The primary waves of NFL free agency have washed to shore, leaving the Kansas City Chiefs with four external signings — including three on defense: defensive lineman Charles Omenihu, linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Mike Edwards.
Omenihu is the only one of the trio that signed a deal lasting past 2023, agreeing to a two-year contract that has low guarantees in the second season. Each defender is 27 years old or younger, meaning they're all in a position to earn another contract. That's especially true for Edwards and Tranquill, two players who had the most impactful seasons of their careers as starters last year to finish their rookie deals.
The question is, could these players earn that next deal from the Chiefs? While Omenihu is used to being a rotation player, Tranquill and Edwards have the starting experience to compete at the top of the depth chart. In Kansas City, that will mean challenging incumbent players — and potentially surpassing them as long-term options in the Chiefs' view.
I wanted to take a closer look at how Tranquill and Edwards can change the makeup of the Chiefs' defense for both the short and long term.
Tranquill will become the oldest linebacker in a group that has added a draft selection within the top 100 in each of the last three NFL Drafts. With the Los Angeles Chargers in 2022, Tranquill led the team in defensive snaps — staying on the field in every package.
The system fits Tranquill, allowing him to use his athleticism and ball skills to cover over the middle of the field but also blitz as a pass rusher. It's exactly what Kansas City has valued in its dime linebacker — to join six defensive backs on the field for a pass down. Linebacker Nick Bolton held that role last season as a three-down linebacker, but this acquisition may signal a move back to using a different player when getting into these packages; that player was Ben Niemann in prior seasons.
This strategy theoretically keeps Bolton fresh to be an impact player against the run on early downs, which he does best. The situational player coming in would also have fresher legs than Bolton after two or more snaps.
However, Tranquill has proven to be better than just a situational player, and it's why Kansas City had to agree to a deal that could pay him up to $5 million next season. He will compete for the starting WILL and BUCK linebacker positions, the weak-side linebacker spot currently occupied by Willie Gay Jr.
Tranquill and Gay will be motivated to earn a long-term deal next offseason. If Gay secures his spot, Tranquill still has a role in the dime package to potentially fall back on — but if Tranquill outplays Gay in training camp, he becomes a player that only sees the field on special teams outside of injury. This move naturally puts pressure on Gay to prove himself.
Overall, Tranquill's presence improves the starters and the depth at the position. He will also give Gay competition that could result in a very motivated, focused player.
With the only safeties on the Chiefs' 2023 roster being Justin Reid and Bryan Cook, Kansas City needed to grab a proven commodity in Mike Edwards. The unit will ask for three-safety sets in passing situations while also relying on the depth safeties to be significant contributors on special teams. They could still use a fourth player for that.
In my opinion, Edwards and Cook play similarly — flying downhill to the ball when playing from the depth and also sniffing out run plays between the tackles well as a box safety. They both do their best work going forward rather than dropping backward, even though Edwards was sometimes used as a free safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last year, Reid was the strong safety — coming up into the box or covering up tight ends when called for, while safety Juan Thornhill rotated deep as the free safety. It was a minor philosophy change for Reid, who spent four years as the starting free safety with the Houston Texans. It's the role he played as he first began excelling in the NFL.
Good example of what Reid's athleticism can do covering vertical routes— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 15, 2022
He plays the middle pretty well btwn two vertical routes in his deep half, smooth transition from the inside vert to cover the outside. Lays a hit at the catch point, just a tad late #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/7IzynFCEeK
That likely makes him the best of the three at covering the back end alone, especially with the 4.4-second 40-yard dash he posted at the NFL Combine, proving he had the speed to cover ground sideline to sideline. He also has the size to contest passes over the top. He may need to get lighter than last season to unlock that speed, but it may be the best way to utilize the three players whenever two or all of them share the field.
The Chiefs could have brought in more of a proper free safety to replace Thornhill directly, but I don't believe that's who Edwards is. He can fill in back there, but he is best utilized closer to the ball — and so is Bryan Cook. It leads to Reid's previous experience as a free safety making him the primary candidate to rotate deep when Kansas City risks single-high coverage.