This offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs rebuilt their defense with young talent. General manager Brett Veach believes in his youthful group.
The Kansas City Chiefs are an old story with a young defense. Perhaps a dangerous combo.
Hosting four consecutive AFC Championship Games, the Chiefs are old hat. Everyone knows they’re contenders.
Yet entering 2022, the defense might require an information booklet for some. Kansas City has four new starters, including two rookies, and a plethora of youngsters taking increased roles.
Looking at the projected defensive starters, not one is 30 years old. A staggering seven are 25 years old or younger. Safety Juan Thornhill and defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi are 26.
Still, despite the youth movement, there’s internal optimism that this unit can shine quickly.
In an exclusive interview with FanSided last week, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach detailed his belief in the rookie class. With eight of Kansas City’s 10 picks being defenders, Veach showed an understanding of a need to retool, and he’s happy with the early returns.
“With all the new players we have, specifically talking about this draft class, I think the one thing that has been really exciting and encouraging for us is how quickly these young guys have gotten up to speed,” Veach said. As you know, a lot of guys, producing in year one has to do certainly with their talent level but (also) how quickly they can process the playbook. … I would say over the last few years, this class is right up at the top.”
The Chiefs will especially rely on corner Trent McDuffie and edge rusher George Karlaftis, both first-round picks who will play starter snaps come Week 1. The pair of 21-year-olds were considered good value by many at their draft slots of Nos. 21 and 30 respectively, giving Kansas City a much-needed infusion of talent on cheap deals.
Karlaftis has looked fantastic in preseason, notching a sack in each of the first two games. As a whole, the Chiefs’ starting defense has played three series this summer and allowed zero points.
McDuffie and Karlaftis will be joined by safety Bryan Cook, linebacker Leo Chenal and corner Joshua Williams as rotational players in sub-packages, providing the Chiefs with speed and physicality missing from a year ago.
But perhaps no unit exemplifies the new spirit of Kansas City’s defense more than its linebackers. In recent years, the group was smart but slow-footed, led by Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann. This offseason, Hitchens was released and Niemann signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Their departures are providing increased playing time for Nick Bolton and Willie Gay, a pairing which Veach believes can be special.
“It was almost like those two were made to play with each other,” Veach said. “They compliment each other so well. You have a guy in Nick Bolton who played a ton of snaps (in college). Is super smart, super instinctive. He’s really grown into the leader of that defense. He gets everyone in the right position.
“Then you have a guy like Willie Gay that is just a phenomenal, incredible athlete, that has tremendous range, speed. It’s almost like those guys have a chemistry together. Nick gets Willie where he needs to be, and Willie knows that, and they play off each other. Nick knows if he can put Willie in certain positions, he can do things most linebackers can’t.”
Veach tells a story of last offseason in the weeks leading to the draft in which Gay spoke to him, suggesting Veach take a deep look at Bolton. The linebackers had a relationship prior to Kansas City, having crossed paths in the SEC with Gay at Mississippi State and Bolton at Missouri.
The result was Bolton becoming the Chiefs’ second-round pick in 2021, as Gay was the year prior. After posting 112 tackles including 11 tackles for loss as a rookie in only 55.7 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, Bolton is expected to call the defense with a green dot on his helmet. As for Gay, he’s the ultimate athlete at the second level. And after playing 39 percent of snaps in 2021, he’ll see a big jump in playing time with the reshuffled depth chart.
Finally, there’s addition by subtraction. While the loss of safety Tyrann Mathieu is a legitimate concern — albeit mitigated by the Reid signing — the departures of the aforementioned Niemann and much-maligned safety Dan Sorensen will help immensely.
Last season, Sorensen started the team’s first six games before sliding into a third-safety role, while Niemann consistently anchored the second level on third downs despite a lack of athleticism. The result was predictable. The duo was relentlessly attacked.
All told, they played a combined 1,255 defensive snaps, creating easy mismatches for opponents to exploit. Those mismatches no longer exist.
For years, the Chiefs have been an offensive juggernaut with a defense often seen — fair or not — as along for the proverbial ride. They’ve been an afterthought, a unit needing to not screw it all up.
This season, Kansas City’s defense could take center stage while the offense morphs into a different version of greatness in the post-Tyreek Hill era.
The Chiefs are an old story. But the characters are changing, and the optimism is palpable.
Top 10 wild-card players of the 2022 NFL season
1. Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers – Lance takes over a Super Bowl team
2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins – What’s the ceiling for he and Miami?
3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles – The team is there. Can he step up?
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos – At 34, is Wilson still elite?
5. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers – When will he be ready to go?
6. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers – Can he finally stay healthy?
7. Carson Wentz, QB, Washington Commanders – It’s last-chance saloon time
8. Allen Robinson, WR, Los Angeles Rams – Can he replace Odell Beckham Jr.?
9. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars – How much better is he without Urban Meyer?
10. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints – Can he return to All-Pro form?
"“I worked to put that deal together for Brady and Gronk to come to the Raiders. It was almost a done deal. And at the last minute, Gruden blew the deal up and said that he didn’t want him and all hell broke loose, man. It was crazy. And Brady was already looking at houses. It wasn’t said yet that Gronk was going to be coming. So Las Vegas would have had Brady and Gronk the year that the Bucs won the Super Bowl except Gruden blew the deal up.”"
Did the Las Vegas Raiders almost land Brady and Gronkowski? We’ll never know just how close unless Brady opens up post-career, but there was smoke at the time. Can you imagine if Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert were all in the same division? Unreal.
Instead, the Raiders are still waiting for their first postseason win since 2002, and Brady has another ring.
Only five teams have ever had three receivers amass more than 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals were the most recent, with Larry Fitzgerald (1,431), Anquan Boldin (1,038) and Steve Breaston (1,006) all breaking the threshold.
Info learned this week
1. Watson gets 11 games, and Browns have problems
Deshaun Watson’s football fate is finally known. Eleven games, $5 million.
In this man’s opinion, Watson’s suspension should have been a full season, but we digress. The reality is tough enough for the 2022 Browns, who find themselves without a legitimate starting quarterback for two-thirds of the season.
Without Watson, Cleveland will either turn to veteran Jacoby Brissett or deal for San Francisco 49ers signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo. With more than $45 million in cap space, Browns general manager Andrew Berry could make a move for Garoppolo, either via trade or waiting for Garoppolo’s likely release in the coming weeks.
Still, neither Garoppolo or Brissett give Cleveland much hope in the loaded AFC. Sans Watson, the Browns have to play a litany of contenders including the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers and others. It’s a gauntlet and a long one.
Ultimately, Cleveland deserves its fate. The Browns have been defiant and tone-deaf throughout, failing to contact even one of the two-dozen women bringing civil suits against Watson during prior to trading for him and then doling out a $230 million, fully-guaranteed extension. Then, last week, owner Jimmy Haslam was at the press conference in the immediate aftermath of Watson’s suspension and reminded everyone he’s a terrific, 26-year-old quarterback. A disgrace, to be kind.
Watson is now out for 11 games, and the Browns are essentially out for 2022.
2. Tom Brady returning as regular season draws close, but what’s the deal?
On Sunday, the Buccaneers spoke. Tom Brady will return this week, and prepare for the regular season.
Brady has been absent to deal with a personal matter since Aug. 11. Finally, Brady is back, but one wonders where he’s at mentally. While it would be reckless to speculate why Brady needed to step away from football for almost two weeks, it’s also fair to go over the events from this offseason.
In February, Brady retired from football. Less than two months later, the seven-time champ announced he was returning for a 23rd season. Then came the tampering allegations and subsequent punishment for the Miami Dolphins, which included their courting of Brady since 2019. For his part, it was widely reported Brady was ready to leave Tampa Bay for Miami to play under Sean Payton before former Dolphins coach Brian Flores brought a lawsuit against the team.
Finally, the Buccaneers switched coaches from Bruce Arians to Todd Bowles, with reports Brady was looking for a change. Then, this summer, Tampa Bay saw All-Pro center Ryan Jensen go down with a knee injury that could cost him the entire season.
Perhaps Brady is ready to play and has another MVP-caliber year. Or, at 45 years old, maybe Brady is regretting his decision to come out of retirement.
3. Raiders need to fix their offensive line, and now
The Las Vegas Raiders have elite weapons, but they mean nothing without a decent front.
Las Vegas faced the Dolphins on Saturday night and win 15-13, but a troubling trend is emerging. Last year’s first-round pick, right tackle Alex Leatherwood, continues to struggle badly. While the left side is terrific with tackle Kolton Miller, quarterback Derek Carr has justification to be concerned.
Whether by trade or signing, the Raiders need to solidify the right side. Leatherwood was a top-20 pick, but he was drafted by another regime. Current general manager Dave Ziegler has no attachment, and while cutting Leatherwood would be harsh, a benching is appropriate.
With the franchise trying to win a playoff game for the first time since 2002, Las Vegas needs Carr to find receivers Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow, and tight end Darren Waller often. It’ll be tough doing that if he’s running for safety in a division loaded with pass rushers on each opponent.
4. Steelers should roll with Kenny Pickett
Let’s hit the caveats at the top.
Kenny Pickett is playing against backups. He’s also facing vanilla defensive schemes.
Still, Pickett is flourishing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first two preseason games. On Saturday, he went 6-of-7 for 76 yards and a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This follows his effort versus the Seattle Seahawks, which saw Pickett go 13-of-15 for 95 yards and two scores. Both games were Pittsburgh victories.
If Pickett plays Week 1 against the Bengals, is that type of success going to carry over? No, not on that level. However, the first-round pick is showing he can compete, and frankly, does Pittsburgh really expect to get more than that with Mitch Trubisky?
For the Steelers, there’s little reason save for a leaky offensive line not to start Pickett. There’s no future with Trubisky, and Pickett is already 24 years old after spending five years in the ACC with the Pitt Panthers.
Let him throw to receiver Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, hand off to running back Najee Harris and let his elite defense do the rest.
5. Bucs’ OL injuries are becoming huge problem
This was mentioned in the Brady section, but the Bucs’ offensive line deserves its own graphs.
With the loss of Ryan Jensen and then Saturday’s season-ending knee injury to left guard Aaron Stinnie, Tampa Bay has a significant problem with no obvious answers. While Brady remains one of the best quarterbacks in football, he’s wholly immobile. And with a patchwork interior protecting him, Tampa Bay is susceptible to problems against any team with the ability to pressure inside.
General manager Jason Licht has always been aggressive, and this situation could call for such action. The Buccaneers should be searching the league for available guards and centers. If there’s a deal to be made, even one a touch expensive, why not? Brady may not be around in 2023, and when he’s gone, so is Tampa Bay’s window.
One option? Veteran center JC Tretter remains on the market as a free agent. Although the scheme in Cleveland — where Tretter was previously — and Tampa Bay are different, he’s a terrific talent and an upgrade. Makes sense to kick the proverbial tires.
Aaron Rodgers is frustrated. And he predictably didn’t hide it.
Rodgers lashed out towards his young receivers on Tuesday, stating he was annoyed with drops, wrong routes and the like. The next day, Rodgers reportedly held a meeting with them to discuss the issues at hand, hoping to get right before Green Bay visits the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1.
No honest media member would ever complain about Rodgers — or any player — saying something notable. We want insight into the true tenor of a team, and the two-time reigning MVP certainly provided that. However, it’s also fair to say Rodgers could have eschewed his commentary to the press and simply held the meeting, saving the youngsters from embarrassment.
Rodgers is going to rightfully be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But if he lacks one thing, leadership and the ability to inspire has seemingly eluded him. Has that cost Green Bay a few rings? Impossible to say, but Rodgers isn’t doing the team, or himself, any favors by publicly shaming kids trying to find their way.
Inside the league
Tyler Huntley is turning heads around the NFL. Has been since the end of last season, filling in for an injured Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens’ backup quarterback was terrific on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, completing 13-of-14 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 24-17 win. Last season, Huntley started four games (seven appearances) and although he only threw for three touchdowns against four interceptions with a paltry 5.8 yards per attempt, many within league circles told FanSided they saw legitimate upside.
With Huntley entering his third season and Jackson still without an extension, does Huntley’s preseason performance mean anything to general manager Eric DeCosta in terms of leverage? Might be a stretch, but the Ravens should be very content with Huntley as a developmental backup who provides excellent insurance should Jackson miss time again in 2022.
In 1976, the Dallas Cowboys altered their famous, iconic uniform. Why? The bicentennial.
Usually adorned by a helmet with two blue stripes and a white one down the middle, the Cowboys turned the right one red, a nod to America. Yet while some will think it’s because they are called America’s Team, that’s not accurate. In fact, that moniker wasn’t given to Dallas until a 1979 NFL Films piece gave them the nickname.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has named its three Senior candidates for the ’23 class.
Last week, New York Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley and Bengals corner Ken Riley were given the news they became finalists.
Klecko was part of the Jets’ Sack Exchange front in the 1980s, making First-Team All-Pro at defensive tackle and end. He also had 20.5 unofficial sacks in 1981 (sacks became official in ’82) and reached four Pro Bowls.
Howley played from 1958-73 and infamously is the only Super Bowl MVP to play on a losing team. He made six Pro Bowls and was a five-time First-Team All-Pro, earning at least one of those distinctions each season from 1965-71.
Of these three, Riley is the most hotly-contested. He played from 1969-83 in Cincinnati and never made a Pro Bowl. He only earned All-Pro status once, ironically in his final season. So how can he sniff the Hall of Fame? Because Riley notched 65 interceptions, ranking fifth all-time. Is that enough to warrant a gold jacket? Debatable.