The Kansas City Chiefs selected edge rusher BJ Thompson in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. On the surface this wasn't a big splash move. Thompson was viewed as a developmental pass-rushing project out of Stephen F. Austin and the Chiefs needed more depth there. However, if you look a little deeper into Thompson as a project, the Chiefs' prototype at defensive end under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was campaigning for KC to take Thompson, it may signal some potential changes for the Chiefs defense.
Let's start by talking about what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo typically looks for in his defensive ends. The good people over at KCSN have put a lot of research into the Spagnolo prototype at defensive end and have come away with three major physical parameters. The typical defensive end in his system is 6-foot-3 or taller, is 260-280 pounds, and has 33 inch arms or longer.
It's more than just those physical parameters though, he wants his edge players to be able to set the edge and hold up against the run and he likes edge players with the versatility to kick inside and play all over the defensive front. That simply isn't BJ Thompson.
BJ Thompson does not fit the Chiefs prototype for defensive ends
At 6-foot-6 with 34 5/8 inch arms Thompson has the length that Spagnuolo looks for, but he's so light that one would think he'd be immediately disqualified from consideration. He played at a weight in college that would be light for an outside linebacker. He worked on bulking up in the pre-draft process and got himself up to 240 pounds. So his bulked-up weight was still 20 pounds below the bottom of Spagnuolo's preferred weight range.
Again, it's also about more than the physical parameters. Thompson is a pure pass rushing prospect that is a liability at setting the edge and definitely shouldn't be kicking inside. From Dane Brugler's scouting report on Thompson:
"Overall, Thompson is currently a liability as a run defender, but his speed and length make him a tough guy to keep blocked when he stays under controlled mid-rush. He is a developmental subpackage rusher (reminiscent of Arden Key) but will require time on the practice squad before he is ready for live NFL reps."
In other words, BJ Thompson is not the type of guy Steve Spagnuolo has ever targeted before. So is this a sign that Spags is turning over a new leaf? Maybe, but I think it may actually have more to do with defensive line coach Joe Cullen. Cullen is a long time NFL defensive line coach and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator who was not previously tied to Spagnuolo, so he didn't come to KC with the same defensive end prototype in mind.
In a recent interview, BJ Thompson talked about what a key role Joe Cullen had in scouting him and campaigning for the Chiefs to be draft him. “You know we talked all throughout the pre-draft process,” Thompson said. “He said he was going to do all he could to get me and whatnot. He did just that.”
When the Chiefs called Thompson on draft day, Cullen got on the phone and said "I told you we were going to make this happen" and Thompson replied "You did. You did." So all the evidence we have points to Thompson being Cullen's guy.
I don't know if Thompson will make much of an impact in his rookie year. In fact, the smart money is probably on Thompson basically taking a full year of NFL coaching and strength training before he sees the field much, but that's not the biggest potential impact of his selection.
The Chiefs have had pretty mediocre outside pass rush success during Steve Spagnuolo's time in KC. That's not to say he's done a bad job as the defensive coordinator. The Chiefs have won two Super Bowls with Spags and overall his defenses have done a nice job of complimenting the Chiefs high powered offense. It's still fair to say that one area they could improve is their outside pass rush.
If Joe Cullen has convinced Spagnuolo (or Brett Veach) that KC needs to be open to using an outside pass rush specialist that is significant. This could be about more than just BJ Thompson. It could signal that KC is open to adding a new type of pass rusher on their defense. Maybe instead of adding a veteran like Frank Clark to the group, they would be willing to consider a pass rush specialist like Leonard Floyd who is only about 240 pounds but has put up 9 or more sacks each of the last three seasons.
Then again, maybe BJ Thompson is the guinea pig for this type of player. Maybe if the 5th round pick doesn't work out Spagnuolo will argue "We tried a lighter pass rush guy and it didn't work out" anytime one is brought up in the future. That's a lot to put on the success of a developmental 5th round pick out of Stephen F. Austin. Still, it will be interesting to see how Thompson is used in training camp and preseason games.
If he finds some success as a pass rush specialist it could mean a lot more than just hitting on a draft pick. It could mean that the pass rush is evolving in KC and with Patrick Mahomes and their high powered offense, any additional improvements on the defensive side of the ball could be a real headache for the rest of the NFL.
So what do you think Chiefs fans? Do you think the Chiefs drafting a lighter pass rush specialist is a significant development? Could this be a sign that Spagnuolo is open to trying something new? Could this mean that Joe Cullen is starting to have a little more say in the defensive meeting rooms or is this just a one time experiment that is just about this individual player? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.