By Devin Hoover
We are entering year six of the Patrick Mahomes era, and in that time we have seen 5 AFC Championship games, 3 Super Bowls, and 2 Super Bowl victories. In those five years, we haven’t seen a single time the Chiefs’ defense ranked in the top 10 in the league. The best defense Mahomes had was back in 2019 when the defense ranked 14th. Of course, it’s hard to quantify how good a defense is by any single metric, the team ranked second in total sacks last year but finished 22nd in DVOA. There’s also the fact that when teams face the Chiefs they know they will have to keep up with their offense, and thus they may make more risky decisions, and pull out every stop it takes to keep up. However, after another great offseason for Brett Veach, I firmly believe this is the first year Patrick Mahomes will have a top-10 defense.
The Chiefs can take a step forward on the defensive front because they retained most of their starters on the defensive side. The biggest losses were S Juan Thornhill, DE Frank Clark, and DT Khalen Saunders. There is still a decent chance the Chiefs bring back Frank Clark on a cheap one-year deal for one last ride. Thornhill is the biggest loss as far as snaps go, but between second-year player Bryan Cook, and the newly drafted Chammari Conner there is a chance the Chiefs improve at the safety position overall. Thornhill was a good player for the Chiefs, but he was never able to fully regain his elite potential after tearing his ACL his rookie year.
Khalen Saunders was a player who flashed at times but was inconsistent in his play. By drafting Keondre Coburn the Chiefs know exactly what they want to do on the interior of the defense. Coburn can play early downs and shut down the run, and then newly signed Charles Omenihu will kick inside and team up with Chris Jones to create the best interior pass rush in the entire NFL.
The Chiefs made it clear in the draft last year that the defense was their focus. They drafted two defensive players in the first round, and then another in the second round. This year they drafted Felix Anudike in the first round and spent all of their day 3 picks on defensive prospects, including the previously mentioned Coburn and Conner. On top of that, they brought in Charles Omenihu and Drue Tranquill.
Last year the Chiefs struggled to defend the run at times. That should no longer be a problem anymore. Now on early downs, the Chiefs can play Omenihu and Karlaftis/Danna on the edge and Coburn with Jones on the interior. This will create a drastic difference in how teams have to play the Chiefs. With Coburn on the field, teams may be even better suited to audible to a pass play. Leo Chenal also proved in the Super Bowl his elite ability to shut down the run, and I would expect even more playtime for the second-year player.
Despite ending up second in sacks last year, there was a theme with the Chiefs’ pass rush that cannot be ignored. When Chris Jones is having a bad day, so is everyone else. Luckily for Chiefs fans, Chris Jones doesn’t have a lot of bad days, but now even if he does that shouldn’t be an issue. Jones is a big enough name at this point that he demands attention no matter what. By adding Anudike the Chiefs add an element they didn’t have off the edge before, speed. Steve Spagnuolo and Joe Cullen can now create even deeper game plans by studying opponents’ weaknesses to speed/power. BJ Thompson is another name to keep an eye on. He’s a freaky athlete who is 6’6 with 35-inch arms and can run in the 4.5s, but he also has an extremely thin frame and only weighs around 24olbs. He would be a third and long-only player but could be a player who ends the season with a handful of sacks.
The secondary only has room to improve. The Chiefs have one of the youngest DB groups in the entire league, but as we witnessed last year, they always showed up when needed. With the improvements to the defensive line, it only makes their job easier.
We all know Spags defenses tend to start off slow and work their way into their final form near the playoffs, but this defense should be ready to go from day 1. Joe Cullen has proven to be one of the best coaching hires in recent years, and this may be his final year with the Chiefs as he will likely get either HC attention or DC offers at the very least. If the Chiefs can give Patrick Mahomes his first-ever top-10 defense then the odds of them repeating as Super Bowl champions should skyrocket.