With all the attention on how the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense will react to player turnover this offseason, the defense may face an even more drastic adjustment due to the type of players they lost.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens and safety Tyrann Mathieu weren’t as shocking of departures as Tyreek Hill — but their intangibles and leadership abilities may be even tougher to replace. It’s not as easy as plugging in talented players or even signing experienced players that appear to be good culture fits — such as safety Justin Reid.
It takes certain players embracing that role and proving it with their actions on and off the field. At the current moment — five OTA practices into the offseason — Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is waiting for that new leadership to occur organically.
“We just look and see where it goes right now,” Spagnuolo told reporters during his Thursday press conference. “Some guys are natural, they step up. I’m in their ears once in a while giving a couple pointers here or there. We’ll see where it goes. I think it’s going to take a little time.”
The aforementioned departures weren’t the only veteran players to leave the Chiefs’ defense this spring. Safety Dan Sorensen and cornerback Charvarius Ward are no longer in the mix, and even a more minor role player with plenty of experience like Ben Niemann was not retained.
It all leads to the Chiefs defense being an extremely young unit; edge rusher Frank Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones are the true veterans of the group — and neither will be older than 29 years old for the upcoming season.
There’s turnover from the top of the depth chart to the bottom — and Spagnuolo isn’t wasting time trying to find out which of the newcomers can stick.
“There’s a lot of new faces, there’s youth, and the system is new to a lot of these guys even if they aren’t young,” Spagnuolo explained. “I’m throwing a lot at them right now, and they’re probably talking that way. Volume is huge right now for a reason, you find out who can and can’t handle it. We’ll never go into a game with all of this, so there’s going to be mistakes out there that I don’t think we’d normally make.”
“There’s going to have to be some growth within the game, so to speak,” Spagnuolo continued. “We’re going to have to live with some growing pains, I believe that; hopefully we can overcome that.”
The most expected growing pains should come from the rookies, which the defense has a lot of. Seven of their 10 draft picks were on the defensive side — including four of their five selections in the first three rounds.
There’s no way around the bumps in the road of a first-year player — it’s why Spagnuolo has traditionally leaned towards not starting rookies unless they’ve undoubtably proven it — but 30th-overall pick George Karlaftis impressed Spagnuolo in the pre-draft process, making the draft pick a welcoming sight for the defensive coordinator.
“It was the Zoom meeting that we had,” he revealed. “There was something about him that I said, ‘Boy, if we could get this kind of person in here,’ I think that would be an extra bonus in addition to the fact that he’s a really good football player.”
“I’m observing, I’m watching and looking at the faces — and I’m looking for body language,” Spagnuolo emphasized. “And this guy was just so into what we were talking about. He didn’t want to get off the Zoom call, he wanted more questions, and he just looked real hungry to me.”
Another young player that has given coaches reason for optimism in this new era is linebacker Nick Bolton. The second-year player is the natural replacement for what Hitchens brought to the unit before, and linebackers coach Brendan Daly sounded confident in the transition to a much bigger role than Bolton had in his rookie year.
“I was very impressed with Nick a year ago, with what he was able to do — particularly from a mental standpoint,” Daly shared with reporters during his presser on Thursday. “He’s one of those people where the more you’re around him, the more impressed you become with them. He’s grown from a mental standpoint, he’s grown from a communication standpoint, he’s grown from a leadership standpoint, it’s been really fun to watch — and impressive. It’s pretty amazing, the amount he’s handling at such a young age; there’s time I have to look and think ‘he’s only in his second year now.’ It’s fun to see.”
With not only new players but also new coaches — Daly moving to linebackers while new defensive line coach Joe Cullen joins the staff — there are plenty of things that could look different about the unit in 2022.
“We have to find out about the guys we have right now,” Spagnuolo asserted. “There are a lot of unknowns from a coaching standpoint; what can this guy do, can he do the same thing someone else did last year, that may or may not be the case. It’s going to take some time.”
Growing pains could be hard to watch at the start of the season — but it’s not like last year’s defense filled with continuity and experience started out hot either. The difference this year is the rough spots should turn into calluses on the hands of a young group looking to build towards the high ceiling they appear to have with their collective talent.
Until that blossoming happens, Spagnuolo and his staff will attempt to maximize the strengths of each individual and get the most out of this fresh wave of defensive playmakers.