Heading into the Kansas City Chiefs' season, I'm continuing my "10 Biggest Questions" series about the team. So far, we've asked nine questions:
- What is the Chiefs' contingency plan at offensive tackle?
- Will Deneric Prince or Clyde Edwards-Helaire crack the running back rotation?
- How far along are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?
- Do the Chiefs need to add another defensive tackle?
- Can Joshua Williams or Jaylen Watson expand their roles?
- How much of an offensive load can KaDarius Toney carry?
- What does Year 2 look like for Bryan Cook and Justin Reid?
- What roles will the Chiefs' linebackers play?
- In Year 2, how far along is Skyy Moore?
Today, we finish our series by asking about the Chiefs' defense;
Is this the best defense in the Steve Spagnuolo era?
Since Patrick Mahomes took over as quarterback for the Chiefs in 2018, the team’s identity as an organization has been built around offense.
When the quarterback became the starter, the Chiefs had already put a robust infrastructure around him. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, Mitchell Schwartz, Eric Fisher, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mitch Morse were all established players on the offense before Mahomes went under center. The Chiefs poured gasoline on top of their offense by signing wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the 2018 offseason — and with all these pieces together, the Chiefs produced one of the best NFL offenses of all time in 2018.
Since then, the club has only continued adding to the offense. When Mahomes was on his rookie contract, the Chiefs weren't top spenders on offense, but that's changed since he signed his extension in 2020. Since then, the Chiefs have been ninth, 28th (Mahomes had his cap hit restructured to save $17 million), third, and now go into 2023 being third in offensive spending in the NFL with $138.3 million going towards the offense.
With limited resources in a salary-cap league, when you spend more on one side of the ball, the other side takes a hit, and the Chiefs have had to work around that with their defense.
When Mahomes was not accounting for a high percentage of the Chiefs' cap, they could spend lavishly on defense. From 2018-21, the Chiefs ranked 10th, 29th, seventh and first in defensive spending. However, with Mahomes' contract taking more space on the Chiefs' books, they ranked 17th in 2022 and go into 2023 22nd in defensive spending.
To compensate for spending less money on defense, the Chiefs have built their defenses through the draft. Since general manager Brett Veach has taken over, the Chiefs have drafted 41 players over six drafts. 26 of those picks have been on defensive players. If we isolate the first three rounds of the draft, Veach has selected 12 defensive players with 19 available picks. There's a clear vision within the Chiefs organization: spend money on offense and develop defensive talent through the draft.
No year was this more true than the 2022 Chiefs. A large part of the calculus for trading wide receiver Tyreek Hill was to gain draft capital to take younger and cheaper defensive players. The Chiefs drafted seven defensive players in the 2022 draft, including five of their first six picks on defense. Even without Hill, Veach knew that the Chiefs’ offense would remain among the best in the NFL. With all this extra draft capital, they had the opportunity to do something they hadn't been able to do since Mahomes took over: build real depth and develop a young nucleus on defense.
The one-sided Chiefs of 2018
When the Chiefs surprised everyone in 2018 and made the AFC Championship game, it wasn't due to their stingy defense. The 2018 Chiefs' defense was arguably one of the worst of all time, struggling to generate any stops if their elite pass rush couldn't get a sack. The offense was so good that it ultimately didn't matter, but it forced the Chiefs to accelerate their timeline on defense.
First, they fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo was brought in to bring more volatility to the way the Chiefs call defense — using unique pressures and coverages to present problems to the best quarterbacks in the NFL. In order for his defense to produce results instantly, the Chiefs signed safety Tyrann Mathieu and traded for defensive end Frank Clark to add top-tier talent, along with many other additions.
From 2019-21, the Chiefs' core defensive players stayed the same, and they produced quality results. The statistics were never great, but they were able to solve problems against the best offenses in the playoffs. Spagnuolo was able to build great gameplans against most opponents and Clark, Mathieu and defensive tackle Chris Jones stepped up their play in the playoffs to give the Chiefs defense the boost it needed to win a Super Bowl.
By the end of 2021, that formula cratered. Clark wasn't able to produce as well as he did in 2019, and Mathieu showed signs of decline in his tackling and versatility. The Chiefs struggled to stop Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen or Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, which ultimately led them to lose in the AFC Championship game.
A new era of the Chiefs defense
Going into the 2022 season, the formula had to change. The Chiefs let Mathieu walk and Clark had to take a pay cut to return. The defense was no longer going to be built on slower, declining veterans. Instead, they were going to build around youth and athleticism.
The Chiefs signed safety Justin Reid to replace Mathieu, getting a much-needed boost in size and athleticism in the secondary. Combine that with seven defensive draft picks, and the Chiefs had fully pivoted to a new formula on defense.
The results weren't immediately great. Cornerback Trent McDuffie getting hurt in Week 1 was a massive blow, but the Chiefs also struggled to find their footing on defense. However, that all flipped once McDuffie came back and after their bye week. Before the bye, the Chiefs ranked 22nd in expected points added (EPA) per play and 21st in success rate but improved to 11th and fifth in those same metrics after the bye.
the chiefs defense going from 22nd in EPA/play and 21st in success rate before their bye to 11th in EPA/play and 5th in success rate since then pic.twitter.com/elRWwZ3dyQ— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) February 10, 2023
By the end of the season, the new players were fully accustomed to the NFL, and Spagnuolo was adding more to his playsheet to confuse offenses. The secondary showed massive improvement over the season, and the four-man pass rush was the best it had been since 2018. Even if the Philadelphia Eagles scored 35 in the Super Bowl, the defense made everything incredibly difficult for them to score.
Going into 2023, the defense has all that carryover from last year. With more experience and younger talent developing, that leaves one big question.
Is this the best defense in the Spagnuolo era?
If we look at the back end of the defense, Kansas City should be markedly better this year. The Chiefs return everyone from last year while also adding linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Mike Edwards to the mix. Tranquill’s coverage ability gives the defense a new element they haven’t had, and Edwards adds a playmaking element the defense didn’t have last year. Combine that with internal development from five second-year defensive backs and the back end of this defense is as strong as it’s ever been under Spagnuolo.
The main questions come up front. The Chiefs had 55 sacks last year and outperformed their talent on the defensive line. However, they lost Clark, Carlos Dunlap and Khalen Saunders to free agency. The Chiefs did add defensive ends with Charles Omenihu and Felix Anudike-Uzomah, but can the Chiefs replicate their defensive line success from 2022? Can the Chiefs rely on their defensive line to generate the same pressure as last year, or will Spagnuolo need to send more blitzes — which could compromise the cornerbacks who played with plenty of safety help last season?
The Chiefs have the talent and scheme to pull it off — but will they?
Overall, I think there's a case this is the most talented Chiefs defense Spagnuolo has had, but it's still so young. Can they take steps forward to not have a bad stretch like they had in 2022? Was the post-bye stretch of the season actually how good they are on defense? The Chiefs faced bad offenses like the Denver Broncos (twice), Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans after the bye. With another difficult schedule, will the defense regress against stiffer competition?
If the Chiefs' defense improves and becomes the best defense they've had since Spagnuolo has been here, the Chiefs should be unquestioned Super Bowl favorites. However, that's not guaranteed to happen. Even with all the experience they gained last year, this is still a young defense without proven commodities in a lot of spots. They'll have to prove they belong as one of the better defenses in the NFL.
They undoubtedly have the talent to pull that off — it's now up to the coaching staff and players to execute.