of the group at times.
Veach deserves credit for continuing to pursue Ingram, who they courted in the offseason but couldn’t finalize a deal with then. After working a midseason trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers to acquire Ingram, this offseason will be Veach’s third separate negotiation for Ingram to be a Chief.
“With Melvin, I think it will be very similar to last year,” acknowledged Veach. “I think he’ll be a guy that will want to take his time. He’s played a lot of snaps, still a productive player, still can help the team, still would be of interest to us. I think he’ll go through the process of taking some time and getting with his family and seeing where he wants to play and what makes sense for him.”
“I do think if a guy like Melvin decides he wants to come back and play,” Veach continued. “I think that we would be at the top of his list, and that’s something we’ll work to keep the dialogue open with.”
Finally, the last big name to discuss as it pertains to Chiefs’ unrestricted free agents is cornerback Charvarius Ward, who is one of only a few starters that remained from the era before Spagnuolo.
Formerly undrafted, Ward might’ve had his most impressive season in 2021, playing in 12 games and breaking up 10 passes and nabbing two interceptions — both career highs.
“Charvarius [Ward] has done a nice job for us,” Veach assured. “He’s another guy you throw in that mix of the guys that are up that we’d like to talk with. I thought he has progressed every season and our staff has done a great job with Charvarius.”
Ward’s career season may have played him out of a negotiation with the Chiefs; Veach’s track record suggests he doesn’t want to invest long-term capital in the cornerback position. He has either drafted late-round cornerbacks or signed veterans to one-year deals — but he believes that track record could be misleading (more on that here from our Jared Sapp here).
All that adds up to a very busy offseason for Brett Veach, who will have to address nearly every position on defense whether through free agency or the draft. It could look a lot different in 2022 — but the new wave of core players like L’Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay and Nick Bolton will help smoothen that transition out.