As the Kansas City Chiefs begin Phase Three of the offseason program this week, all eyes will be on a revamped defensive unit. This offseason, the Chiefs underwent their heaviest change of defensive personnel since tearing the entire unit down following the loss to the New England Patriots in the 2018 season’s AFC Championship game.
Last week, we looked the 2021 snap counts for offense to see how vacated snaps might be filled. This time, we will look at defensive snaps. With free agents signed, a trade acquisition and seven draft picks spent on defenders, the Chiefs will not lack for competition at all three levels.
Snap percentages are based on regular-season totals published by Pro Football Reference.
66% of 2021 snaps are returning
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach began the offsesason by calling the defensive line his top priority. His actions this offseason have not exactly backed up that statement. A unit that disappointed last season has the most continuity on defense, returning the majority of its 2021 contributors.
An underwhelming EDGE position group saw midseason acquisition Melvin Ingram sign with the Miami Dolphins — and Alex Okafor remains unsigned. First-round selection George Karlaftis will likely be counted on to play a high number of snaps across from returning starter Frank Clark in Week 1, while the team will hope for contributions from 2021 fourth-round selection Joshua Kaindoh. Former Georgia Bulldog Malik Herring — who missed all of 2021 recovering from a knee injury — could also compete for a role. Third-year defensive end Mike Danna will continue to see a rotational role in the base defense.
On the interior, Jarran Reed signed with the Green Bay Packers in free agency. While the quality of Reed’s play last season can be debated, he had the highest snap count of any Chiefs defensive tackle. After completely passing on defensive tackles in the draft, Khalen Saunders, Tershawn Wharton and free-agent acquisition Taylor Stallworth (formerly of the Indianapolis Colts) will compete to fill Reed’s snaps next to star defensive tackle Chris Jones. Nose tackle Derrick Nnadi rejoined the team early in free agency. If he is over the nagging injuries that limited him in 2021, he could also see an expanded role.
With a number of veteran interior and outside options still available on the market, defensive line is where we are most likely to see the team add players prior to training camp.
47% of 2021 snaps are returning.
The Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV with an uninspiring linebacker rotation of Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann. Two years later, the Chiefs may boast the league’s most exciting young linebacking corps.
The Chiefs released Hitchens ahead of free agency — and Niemann remains unsigned. 2021 second-round pick Nick Bolton — who led in Chiefs’ tackles last season while playing less than 60% of the snaps — appears set to take over as the on-field defensive playcaller. Former second-rounder Willie Gay Jr. should also see his snaps greatly increase — particularly if he is given Niemann’s dime-defense role as the coverage linebacker.
Former Carolina Panthers starter Jermaine Carter Jr. joined the Chiefs in free agency. He appeared to be on track to have a rotational role — that is, until the team used a Day 2 selection at linebacker (for the third consecutive year) to take Leo Chenal 103rd overall. Carter still may see heavy usage early in the season, but we should expect to see Chenal establish himself in the rotation sooner rather than later. If the team’s pass rush continues to disappoint, Chenal could also see frequent action as a blitzer.
The Chiefs added Mike Rose from Iowa State and Jack Cochrane from South Dakota in undrafted free agency. They are likely to compete with Elijah Lee and Darius Harris to become the fifth linebacker. Their ability to immediately become special-teams contributors will likely be among the deciding factors.
46% of 2021 snaps are returning.
In this case, it’s not only the high number of snaps vacated, but also to whom they belonged.
This offseason, the Chiefs bid farewell to starters Tyrann Mathieu and Charvarius Ward, along with rotational safety Daniel Sorensen. While the quality of their play fluctuated during their time in Kansas City, they all played high snap counts — and all were crucial to the defensive culture that helped deliver a Super Bowl title. The Chiefs will also need to replace the snaps contributed by cornerback Mike Hughes, who signed with the Detroit Lions.
Third-year starter L’Jarius Sneed will return as a starting cornerback. In Week 1, he is likely to be joined by first-round selection Trent McDuffie, for whom the Chiefs made an aggressive trade to acquire in the draft. Assuming he recovers on schedule from offseason shoulder surgery, Rashad Fenton will also return to the cornerback rotation. If he is unavailable (or unable to meet his standard of play), former Houston Texans starter Lonnie Johnson, former New York Giants first-round selection Deandre Baker and 2022 Day 3 draft selections Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson will compete for defensive roles.
At safety, the Chiefs will count on free-agent signing Justin Reid to replace Mathieu and third-round selection Bryan Cook to take on Sorensen’s role. A preseason story to watch will be whether 2019 second-round pick Juan Thornhill shows the talent he displayed before a knee injury late in his rookie season — or if he is relegated to a situational role as the Chiefs retool the secondary around Reid and Cook. Free-agent signing Deon Bush will hope his special-teams value helps him hold off a host of young players competing to be the fourth safety — including seventh-round selection Nazeeh Johnson.