When the Kansas City Chiefs’ remarkable 2018/19 season came to a close with a 37-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots, it could be argued the loss was offset somewhat given that many fans and pundits alike saw Andy Reid’s team’s brightest days in front of them.
The team had become an offensive juggernaut behind the rocket arm of transcendent sophomore quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, ranking first in points and yards per game. They appeared utterly unstoppable as Mahomes racked up 50 TDs in a remarkable MVP season. Receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce accumulated over 2,700 receiving yards between them both, and Reid’s offensive scheming had only been stopped by one of the greatest defensive game planners the league has ever seen in Bill Belichick. The Super Bowl window seemed likely to remain open for a considerable distance into the future…
Yet as we move past the initial wave of free agency and the NFL draft, I find myself concerned that instead of making moves to bring the franchise closer to its first Lombardi trophy since 1969, Clark Hunt’s franchise has instead taken a step backwards. Let’s examine this in several parts.
The defence: replacement of Sutton with Spagnuolo
The Chiefs’ defence was the team’s Achilles heel last season, allowing 405.5 yds/game, good for second worst in the league. That necessitated Mahomes and co to put up video game numbers to compensate for a sieve-like defence.
However, there were some bright spots. Dee Ford and Chris Jones, both young players drafted by the Chiefs, emerged with 13 and 15.5 sacks respectively, whilst cornerback Steven Nelson had 4 interceptions. Middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens stepped into the Derrick Johnson role, and whilst not stuffing the stats sheets with turnover numbers, managed 135 combined tackles, putting him 5th in the league in that category.
The defence’s overall quality of play last year ultimately led to the replacement of long-time defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with former New York Giants defensive play caller Steve Spagnuolo.
Now on the face of it, you may be wondering what the problem is here. Bringing in the guy who helped stop the Patriots defence in the 2008 Super Bowl should surely be a boon for this franchise. Except, that stands out on Spagnuolo’s resume as a lone bright spot. After an ill-fated tenure as head coach of the Rams following that Super Bowl winning season, Spagnuolo returned to the defensive sidelines as the DC for the New Orleans Saints during Sean Payton’s suspension season. In such unusual and dysfunctional circumstances, it is fairly understandable that the Saints defence that year ranked last in the NFL in yards/game.
After working with the Ravens in a coaching role, Spagnuolo returned to Big Blue as the Giants defensive coordinator from 2015-2017. The results were not much better. In his first year New York had the worst defence in the league, though rebounded the following season to a 10th overall defensive ranked (in yds/game). However, in 2017, they again dropped to the lower regions of the defensive rankings of 31st in yards/game.
After being out of football last year, Reid pegged his former defensive coach from the Eagles, as the man to help turnaround his defence. The problem is, Spagnuolo’s record doesn’t seem to indicate that is likely to happen.
The defence: change in defensive scheme
As Spagnuolo runs a 4-3 defensive scheme, his hiring necessitated the Chiefs transitioning to that from their long time 3-4 defence under Sutton. As many analysts have pointed out, 3-4 or 4-3 means very little these days given how often teams deploy multiple fronts and coverages on defence. Nonetheless, it seems the defensive scheme fit was a key reason for the Chiefs trading away Ford, their first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, picking up a second-round pick in the 2020 draft from the San Francisco 49ers.
The best teams tailor their schemes and play calling to the talent they have at their disposal and by moving to a scheme they clearly didn’t see Ford as fitting into, the former Auburn player became a square peg in a round hole.
At the same time, Justin Houston, long time pass rusher for the Chiefs was also allowed to walk. Partly due to his age, but again partly due to the fact he operates as a pass rushing outside linebacker.
This all created an additional need for the Chiefs now. Getting to the quarterback last season wasn’t a problem, as evidenced by the sack totals of Jones and Ford alone. But now, it meant the Chiefs had to dedicate resources to upgrading both their secondary and their pass rush.
As a result, KC sent their first and third round picks in the 2019 draft, as well as a 2020 second round pick, to the Seahawks to pick up defensive end Frank Clark. Interestingly enough, Clark managed 13 sacks last season, as well as 10 in 2016, when Ford managed the same.
Whilst Clark is three years younger than Ford, the two are fairly similar in terms of physical measurements. Ford is 6’2” and 252lbs, whilst Clark is 6’3” and 265lbs. It would hardly have been a big ask for Ford to bulk up more this offseason, whilst transitioning to a defensive end role shouldn’t have been mentally challenging, given the focus in that role on simply rushing the passer.
All in all, it seems Kansas City gave up a lot of draft capital to acquire a similar player to what they already had in Ford.
The defence: the secondary
The worst aspect of the trade for Clark was that the Chiefs gave away their first-round pick in this year’s draft, which could have been used to upgrade the defensive backfield. The Chiefs were second worst in the league last season in passing yards allowed per game. Whilst pressure on the quarterback is necessary to help disrupt an opponent’s passing game, lockdown cornerbacks or turnover-creating defensive backs are a necessity also.
If GM Brett Veach had hung onto his first-round pick, he would have been picking at 29 overall, putting him in prime position to pick up a quality cornerback. In fact, the run on cornerbacks in the draft started with the next pick when the Giants traded up to select Deandre Baker from Georgia.
Instead the Chiefs move forward with Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller as their starting cornerbacks, following the departure of Nelson this offseason to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Behind them both, the depth chart isn’t encouraging.
Veach did use a third rounder on Juan Thornhill in the draft, which will be even more necessary given the Chiefs chose not to retain Eric Berry, and added Tyrann Mathieu in free agency in an attempt to upgrade the safety position. Those moves could be vitally important for this unit to improve to even average this season.
The offence: needs caused by character problems
The release of audio recordings of receiver Hill threatening his girlfriend and appearing to confirm he physically assaulted his three-year-old son, should be stomach churning for any human being, let alone a football fan. Despite the disgusting fact that there has been little action taken on this by the Chiefs or the league for sometime now, Hill appears likely to be at the least suspended, or released by the team.
From a footballing standpoint, that means the team will be without their leading receiver and Mahomes’ deep threat. In addition, Hill plays lots of other roles in Reid’s offense including as a runner and can be seen as a key cog in how the game plan functions.
Hill’s likely release or suspension meant Veach also had to invest significant draft capital into the wide receiver position during the draft, picking up Georgie wide receiver Mecole Hardman with the team’s first pick in the second round. Again, that’s a location where cornerback or safety could have been addressed.
Hardman has some of the same blazing speed as Hunt, but will be asked to become an integral part of the passing game alongside Kelce. Fellow receivers Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Sammie Coates haven’t shown enough to demonstrate that they can take over for Hill.
Chiefs fans must also be having a case of déjà vu given that the team released star running back Kareem Hunt due to video evidence of domestic violence. This was a position that the team again failed to address this offseason in any meaningful way, leaving Damien Williams as the top option at the position.
Williams showed an ability to carry the load late last season but the results were fairly uneven. In week 16 against the Seahawks he went off for 103 yards off 13 carries (7.9 average), as well as putting together 129 yards against the Colts in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. However, in week 15 and week 17 he failed to get more than 52 rushing yards against the Chargers and the Raiders respectively. The Chiefs are perhaps hoping that with a full offseason in the books as the starter, Williams can replicate his performance against Indianapolis on a weekly basis.
The addition of Clark though, adds another player to the roster who comes with significant character concerns. Clark was dismissed from the Michigan football team for domestic violence in 2014 which added to a felony second degree home invasion arrest two years previously. Given the incidents with Hunt and Hill, you would think the Chiefs would be wary of adding a player with a similarly controversial background. If the Clark signing backfires, Kansas City could be even further behind in their quest for a Super Bowl.
All in all, I wouldn’t be entirely happy with how this spring offseason has worked out if I were a Chiefs fan. Part of the relative inaction has been caused by the lack of cap space available for the front office to work with, though that is a little self-inflicted: Watkins, for instance, a player with a track record of injuries since being drafted, counts $19.2 million against the cap.
Mahomes, if he can replicate his level of play from a year ago, will always give the Chiefs a shot at the postseason, but ask Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers what it’s like trying to carry an entire team on your shoulders. Whilst Mahomes is on a rookie contract, the Chiefs want to be maximising the talent level around him but haven’t really given themselves the scope to do so as a result of prior decisions made. Some might point the finger at previous GM John Dorsey given he drafted Hill and Hunt, and made many of the decisions which left the franchise in its current cap situation.
It might be a season of transition for KC this year, though I can’t help but feel that next year they might be looking for a similar overhaul of various parts of the team.