2019 Kansas City Chiefs roster battle preview: Defensive linemen

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 23: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Derrick Nnadi #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter of the game at Arrowhead Stadium on September 23rd, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 23: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Derrick Nnadi #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter of the game at Arrowhead Stadium on September 23rd, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) /

A new defensive coordinator, a new scheme, and new pieces along the Chiefs defensive line will make it interesting to see who sticks to the 53-man roster.

The Kansas City Chiefs have several position battles which bring a great deal of intrigue, not only to the offseason but specifically to training camp and the preseason. We’ve already detailed the wide receivers, and other positions of note include the running backs, linebackers. Here we’ll discuss the new-look defensive line—who will stay, and will who go—as the Chiefs go through the process of putting together their defensive front.

Much has been written about the state of the defense, not only in terms of how the new look will go over in Arrowhead, but also in terms of how good the unit must be for Kansas City to have a chance to win it all. Obviously, the hiring of veteran NFL defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo changes the complexion of the team, but also changes the scheme significantly (most notably from a 3-4, to a 4-3 base defense).

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Two very significant departures from the team are well known throughout Chiefs Kingdom. The Chiefs cut former All-Pro outside linebacker Justin Houston (who apparently wanted to stay with the team and transition to the 4-3), and in March traded Pro Bowl outside linebacker Dee Ford to the San Fransisco 49ers. Equally well known are the additions: Frank Clark, Khalen Saunders, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Alex Okafor.

General manager Brett Veach, head coach Andy Reid, and Spagnuolo have built considerable depth and competition across the line this offseason, and they will have a difficult time trimming down the roster in late August. We’ll do our best here to determine what the most likely roster composition is when the dust settles on the final 53.

Typically it would be important to look at what the team has done in the past related to defensive line roster spots. However, a new coordinator and scheme make that somewhat irrelevant to this year’s calculations. As such, I took a look at what the last six defensive line groups looks like when Spags served as the defensive coordinator for NFL teams. Here is what I came up with:

  • New York Giants, 2007: 9
  • New York Giants, 2008: 10
  • New Orleans Saints, 2012: 10
  • New York Giants, 2015: 8
  • New York Giants, 2016: 9
  • New York Giants, 2017: 9

The average ends up being just a tick over nine linemen kept on Spagnuolo led units, so nine is the number we’ll go with for our purposes. The Chiefs currently have 13 offensive linemen on the roster as they move through the final week of OTA’s. They are as follows:

Defensive ends: Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Breeland Speaks, Emmanuel Ogbah, Rob McCray

Interior linemen:: Chris Jones, Justin Hamilton, Cavon Walker, Derrick Nnadi, Xavier Williams, Khalen Saunders, Joey Ivie

Despite what may immediately be considered true, I do not believe there are very many locks in this unit. I think that we can say without any reservation that the roster will include:

  1. Frank Clark – This is obvious.
  2. Chris Jones – This, too, is obvious. He’ll have a new contract before training camp.
  3. Khalen Saunders – Third-round picks do not get cut before their first season.
  4. Alex Okafor – With $6.8m dead cap this year, the Chiefs first out isn’t until after 2019 according to Spotrac.

Everyone else is battling for a spot, though I admit that some players are more likely than others to make the final cut. The next category of keepers are the folks I think are unlikely to be cut. They include:

  1. Breeland Speaks – I think the Chiefs owe it to themselves to see if Speaks can play in the 4-3 before giving up on a 2nd round draft pick this early.
  2. Derrick Nnadi – It’d be surprising to see last year’s most productive nose tackle be cut from the team the following year. Plus, he’s pretty good at football.
  3. Xavier Williams – Graded slightly higher than Nnadi in 2018.

If we’re right about those seven, that leaves the following players battling for two spots on our roster:

Defensive ends: Kpassagnon, Ogbah, McCray

Interior linemen: Hamilton, Walker, Ivie

The easiest two cuts from the above are Rob McCray and Joey Ivie. Neither of them seem to bring a lot to the table and we have not really heard anything about them being in serious contention for a roster spot. Ivie, in particular, is yet another nose tackle on a team that is likely to only keep two.

If the Chiefs are able to play Saunders at the defensive tackle spot to keep both Williams and Nnadi on the roster, that gives them a little bit of flexibility with how they finish out this line unit.

They almost certainly have to keep either Kpassagnon or Ogbah to keep themselves two deep at both defensive end spots. I think Ogbah has the edge here. Kpassanon has undeniable athletic talent and build, but he was inactive for the last several games in 2018 and contributed very little when on the field. Adam Teicher called the Villanova product the Chief in most need of a change of scenery earlier this offseason.

Ogbah could easily be cut, too. He’s shown very little throughout his NFL career thus far, despite being a former first round draft pick in Cincinnati. Cutting him would only cost Kansas City $1.3m, as he’s an unrestricted free agent after the 2019 season.

Cavon Walker is an interesting piece. But, I think he’s most likely heading for the practice squad with a chance to make a real impact in 2020.

That leaves Justin Hamilton. Hamilton could easily be cut as he’s guaranteed none of his $645k contract this year. But, he was also arguably the team’s second best lineman last year. I think he makes the team and gets consideration for a contract extension from the Chiefs at some point before the year is up.

Between Ogbah and Kpassagnon, I give the edge to Ogbah. I think that Kpassagnon’s benching down the stretch last year demonstrates how far out of favor he’s fallen with Reid, and despite him being a better fit for the 4-3, I think the Chiefs prefer the higher upside of Ogbah (particularly as a run stopper).

Kpassagnon could be an Eric Murray like trade candidate though, someone the Chiefs flip for a cornerback with a shot to make the bottom of the roster in a pretty thin unit. Otherwise, I think he’s released and has a shot to start over somewhere else. I do not think we’re having this conversation is he gets drafted in to a 4-3 scheme two years ago, but, I think the moves Veach has made this offseason have positioned them to move on from the former second round pick.

The final defensive line projection is:

Defensive ends: Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Breeland Speaks

Interior linemen: Chris Jones, Xavier Williams, Derrick Nnadi, Khalen Saunders, Justin Hamilton

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I think we see Saunders playing at both interior line spots; and I think we see some formations where Jones lines up outside. The versatility of those two players lessens the need to keep a fifth end on the roster.