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There are no more excuses for the Chiefs' defense

It’s time for Kansas City to get some return on its investment.

NFL: FEB 12 Super Bowl LVII - Eagles vs Chiefs Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three seasons have elapsed since the Kansas City Chiefs walked off the field at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami as Super Bowl champions over the San Francisco 49ers. But in 2023, just two starters from that defensive unit remain on the team: defensive tackles Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi.

Since Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City has been slowly rebuilding its defense. It has concentrated on making it younger, more athletic and more affordable. To do so, the team has allocated valuable resources — including some of those acquired when it traded star wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins.

While Patrick Mahomes has been the team's quarterback, the Chiefs have been successful largely because of their offense; it has won with their defense rather than because of their defense. Since Mahomes became the starter, the highest the Kansas City defense has ever ranked (in yards allowed) was 11th in 2022.

While it's true that the team has fielded some solid defenses during the last five seasons, it's time for the Chiefs to become a team that can win a game because of a dominant defense. And it feels like 2023 could be the season when it will happen.

Defensive investment

Over the last three years, the Chiefs have invested heavily in their defense. Of the 29 players selected in the NFL Draft, 18 were defensive players. Then there have been free-agency acquisitions like defensive end Carlos Dunlap, safety Justin Reid, linebacker Drue Tranquill and cornerback Mike Edwards — and trades they've made for players such as defensive end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Mike Hughes.

This has been a sensible process. For proof, look no further than Kansas City's AFC rival: the Cincinnati Bengals. In a single season, the Bengals became respectable by using free agency to obtain key defensive players. This was possible because the team had several elite offensive players on inexpensive rookie deals: quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.

In 2019, the Chiefs went from AFC Championship loser to Super Bowl winner mainly because of the defensive improvement overseen by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — and the high-level play of key veteran acquisitions like safety Tyrann Mathieu, linebacker Anthony Hitchens and defensive end Frank Clark. But now that Kansas City's quarterback is no longer on a rookie deal, the team is pivoting to building its defense through the draft. Looking at their 2023 draft class, it appears that Cincinnati is now preparing to do the same thing — because Burrow will soon be signing a long-term deal.

Defensive expectations

Every season, Spagnuolo's defense seems to do the same thing: struggle early in the season but surge towards the end — and in the playoffs. Every year, we can track the Chiefs' defense overcoming a very slow start with excellent performances — allowing it to end the season with solid cumulative numbers.

But in 2023, Kansas City's defense may not be able to afford a slow start. The team's schedule is fairly back-loaded with quality competition — which means the unit can't give up 28 points to the Detroit Lions on opening night or let the Chicago Bears score a bunch of "garbage-time" points.

It's also true that opposing offenses play differently when Mahomes is on the sideline. Consider the Los Angeles Chargers, who can play like a top-5 NFL offense during their two games against Chiefs each season — and then get blown out by the Jacksonville Jaguars or Seattle Seahawks. But when an opposing offense presses too hard, there are increased opportunities for turnovers — an area in which the Chiefs have recently struggled. Turnovers are an instant path to defensive success — especially when the unit is handing the ball to the Kansas City offense.

The bottom line

We expect the Chiefs' defense to be at least top-10 in points allowed — which it has done in three of four seasons under Spagnuolo. But it's reasonable to expect a top-10 (or even a top-5) ranking in yards allowed, too — especially if there is improved production in turnovers. (In 2022, neither Justin Reid nor Trent McDuffie recorded an interception). Lastly, the Chiefs' pass rush needs to continue to be a top-5 unit — but with new players like defensive linemen Charles Omenihu and Felix Anudike-Uzomah (and maybe even Keondre Coburn), the team may be well on the way toward that goal.

Otherwise, this investment into the team's defense could feel like a wasted opportunity to surround Mahomes with more weapons. How much better would the offense look if Michael Mayer was the second tight end behind Travis Kelce? Or how much better would we feel about the receiving corps with a field-stretcher like Tyler Scott — instead of defensive back Chamarri Conner, who projects to be the team's third safety?

Kansas City has made wise investments in its defense. And now, it's time to see the return on that investment.

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