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How the Chiefs can strengthen their interior defensive line this season

During the offseason, Kansas City will have to be proactive at defensive tackle.

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The coming NFL season will be the last in Kansas City Chiefs star defensive tackle Chris Jones’ current contract. So this offseason — in order to keep Jones from hitting free agency in 2024 — the team needs to make a decision about extending his deal.

Fortunately for the team, this won’t be a tough decision. Jones’ 2022 dominance — specifically down the stretch and in the postseason — has elevated his status. He is no longer just a very good pass rusher. Instead, he’s now an all-time great who has earned the right to be considered among the league’s best at his position.

Another important factor is that Jones is one of few interior defensive linemen on the roster. Derrick Nnadi, Khalen Saunders and Brandon Williams are all unrestricted free agents. Tershawn Wharton missed most of 2022 with a torn ACL — and is now a restricted free agent. Only Danny Shelton and Daniel Wise — both signed to reserve/futures contracts — join Jones in the position group.

Jones’ current contract gives him a $28 million cap hit this season — although an extension would almost certainly lighten that immediate load, freeing up desperately-needed cap space.

Who could be joining Jones in the trenches? Let’s look at some options.

Free agency

Washington Commanders v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Nnadi was also a free agent in 2022 before returning to the Chiefs on a one-year deal. He then continued in his role as the team’s early-down hole plugger who can eat double teams in the running game, but has to come off the field on passing downs.

In 2021, Kansas City tried to use free-agent acquisition Jarran Reed as a three-down player, both defending the run and rushing the passer alongside Jones.

While that didn’t work as well as the the Chiefs had hoped, Reed could still represent the kind of player they want to find. There are some free-agent players who could do the job — including the Philadelphia Eagles’ Javon Hargrave (age 30), the Washington Commanders’ Da’Ron Payne (26), the New Orleans Saints’ David Onyemata (30) and Sheldon Rankins (29) of the New York Jets.

Payne had 12 sacks in 2022, making him a franchise-tag candidate in Washington. Hargrave had 11, but is more likely to be available. Onyemata and Rankins are quality veterans who have each been disruptive pieces on good defenses in recent seasons.

If the Chiefs wanted to continue rotating in a specific player for passing downs, they’d still need to replace Nnadi’s early-down role. There are a few inexpensive free agents who could do that — including the Los Angeles Rams’ Greg Gaines (age 26), the Las Vegas Raiders’ Andrew Billings (28), the Indianapolis Colts’ Byron Cowart (27) and former Chief Rakeem Nunez-Roches (29) of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Gaines is fresh off his rookie contract with the Rams, holding up the middle during their championship run. He’d be the clear upgrade of this group — and may be able to demand a multi-year deal.

Trade scenarios

Denver Broncos v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With Washington likely to tag Payne, he becomes a trade target if the Commanders are not interested in paying him — and Kansas City is interested in keeping the 26-year-old around for more than this season.

The Chiefs could also the Carolina Panthers if Derrick Brown is on the block. While he only earned one sack last season, he defended seven passes and tallied 12 quarterback hits. Now entering his fourth season, the former first-round pick is waiting for Carolina to decide whether it will exercise his fifth-year option. Since the Panthers are starting a new regime, there’s a chance they’ll see Brown as an opportunity to add draft capital without losing a true cornerstone of the team.


Maryland v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

I’ll be honest: I chose to write about the interior defensive line just so I could say a few words about one of my draft crushes: Wisconsin defensive tackle Keeanu Benton.

At 6 feet 3 and 312 pounds, Benton is an enormous player. He has used that size to be a very stout A-gap defender against downhill Big 10 running offenses. While he can plug holes in the running game, he also has the movement skills to run the line of scrimmage on outside runs and jump gaps to avoid blocks.

That impressive movement (for a player his size) also shows when he rushes the passer, using an array of moves to get past pass protectors. When he gets after a quarterback, he has a plan — and he has the powerful hands (and motor) to execute it. He’s also comfortable looping around to the edge on stunts,

Currently, Benton projects as a second-round selection. If the Chiefs get the opportunity, they should draft him to pair with Jones. He could be that three-down interior player who could give Kansas City a more threatening pass rush on first and second downs, while also taking up plenty of space against the run.

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