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How the Chiefs can fix their defensive line

Drafting a defensive end in the first round is OK — but in this offseason, that can’t be Kansas City’s plan.

Arizona Cardinals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach likes to overcorrect. That might sound like a criticism, but it’s not. It’s just how he operates.

Veach was promoted to general manager on July 10, 2017. His first full offseason came in 2018. The Chiefs were coming off a 10-6 season in which the defense had finished bottom-5 in total defense. The Chiefs had just allowed more than 200 yards on the ground against Tennessee. Adding toughness and grit to the defense became the priority.

Veach spent all six of his 2018 NFL Draft picks on defensive players — although Kahlil McKenzie ultimately moved to the offensive line. Veach also went to the free-agent market to add linebacker Anthony Hitchens on a massive contract. It’s also worth noting that Marcus Peters was traded during that same offseason; the Chiefs (more or less) replaced him with Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith trade.

The offseason theme was clear: It’s time to get tougher on defense.

That offseason was a sign of things to come. The Chiefs again spent the 2019 offseason doing everything they could to overhaul the defense — starting with the defensive coaching staff. Steve Spagnuolo became the defensive coordinator. Justin Houston and Eric Berry were cut. Tyrann Mathieu, Bashaud Breeland, Alex Okafor and Damien Wilson were signed in free agency — and the team traded a first and second-round pick for Frank Clark. With Spagnuolo, Mathieu and Clark, Veach built an entirely new defensive identity.

It worked. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl the following season. The theme of the offseason?

Run it back.

So that’s what they did. The tweaks to the roster were minimal. Why fix what’s not broken? It was a reasonable plan until the Chiefs offensive line started breaking down. You remember what happened next. Patrick Mahomes was running for his life in the Super Bowl. The offseason’s plan was set into motion the night the Chiefs lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Fix the offensive line, no matter the cost.

And so they did. They traded for Orlando Brown Jr., signed Joe Thuney to a mega-deal, drafted two new starters along the interior and added depth in free agency.

Veach has developed a pattern from which we should learn: To fix whatever issues kept the team from winning the Super Bowl the previous year, he’ll use a sledgehammer on a fly. Honestly, it’s an admirable trait. With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Chiefs are constantly in win-now mode — and Veach knows it. The offseason is his time to prove it.

The 2022 offseason

This brings us to the 2022 offseason. Once again, the Chiefs had a fatal flaw emerge last season — and now is the time to fix it.

It’s time to throw more assets at the defensive line.

The Chiefs finished last season with just 31 total sacks. That was fewer than the likes of the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Only the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons had fewer.

Stats like that bring futures into question. As of now, it’s unclear if Frank Clark will be back. Jarran Reed, Derrick Nnadi, Alex Okafor and Melvin Ingram are free agents. The defensive line room is ready for another overhaul. But from where will those additions come?

This is where things get dicey. The last time Kansas City upgraded the defense, Clark was a prominent trade candidate. He priced himself out of Seattle with his play — and the Chiefs made him a priority as he entered what they believed would be his prime at just 26 years old.

Good luck finding such a player on this year’s free-agent or trade market.

The top pass rushers available in this year’s market are all older. The group includes Von Miller (33), Chandler Jones (32), Jadeveon Clowney (29), Randy Gregory (29), Emmanuel Ogbah (28), Melvin Ingram (33), Jerry Hughes (34) — and if he’s cut, Za’Darius Smith (30). The top trade candidate is probably Robert Quinn (32).

You get the point. This is not exactly Frank Clark 2.0 territory. Veach has mostly shied away from signing players of that age to multi-year deals. That’s typically a smart strategy — but in this offseason, it is not.

For Veach to fix the defensive line, he will have to be aggressive. That means overpaying for an aging veteran. It’s not a good position to be in — but when you’re looking for edge rushers in a market that strongly values such players, this is life.

The Chiefs can’t just get one, either. They probably have to come away with one high-level edge rusher and another solid veteran. A haul of Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram — for example — would give the Chiefs a solid starting point. You could replace Jones with Miller, Gregory, Smith or Quinn, and it would work just as well.

The job doesn’t end there, though. The Chiefs also need a long-term answer at the position. That means spending more draft capital on an edge rusher — likely in the first or second round.

I wish the Chiefs could fix their EDGE problems by simply drafting a player with the 30th pick and calling it a day. But this year, that simply won’t do the trick. In the last 20 years, only one player selected between the 20th and 50th picks finished his rookie season with at least nine sacks: Clay Matthews III back in 2009. Finding instant sack production from a late first-round defensive end isn’t likely to happen. Expecting anything different would be going against every available historical trend.

So — once again — overcorrecting will be the plan. For Veach, falling short is not an option — at least not after he watched his team fail to turn the edge against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game.

Veach saw the fatal flaw. He knows he needs to fix it. Now it’s time to get to work.

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