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Examining the Chiefs’ remaining options at defensive end

Kansas City invested a first-round pick in a defensive end, but the team could still be seeking a veteran to step in.

NFL: JUN 02 Kansas City Chiefs OTA Offseason Workouts Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you pick out a random Kansas City Chiefs fan at your favorite bar and ask them which position the team still needs to address before the 2022 season begins, the odds are very good that they’ll say that the team needs more help with its pass rush — specifically with edge rushers.

Since his inaugural 2019 season with Kansas City, former Seattle Seahawks star Frank Clark has been underwhelming — and while his contract restructure made keeping him for 2022 more enticing, he’ll have to perform at something close to his 2019 standard to make that worthwhile.

Meanwhile, 2020’s fifth-round draft selection Michael Danna has been solid (if unspectacular) as a rotational player. 2021 fourth-round pick Joshua Kaindoh appears to be talented but raw — and in his rookie season, we didn’t see enough of him to truly evaluate where he stands as an NFL player. 2021’s undrafted free agent Malik Herring spent all of last season on the team’s Reserve/NFI list, so we know even less about where he stands.

With this background, it was not surprising when Kansas City general manager Brett Veach thought that the team’s defensive line would be a top priority.

“I don’t think it’s far-fetched to think that we’ll prioritize the lines like we always do,” he said on February 2. “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.”

The initial free agency period

And that very well might have been Veach’s precise intention. But no one — including the GM — foresaw the explosion that was coming: a massive increase in salaries for free-agent wide receivers. Veach likely thought that the team would easily (and quickly) be able to sign wide receiver Tyreek Hill to a contract extension that would free enough cap space that the team could be a player in the free-agent market for pass rushers.

It was going to be expensive. As Brandon Kiley noted on these pages just before the league year began, no young edge rushers were available. The market was filled with “name” players who were going to demand top salaries.

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).

But as we know now, the Chiefs were unable to sign Hill. Even though the two sides were close to a deal, Hill’s agent Drew Rosenhaus saw the market rising — and wisely delayed the proceedings. Eventually, Kansas City had little choice but to trade Hill for as much as they could get — which turned out to be five of the Miami Dolphins’ 2022 and 2023 draft picks.

The draft

2022 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

By the time all that was settled on March 23, pass-rushers Miller, Jones, Gregory, Ogbah and Smith were all off the market. But the Hill trade (and other previous deals) allowed the Chiefs to come into the 2022 NFL Draft with a dozen picks, which they used to select ten different players — one of them being Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis, who was taken in the first round with the 30th overall pick. While seven of the Chiefs’ 10 picks were used for defensive players, Karlaftis was the only defensive lineman Kansas City took in the draft.

Was that going to be enough to improve the pass rush in 2022? In his analysis before free agency, Kiley didn’t think so.

The Chiefs can’t just get one [pass rusher], either. They probably have to come away with one high-level [player] and another solid veteran. A haul of Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram — for example — would give the Chiefs a solid starting point.

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.

Providing that he pans out in the NFL, Karlaftis will check off that “long-term” box. But the Chiefs would still need another veteran. Since the draft, however, all of the remaining top-level free agents Kiley had suggested — Clowney, Ingram and Hughes — have also gone off the market.

The second free agency period

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

At this writing, some edge rushers remain on (or have joined) the free-agent market. Here are some of the players Kansas City could be considering.

Jason Pierre-Paul has been in the NFL for 12 seasons — long enough to have played for Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo during his second stint with the New York Giants from 2015 through 2017. Now 33, he is a year removed from his best season since 2011, when he was named a first-team All-Pro after turning in 86 tackles (23 for loss), 16.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hits and a pair of forced fumbles. While his 2020 season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn’t quite so spectacular as his 2011 peak, it showed that he could still be a very effective player. His numbers, however, dropped in 2021. While his production was still well-above average, the Buccaneers nonetheless moved on. Spotrac estimates his market value to be $10 million per year.

Carlos Dunlap is another 12-year veteran who is currently 33 years old. But unlike Pierre-Paul, his recent use has been as a rotational player. He played in all 17 of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2021 games, but started only two of them. Still, he accumulated 35 tackles (eight for loss), 8.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and a forced fumble. After joining Seattle for eight games in 2020, the Seahawks had guaranteed him $8.5 million on a two-year deal worth a total of $13.6 million — but the team decided to pass on his $4 million salary for 2022. If the Chiefs believe they only need another solid rotational player while Karlaftis works through his rookie season, Dunlap could be that guy.

Justin Houston is also 33, coming off his 11th NFL season — the first eight of which were with the Chiefs. Fans still remember his All-Pro season in 2014, in which he led the league with 22.5 sacks. But in the years after that, he was never able to come very close to that peak. So in 2019 — with a new defensive coordinator shaking things with a new 4-3 scheme — the Chiefs released him, clearing $14 million in cap space. Playing for the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens during the last three years, Houston’s production has been quite comparable to his Kansas City career after 2014 — but he’s earned far less money; in 2021, he earned just $2.1 million on a one-year deal in Baltimore. Perhaps more importantly, he has been available, missing only two games since 2019 and starting all of the rest. Would the Chiefs consider bringing Houston back? And if they did, would he be willing to return? Stranger things have happened — but it’s probably prudent to avoid betting a lot of money on it.

Other free-agent edge rushers who might make sense for the Chiefs: Derek Wolfe, Benson Mayowa and Everson Griffen

The wild card

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Finally... a player Kiley mentioned as a trade candidate in March: Chicago Bears defensive end Robert Quinn. Drafted by the St. Louis Rams during Spagnuolo’s final season as the team’s head coach, Quinn is a 32-year-old who is entering his 12th NFL season — and the third year of his five-year contract. In 2021, he notched 49 tackles (17 for loss), 18.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles, which earned him his first Pro Bowl nod since 2013.

After such a performance, we wouldn’t typically even discuss the possibility of a trade. However, because it’s now after June 1, the Bears could clear $12.9 million in 2022 salary-cap space by trading Quinn, leaving $8.5 million in dead money for 2023. It’s possible that the team doesn’t care about that — Chicago currently has $21.4 million in cap space — but it’s also true that Quinn has sat out all of the team’s offseason practices, including mandatory minicamp. The word is that he’s not interested in being part of a rebuild in Chicago under new head head coach Matt Eberflus — and not for nothing, former Chiefs personnel man Ryan Poles, who is Chicago's new general manager. Like Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Eberflus might prefer volunteers to hostages.

We can’t consider this to be a likely trade — but because of the Spagnuolo and Veach connections, we must consider it within the range of possibilities. Under his current deal, Quinn would cost Kansas City $12.8 million in 2022 salary — but the team would have no real commitment to him after this season; he could be cut without incurring dead money against the cap.