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How the Chiefs’ defense becomes elite: Defensive line youth movement

Kansas City’s defense could have a special 2023 season. Let’s look at one of the reasons why.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This four-part series examines the ways in which the Kansas City Chiefs defense can become elite in 2023. Part one detailed the Chiefs' returners to the secondary.

Kansas City Chiefs superstar pass rusher Chris Jones has yet to report to St. Joseph for training camp while his representatives and the team's brass work through contract negotiations. Without Jones in camp, the Chiefs' defensive line looks vastly different. Considering that the team also lost Frank Clark, Khalen Saunders and Carlos Dunlap (as of right now), their overall experience level has plummeted.

While Jones has not yet reached a new deal, he is still expected to be ready for the season opener against the Detroit Lions. Once he arrives, the team will have back one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL — and the driving force for what could be a special unit.

Some familiarity will surround Jones, but he will also be greeted by newer, fresher faces than those he has played with in the past.

Getting younger

Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna return as the only players with multiple years of NFL experience and years in Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme. They are then followed by George Karlafitis, Malike Herring and Joshua Kanidoh as players with a couple of years of experience playing in the NFL and the scheme.

Charles Omenihu was a key free agent acquisition, and although he is already a veteran, he will be just 26 years old when taking the field for the first time in Kansas City. Danny Shelton returns to the team after a long stint on the practice squad last season in an attempt to revive his career. At 31 years old, he is not a young player, but he is younger than Brandon Williams, who he will presumedly be replacing as a reserve defensive tackle.

This leaves the rookie class: first-rounder Felix Anudike-Uzomah, fifth-round edge BJ Thompson and sixth-round defensive tackle Keondre Coburn. While this unit lacks experience, the Chiefs have gotten noticeably younger.

It may be a disadvantage early in the season, but having a room full of young, athletic players could pay dividends as the season progresses.

Investment over time

The Chiefs have put a key emphasis on rebuilding their defensive line through the draft. In back-to-back draft classes, they have taken defensive ends who have declared early for the draft in the first round.

The team drafted Karlaftis with the 30th pick of the first round in 2022, and after a slow start, he finished his rookie season strong, recording six sacks and seven batted passes. This year, they drafted Anudike-Uzomah with the 31st pick of the first round and also drafted Thompson and Coburn in later rounds.

Taking back-to-back edge rushers in the first round just a year apart from one another shows the team's commitment to adding fresh faces to the line, but the immediate investment might not be there.

Early in the season, the defense will likely rely on Jones and the other veterans up front to shoulder the load — and this will include Karlafits. With just one season under his belt, the former Purdue Boilermaker still has much to learn, but if the end of his rookie season was any indication of how his second season will go, then it is very possible he will take a big step forward.

The late-season surge by Karlaftis in 2022 should also leave the Chiefs optimistic about how the rookie class can develop as the weeks pass. Anudike-Uzomah has been listed with the third team on initial depth charts out of camp, but that can all change in the blink of an eye.

As he uses the preseason and early parts of the season to learn and know his assignments he should start to play faster, which will increase the likelihood that he can be a contributor later in the season.

While the big vision for Anudike-Uzomah may be to be an every-down player, Coburn and Thompson will play more specific roles.

Thompson could end up being the teams designated pass rusher, using his physical gifts to bend the arc on passing downs. This is a role the team has not been able to fill since Spagnuolo has gotten to town and could lead to some added versatility.

Coburn looks to be a run stuffer, and while he has been off to a slow start during camp, he could still be a viable option for the Chiefs a key contributor along the defensive line moving forward. The Chiefs have no defensive tackles under contract after the 2023 season (pending a Jones extension), but it seems likely that Coburn will be in the mix for some time.

The bottom line

Having a solid defensive line is crucial for success in the NFL, but so is remaining young and athletic enough to compete against the high-powered offenses of the modern game. Jones, once again, will be the catalyst for the defense as a whole this season, but getting support from the younger members of the unit will go a long way.

During the past few seasons, it has had to be Jones and the defensive line who have carried other positions, but this season it will have to be the other positions that help carry the defensive line early on.

Creating an elite defense is all about balance. The strengths and weaknesses of a team will shift through the course of a season, but when one unit needs help, it will be the job of the other units to step up.

Part three of this series will examine the Chiefs' linebacker core and how they could be the key to defense this season.

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