Free agency acquisitions give KC Chiefs newfound flexibility on defense
By Scott Loring
The Kansas City Chiefs have made a dent in their priority list this offseason, acquiring several new players in the first week of free agency and securing a few of their own free agents as well. At a glance, the Chiefs are poised to make a run at their eighth consecutive division title, and while many key pieces are set to return in 2023, some of last week’s transactions seem to indicate the possibility that the team could be preparing to make a major change in its base defense.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has always employed a 4-3 base defense in his tenure in the league. It’s a long-term staple of his philosophy. Though the Chiefs have found success with Spagnuolo, going to three Super Bowls in his four seasons at the helm of the defense, there are reasons to believe that the Chiefs could be making a shift in philosophy.
Let’s begin with last week’s player acquisitions within the front seven. After free agency began on March 13, the Chiefs brought in veterans Charles Omenihu and Drue Tranquill, two new starters for their front seven.
One of the most exciting parts about Omenihu and Tranquill is the level of versatility that each one brings.
Omenihu, the former Texas Longhorn, has played all over the defensive line in his career, including a healthy balance along the 49ers’ front in 2022.
Tranquill, an athletic coverage linebacker, brings an equal level of versatility, displaying elite coverage skills in his tenure with the Chargers while also making the most of his opportunities to rush the quarterback. In 70 pass-rush reps, Tranquill racked up 15 pressures and 5 sacks in 2022. The 27-year-old Tranquill led the Chargers with 146 tackles last season, good for 12th in the entire league.
When considering a change in philosophy, one must also consider the rest of the coaching staff. In 2022, the Chiefs moved defensive line coach Brendan Daly to coach the linebackers after Matt House left the team for the college ranks. To fill the hole left by Daly, the team brought in former Ravens and Jaguars assistant Joe Cullen. The 55-year-old Cullen arrived with many years of experience coaching a 3-4 defense, and while Kansas City did not employ the 3-4 in 2022, it’s possible that Cullen’s influence on Spagnuolo has steered the team in that direction.
The defense should be structured around the strengths of interior defensive lineman Chris Jones. The perennial All-Pro has played the last four years of his career in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 as an end or tackle, but also has three years under Bob Sutton as a 3-4 defensive end. If the Chiefs make a shift to a 3-4, they can utilize Omenihu, Mike Danna, the recently re-signed Tershawn Wharton, and 2022 first-rounder George Karlaftis as an end on the other side. Tranquill can join Nick Bolton as off-ball linebackers in the 3-4. Perhaps the biggest hiccup is whether Willie Gay could combine with Karlaftis or Leo Chenal as outside linebackers in this package. Both Gay and Chenal have the athleticism to do it if asked to do so.
We can debate whether this is wise, but the key element here is that the Chiefs have the parts available to them to try whatever they want and are not pigeonholed into certain packages due to the inflexibility of the key parts of their depth chart. The defense is flush with players who have experience doing a lot of different things, and they can capitalize on that by making themselves unpredictable in specific scenarios.