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How the Chiefs can bolster their defensive line this offseason

General manager Brett Veach intends to make this group the strength of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.

NFL: DEC 12 Raiders at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During last year’s offseason, it was extraordinarily clear what position group the Kansas City Chiefs would emphasize improving most: the offensive line. This year, while no group stands out as the obvious major weakness, there are a wide variety of improvements general manager Brett Veach and his player personnel staff must make.

In his press conference last week, Veach made it known which position would headline the top of the priority list: the defensive line. Following the patterns of the previous five seasons for the Chiefs under Veach, fans can see that the staff values offensive and defensive linemen over any other position — of course, other than quarterback.

The defensive end — or “Edge” — position is particularly thin on this roster right now, and, luckily for Kansas City, there’s an excellent set of defensive end options entering the free-agent market — as well as toward the top end of the draft.

Based on Veach’s comments, we can expect a mini-overhaul for this position — a light adaptation to what we saw with the offensive line a year ago. In this article, we will dive into what we might expect Veach, head coach Andy Reid and the remainder of the staff to do as it pertains to creating a deep, strong set of frontline defenders.

Free agency

Let’s start with Kansas City’s current defensive linemen who are either set to become free agents or have significant decisions to be made regarding their salary cap numbers entering 2022. At defensive end, both Melvin Ingram and Alex Okafor are preparing to hit the open market. Defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Derrick Nnadi are likewise on the path to free agency. Defensive end Frank Clark — who currently holds a $26.3 million cap hit and 12.55% of the team’s projected 2022 cap space — will not return at that cost.

Finding a way to retain Ingram as the veteran voice within the room seems wise, and Veach was forthcoming about his desire to do so during last week’s presser. Ingram is expected to take his time deciding, so we might not hear about his status until deep into the summer.

Nnadi and Okafor have both had their share of productive moments with the Chiefs — Nnadi fought through some injury struggles this year that helped lead to a reduced role, but his run-stopping prowess along the interior could still be retained at a fair price.

There is a scenario in which Clark returns — albeit unlikely — and it would have to include a cut to his $19 million base salary. If the Chiefs are willing to offer him that opportunity, it might be something Clark seriously considers in the effort to bring down his cap number. Clark spoke about his love for Kansas City following the AFC Championship game last week:

Like last year’s offensive line rebuild, Veach will want to solidify his defensive line group with numerous starter-quality players before the NFL Draft. For example, the Chiefs targeted rookie center Creed Humphrey in last year’s second round, but they couldn’t assume he would be available at pick No. 63. This is why Veach went out and signed Austin Blythe pre-draft — a veteran who had started 33 games for the Rams in the prior three seasons. Veach will want to make similar additions to the defensive line at a minimum — because entering the draft with gaping holes is a recipe for disastrous reaching in early rounds.

The Chiefs should maintain dialogue with Ingram throughout the offseason, and if they expect him to eventually sign with the team, they will certainly keep that in mind as they sift through other options. If Clark is gone from this roster, we can expect Veach to sign another starting-quality defensive end in free agency — a solid, consistent player at the very least. Some mid-to-upper tier free-agent options to watch at defensive end include:

There are more where that came from, as well — see the full list here. Regardless of which player(s) you like most, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Chiefs enter the draft with third-year defensive end Mike Danna slotted as the team’s No. 3 defensive end, providing depth behind two starters. If the Chiefs enter the draft with Danna atop the depth chart and Ingram still a free agent, it would be a solid indicator that they expect Ingram to return to the roster.

As for defensive tackles, while a Nnadi re-signing wouldn’t be surprising, the Chiefs may trust former 2019 third-round draft choice Khalen Saunders to take on an increased role within the defense. If any additions are made to this position from the outside via free agency, some of the older players looking to play in a reduced role as they chase a Super Bowl ring could make a lot of sense.

The NFL Draft

Teams can truly never have enough pass rushers — it isn’t hyperbole. When we examine Super Bowl champions and even runner-ups of the past decade, these rosters almost always include six, seven or even eight good defensive linemen by the time the playoffs begin.

This is brought up because even if Veach does add several good defensive linemen during the initial phases of free agency, it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t still be a top priority early in the draft. Early indications are that this draft class is relatively deep with quality defensive linemen as teams work through the entirety of the first round. Every year, it is challenging to find dynamic pass rushers after the first 40 to 50 picks.

If Kansas City is open to taking an edge rusher or defensive tackle when they pick in the first round — currently slotted for pick No. 30 — some names to watch include Jermaine Johnson II (Florida State), Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt (Georgia), David Ojabo (Michigan), Cameron Thomas (San Diego State), Boye Mafe (Minnesota), Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina), and Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State).

Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II

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Johnson II is an early favorite of mine personally, and he is quickly rising on draft boards after dominating during Senior Bowl practices last week. He has the look of a three-down player who can transform a defense with his tenacity, power and overall athleticism. If Kansas City has to trade up even a handful of spots to acquire that level of talent, it will make a ton of sense.

The most likely possibilities for top-100 draft selections will become much more apparent once we see how positions are solidified via free agency — but given Veach’s propensity to value the position and his understanding of the role it plays in winning championships, betting on the Chiefs to pick a defensive lineman in round one would be wise.

Regardless, here is one thing we can count on to come to fruition above all else this offseason: the Chiefs are going to load up on good defensive linemen — and we expect a lot of them.