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Much of the Chiefs’ defensive success has come from 3 key free agents

Kansas City fielded one of the league’s very best defenses in 2023 — and three free agents have played big roles.

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Despite making it as far as this season’s Divisional Round — and perhaps beyond that — the Kansas City Chiefs have still absorbed a lot of criticism for some of their offseason roster moves.

But last spring, there were three veteran free-agent signings for which general manager Brett Veach has received very little flak. All three have made significant contributions to one of the league’s very best units — one that held the Miami Dolphins offense (which ranked second in points scored and yards per play and second in offensive DVOA in 2023) to just seven points in Saturday’s 26-7 Wild Card victory on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

Two of these players are Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Charles Omenihu.

“They both have played well for us — and continue to play well for us,” head coach Andy Reid said of them when he met with reporters before Wednesday’s practice session. “But obviously, with [Nick] Bolton going down, Drue stepped [into] one of the leadership positions — the transmitter from the front side to the back side — and did a great job.

“And then Charles? Mixing him in there with that defensive line, I think, has been a nice addition. My hat goes off to Brett for the job that he did, bringing those guys in here. His insight was spot-on.”

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Since he missed the first six games of the season with an NFL suspension, there had been a certain amount of skepticism about Omenihu. What was the point of bringing in a player who would miss so much of the season? But since his return, he has been one of the defensive line’s most productive players.

Extending his statistics over a full 17-game season, he would have had 11 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 43 tackles (eight for loss), three passes defensed and three forced fumbles. Most of those figures would have led Kansas City’s defensive line — and Omenihu brings another characteristic that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo prizes highly.

“I think he’s brought a lot of versatility to this defense,” defensive tackle Chris Jones noted of Omenihu on Wednesday. “That’s a lot. He’s been able to rush the passer. We can take him inside [or] outside. He can play the 3-tech (as a defensive tackle), he can play [as] the defensive end if we need him — and he also can play the rover. So I think it brings another level of versatility to this D-line.”

But we shouldn’t forget the third man in this trio of free agents: former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards.

“He is a heck of a football player,” said Reid. “Really, that’s what he is. You’re gonna look at him [and] you’re not going to say he’s the fastest guy, the biggest guy, the strongest guy or anything. He just knows how to play the game. He’s got great instincts. [He’s a] smart kid. Tough.”

A rotational player until safety Bryan Cook was lost for the season with an injury, Edwards came to town with a reputation as a ball hawk. He has displayed exactly that for Kansas City. In the Week 9 game against the Dolphins, it was Edwards who recovered Tyreek Hill’s fumble just before halftime — and then had the presence of mind to lateral it back to Cook, who raced 59 yards for the touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game. And then, against Miami on Saturday, he collected his second interception of the season.

Tranquill has been no less heroic while stepping in for a total of eight starts in relief of MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton.

“You guys know that the back end and linebackers, they’ve got to be like this,” Spagnuolo told reporters in December, intertwining his fingers. “We didn’t lose that at all — and sometimes that happens. I’ve been down that road before with a MIKE linebacker who’s been the communicator and the signal caller. [When] we’ve lost them, it takes a little while. But we didn’t skip a beat with Drue. We’re really fortunate we got him.”

For his part, Tranquill also feels lucky. Now in his fifth NFL season, Saturday marked his first appearance in a playoff game.

“It was a special game for many reasons,” he said on Wednesday. “Obviously, [with] the elements and the weather — and how we came together as a team — [it] felt like it was one of our more complete games as a football team.

“So to be there — [to] see our fans sitting there for three-four hours in those elements, [showing] the energy, the swag surf [and] all those things that made it such a fun environment for me and my family? We were certainly grateful to be a part of it.”

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Tranquill believes that his new team’s success starts with its coaches.

“I think this coaching staff has done a great job of keeping our routine the same,” he remarked. “That’s one thing I respect about Spags and Coach Reid: if you were just a fly on the wall, you wouldn’t necessarily know whether it’s [the] regular season or playoffs. And I think that’s what makes a champion, right? Consistency.”

And Tranquill is loving every minute of it.

“It’s been an honor to be a part of a championship team — a group of guys who’ve done it before,” he declared. “Everybody has their role here; everybody’s trying to contribute. And ultimately, I think we’ve built a really good unit. We talk about our chemistry [and] continuity. Spags has done a great job leading the charge, but we’re getting more and more comfortable together as players as the weeks go on.”

Can the team take another step toward its goal during Sunday’s Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills? If it does, these three players will likely be a big part of the reason why.

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