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Question of the Week: How essential is keeping Drue Tranquill this offseason?

Kansas City found a gem in this past offseason’s free agency.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I'll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs' season. A week ago, we discussed the changing role of Travis Kelce as he ages.

This week, we're considering the future role of one of the team's superstars:

How essential is keeping Drue Tranquill this offseason?

When the Chiefs signed linebacker Drue Tranquill this offseason, I was excited. Tranquill provided an element to the Chiefs' defense they had lacked since Derrick Johnson left. His combination of speed, coverage ability and blitzing talent gave defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo an option to expand his packages and fronts. Considering the Chiefs signed him for $3 million, and the value was too good not to sign him.

Even with my elation at Tranquill's addition, I never could've guessed he's been as good as he has been. Tranquill has been one of the best players on this defense all year. I was worried that Tranquill's addition might cause a logjam in the linebacker room since the Chiefs had four linebackers they needed to play. But that hasn't been an issue once this season. Spagnuolo has perfectly crafted a role for every linebacker, maximizing each player to the best of their abilities.

None of this would work without Tranquill. He can play any linebacker spot needed, which allows Spagnuolo to get into different fronts. Willie Gay and Leo Chenal are permitted to be downhill freight trains since Tranquill can cover a ton of range on the back end. Every week, I feel joy watching Tranquill move in coverage, where he plugs holes that the Chiefs have leaked for years. Even against the run, Tranquill flashed the ability to take on blocks, run blitz and showcase his range in space. His blitzing remains fantastic.

What stands out about this Chiefs' defense is their versatility. With players like Mike Danna, Charles Omenihu, Chris Jones, L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie, they can align and match any personnel that an offense provides. They can get super creative with their fronts since their defensive linemen can work multiple positions. McDuffie being a goblin from the slot allows the Chiefs not to need to play base to stop the run, letting them stop the run from Nickel. Sneed allows the ability to travel with any elite No. 1 wide receiver, limiting their effectiveness.

None of this works without Tranquill.

Tranquill is the key

Tranquill is the ultimate skeleton key to this defense. Spagnuolo can call any coverage or front and tether his calls to certain personnel, but it only works because he has Tranquill, who can do any role needed.

That type of linebacker is the key to the best defenses in the NFL right now. Examples include teams like the Baltimore Ravens with Roquan Smith, the San Francisco 49ers with Fred Warner and the Buffalo Bills with healthy Matt Milano. Those defenses are built on their speed and ability to match personnel, which starts with having a linebacker who can do anything in coverage while being disruptive against the run. There are very few linebackers in the NFL that can do that right now.

If we're looking at counter-examples of this, I would start with the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. At their best, both defenses are built around their ability to rush with four and dominate in man coverage, but both defenses have struggled against the best offenses in the NFL for years. Offenses like the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams have dismantled the Eagles and Cowboys for years since those defenses can't effectively line up and defend the middle of the field without good linebacker personnel — regardless of the defensive line talent on those rosters.

The problem for defenses is that there are very few players like this in the NFL.

College defenses have resorted to playing small safeties as linebackers more often, which doesn't work in the NFL with bigger bodies (see Isaiah Simmons). Even traditional linebacker development in college is wonky now. With teams playing three down linemen as their front, linebackers aren't tasked with reading and keying plays; instead, they fly downhill to fill gaps. This isn't a criticism of college defenses, but it's how they have to survive without stout defensive tackle personnel and more space in college.

These principles don't work in the NFL. You have to be able to read and react to plays in coverage. But, due to college defenses being so drastically different from NFL defenses, the learning curve to playing linebacker professionally is challenging to realize. There's a reason why most teams complain about their young linebackers: very few can develop well enough to make a difference in coverage.

Somehow, the Chiefs stumbled into one of these players with Tranquill, but I would sincerely argue he's been one of the best linebackers in the NFL this season. I don't think it's sheer coincidence the best defense in the Spagnuolo era contained Tranquill. He might not be their best player, but he might be their most indispensable to solving week-to-week problems with different offenses.

I believe that the Chiefs can't afford to lose him, but unfortunately, we do live in a salary-cap league. If other teams evaluate Tranquill as rosily as I do, then Tranquill is about to be paid. He's one of the only players of his archetype in the league that matter. Everyone is searching for this style of player.

Will the Chiefs be willing to pay up? Are they okay with losing a different player to keep Tranquill? If they still prioritize keeping Nick Bolton long-term, can they afford to pay two linebackers?

The bottom line

The Chiefs deserve so much credit for identifying and signing Tranquill. It's possibly my favorite free agent signing the Chiefs have ever made — even more than Tyrann Mathieu.

It would be tough to lose him in free agency, but I understand that sacrifices would have to be made to keep him. Hopefully, general manager Brett Veach can navigate around this because I think that, without Tranquill, the defense takes a sizable step back.

It's Game Time.

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