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3 Chiefs defenders who could have big impacts in 2023

In its fifth year under Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City’s defense better represents his vision.

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As hard as it might be to believe, the fifth year of full training camp practices under Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will begin less than a week from now.

Since his arrival, Spagnuolo has consistently met (or exceeded) expectations relative to the defensive talent available to him each season. Even Spagnuolo’s biggest critics can’t deny the results: successive conference championship appearances and Lombardi trophies.

As time has passed, the team’s personnel staff has molded the depth chart to more closely fit Spagnuolo’s vision — so much so that entering the 2023 season, there are more quality depth and role players at his disposal than ever before.

Let’s take a look at a few of these key players. They may not (yet) be household names, but they are likely to make significant defensive contributions this season.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill

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Tranquill comes to Kansas City after playing out his rookie contract with an AFC West rival: the Los Angeles Chargers. As a full-time starter last season, he had a career year featuring 16 starts, 146 total tackles, 5.0 sacks and one interception. His highlight moments have come either in pass coverage or as an exceptional second-level blitzer.

As he is signed to just a one-year deal, it is fair to wonder if NFL general managers and scouts see Tranquill as a true three-down starter. But right now, that doesn’t matter to the Chiefs — because he is joining a roster where he can complement star third-year linebacker Nick Bolton, uber-athletic Willie Gay Jr. and powerful second-year enforcer Leo Chenal.

It is likely that Tranquill will be filling the dime and nickel linebacker roles previously held down by departed players like Darius Harris and Ben Niemann. While those players were adequate — and had some positive moments — Tranquill should move things up a few notches.

When the Chiefs are in sure passing situations — third-and-7 or longer, for example — Tranquill is going to be a serious threat. His blitzing prowess (and athletic fluidity) in zone coverage is well above average — and it could mean more big-impact defensive plays than Chiefs fans have seen in the last four years.

Defensive lineman Mike Danna

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Danna isn’t a brand-new face. In fact, he’s entering his first-ever contract year. The timing couldn’t be much better, because the role I expect him to fill should improve his production.

As a defensive end — his primary position — Danna has proven to be a solid rotational player who relies on excellent technique, football IQ and competitive toughness. Even though he had to battle through a lower-leg injury early in the 2022 season, Spagnuolo found a groove for Danna: rushing the passer from the interior of the defensive line. His quickness proved to be a major hurdle for many offensive guards.

Because of his size, Danna can’t always play on the inside; on early downs, he would surely become a target in the running game. But like Tranquill, Danna can be an impactful matchup problem in obvious passing situations.

With Danna joining All-Pro tackle Chris Jones, Tershawn Wharton (returning from injury this season) and recently-signed Charles Omenihu (another defensive end who can play inside), you can argue that no other team has a more formidable interior pass-rushing group. As part of it, Danna could claim five or more sacks this season.

Safety Bryan Cook

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As his rookie year went along, second-year free safety Bryan Cook got better and better. When his best was required, he provided it — particularly during the AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals.

A second-round pick in 2022, the coaching staff is ready to hand Cook a starting opportunity after allowing former Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill to sign with the Cleveland Browns; salary-cap considerations have opened a spot for Cook alongside ascending safety Justin Reid.

In this case, however, cheaper might also mean better. Cook will make impactful plays with big hits, ball skills and good coverage. He’s my pick to become a potential breakout defender in 2023.

Cook’s versatility — which allows him to move through different roles from snap-to-snap — makes him a better on-field fit for Spagnuolo’s defense. Between Cook and Reid, the Chiefs have two players who can truly fill any safety role — which also allows them to be used interchangeably. Prior to the snap, it will be difficult for a quarterback to see what’s coming.

At safety, it’s often important to have smart, instinctive players who work well together — and trust each other to execute assignments. It’s foreseeable that Cook and Reid will check these boxes during their second year in Spagnuolo’s scheme.

These three players are among those who could turn 2023 into a statistically productive season for Kansas City’s defense, whose current roster fills each role to a level that we really haven’t seen since 2015. As always, continued production from Chris Jones, Nick Bolton, L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie will also be important factors in the unit’s success.

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