I love roster construction.
When I was a kid, my favorite video game was “Madden” — and I loved playing in franchise mode, where I could obses over draft picks, free agents and salary-cap space.
As an adult, I continue this obsession. Every spring, I spend a great deal of my time evaluating draft prospects. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on salary-cap sites like OverTheCap or Spotrac. I love examining the process of how the best football teams are assembled.
I can, of course, be very critical of how a team has been built — including the Kansas City Chiefs.
This season, I’ve been very critical of how Kansas City general manager Brett Veach has built the roster. Following the Christmas Day loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, I wrote about the team’s offensive deterioration, blaming many of its problems on poor roster management — and I still believe Veach and his staff have made decisions that cap the Chiefs’ ceiling short of Super Bowl LVIII.
But even through all the frustrating offensive moments, one thing has stood out this season: the impressive way in which the Kansas City defense has been built.
Let’s consider how it was done.
1. Two very good drafts
Following the 2021 season, the Chiefs’ defense was in a bad spot. Except for star defensive tackle Chris Jones, most of the unit’s core players were past their prime — and too expensive. Kansas City needed a severe overhaul of its defensive personnel.
Veach got to work. After trading wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, Veach used his haul of new draft picks to rebuild the defense with young players — starting with first-round picks on cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis.
McDuffie has emerged as one of the league’s most valuable defensive backs. He can play in the slot against any wide receiver, fit against the run or even serve as a blitzer. Karlaftis has made a big second-year jump. Among NFL defensive ends, he now ranks 16th in pressures — and on Sunday, became one of just 19 players with at least 10 sacks in 2023.
But Veach was also smart with his other 2022 picks. Second-round safety Bryan Cook became a quality starter who brought range (and single-high ability) to the table. Third-round linebacker Leo Chenal has become a blitzing threat, allowing the Chiefs to get into previously inaccessible fronts. Late-round picks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson have both been capable performers through two seasons — a rarity for Day 3 cornerbacks.
2. Continuing development of young players
Meanwhile, the team’s existing young defenders continued their development. Second-round linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay, fourth-round cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and fifth-round defensive end Mike Danna have all emerged as significant contributors.
This was expected for second-rounders Bolton and Gay — but Sneed and Danna have become two of Veach’s best picks. Selected in 2020 — when scouting was limited because of the coronavirus pandemic — Sneed has emerged as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, while Danna has become an outstanding role player on the defensive line.
3. A home run in free agency
After McDuffie came back from a hamstring injury during his rookie season, the Chiefs’ defense ranked ninth in expected points added (EPA) and third in success rate. It would’ve been easy for the front office to bank on these young players, but Veach wasn’t done. In 2023, he made savvy free-agency moves for the defense, acquiring defensive end Charles Omenihu, linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Mike Edwards. All three have become significant contributors — and together, have a 2023 cap hit of just $10.4 million.
Since his six-game NFL suspension ended, Omenihu has arguably been Kansas City’s best defensive end. His length and size allow him to be a disruptive run defender — and be able to play inside-out. Edwards has been the best third safety the team has had since Husain Abdullah. Tranquill has been nothing short of a godsend, providing the defense with much-needed range and athleticism. Even better, he proved to be a very effective backup MIKE when Bolton missed eight games this season; the defense didn’t miss a single beat without its play-caller.
The bottom line
This season, Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can claim one of the NFL’s best units. What stands out is its versatility — particularly in passing situations. Kansas City has the personnel to get into any front or coverage they want. Players like Chenal, Tranquill, Omenihu, Danna, McDuffie and Sneed enable Spagnuolo to match up against an opposing offense in any way that is needed, using creative pressure packages and versatile personnel.
The defense ranks sixth in EPA and third in success rate — despite ranking 25th in defensive cash spending. Veach and his personnel staff deserve a lot of credit for making this happen. Over the last several years, they’ve nailed almost every defensive draft pick. They’ve made great free-agent signings. And now — with Spagnuolo at the helm — these moves are paying off.
The unit won’t be easy to keep together. But with players like Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Chamarri Conner, B.J. Thompson and Nic Jones, Veach has already made his opening moves to keep the defense moving forward.
As frustrating as it has often been to watch the Chiefs’ offense this season, the defense has been an unequivocal joy to watch — and is the primary reason Kansas City has won its eighth consecutive AFC West crown. Let’s hope this success can continue through the playoffs.