Newcomers to KC Chiefs’ defense will fight for jobs: more early roster predictions

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·6 min read
Tammy Ljungblad/KC Star file photo/tljungblad@kcstar.com
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The Chiefs have some developing position-group battles on their hands ahead of next week’s organized team activities, or OTAs.

They’re scheduled to conduct 10 days of voluntary workouts — May 24-26, May 31-June 2 and June 7-10 — plus a mandatory June 14-16 minicamp ahead of training camp in July.

During what the NFL calls Phase III of teams’ respective offseason workout regimens — OTAs and minicamp — the Chiefs can conduct team-related drills (7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11) for on-field install sessions, but fully padded practices and live contact are prohibited.

That last caveat — no live contact — plays a large role in the evaluation process because members of the Chiefs’ coaching staff aren’t able to fully assess blocking and tackling: two critical parts of football. The team will be working out in shorts and helmets, but not pads.

A wide receiver may make a head-turning catch during OTAs, or a running back might burst up the middle through a gaping hole. But with defenders required to hold back until training camp, some of these plays will be a bit deceiving — things will look different in July, when everyone is buckled in and running full-speed. The time for players to really stand out and show what they can do will come later, during training camp.

Nevertheless, we’re ready to take a stab at predicting who will have an inside track to security on the team’s final 53-man roster ... and who might face an uphill climb to stick.

Today, let’s take a look at the defense (we assessed the offense yesterday).

DEFENSIVE LINE (13): Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Derrick Nnadi, George Karlaftis, Mike Danna, Joshua Kaindoh, Taylor Stallworth, Khalen Saunders, Tershawn Wharton, Austin Edwards, Cortez Broughton, Malik Herring, Kehinde Oginni Hassan

The Chiefs fluctuated between 9-10 defensive linemen on the active 53-player roster last year, so there’s not much room for error among the 13 linemen on the team’s current offseason roster.

That said, the Chiefs used a first-round draft pick on Karlaftis, and he will contribute immediately as a complementary piece to Clark in the team’s 4-3 base defense. While the Chiefs could still add a veteran pass rusher through free agency before training camp, they have rotation-ready options in Danna and Kaindoh, who will both be expected to contribute more this season. Wharton also has versatility to play inside and outside.

The Chiefs identified improving their defensive line as a priority this offseason. But after staying out of the hunt during March’s free-agency period, the question remains: Are there enough pass rushers currently on the roster to help the Chiefs’ defense overcome last year’s deficiencies?

They had hoped to bring back Melvin Ingram, who recently signed with the Dolphins instead. Any veteran defensive end the team signs at this point should be viewed as a stop-gap.

At defensive tackle, Jones and Nnadi project as the starters, while Saunders and Stallworth, a free-agent signing, provide depth.

WILDCARD: Herring joined the Chiefs in 2021 as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia but spent the regular season on the non-football injury (NFI) list. He’s now healthy and could surprise at defensive end and thus make a case for a regular-season roster spot.

LINEBACKER (9): Willie Gay Jr., Nick Bolton, Leo Chenal, Darius Harris, Elijah Lee, Jermaine Carter, Shilique Calhoun, Mike Rose, Jack Cochran

With Anthony Hitchens no longer on the team, the Chiefs will lean on Gay and Bolton as their linebacker foundation.

The Chiefs used a third-round pick on Chenal and believe he can be the strong-side linebacker in their 4-3 base defense. If Chenal outright wins the strong-side job, that likely leaves just two remaining vacancies at linebacker on their active 53-player roster.

Those two will need to be capable of replacing Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel on special teams. Harris, who has been with the Chiefs since 2019, is a solid candidate, but he’ll need to hold off Lee and Carter, both of whom were signed during free agency and have extensive special teams experience in the NFL.

WILDCARD: The Chiefs signed Rose, the 2021 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa State. He can play strong-side and special teams, versatile traits that could help him make a case for the initial 53-player roster.

CORNERBACK (11): L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, Rashad Fenton, Deandre Baker, Lonnie Johnson, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson, Decaprio Bootle, Luc Barcoo, Brandin Dandridge, Nasir Greer

If wide receiver is the main attraction for the Chiefs’ looming position battles, consider the cornerback position an opening act.

The Chiefs are likely to begin the regular season with 5-6 cornerbacks, and they have 11 from which to choose. The top three currently project as Sneed, 2022 first-round pick McDuffie and Fenton, who is recovering from an offseason shoulder “cleanup” and might not participate in OTAs.

Kansas City, though, ensured there would be a spirited competition at the cornerback position this summer if Fenton isn’t ready for OTAs by using draft picks on McDuffie, Williams and Watson, and then traded for Johnson after the draft.

Mix it all together and sit back to enjoy the show.

WILDCARD: It’s easy to forget that Baker entered the league as a first-round pick with the New York Giants in 2019, but it wouldn’t be wise to ignore him.

Baker, tendered as an exclusive-rights free agent this offseason, will be more than a full calendar year removed from a gruesome leg injury suffered in the Chiefs’ 2020 season finale, and his first-round talent could finally emerge if he’s fully healthy.

SAFETY (7): Juan Thornhill, Justin Reid, Deon Bush, Zayne Anderson, Bryan Cook, Nazeeh Johnson, Deon Key

The safety position will have a new look this season with Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen now with the New Orleans Saints. Armani Watts, a core special teams contributor, is also gone (signed with the Indianapolis Colts).

The Chiefs signed Reid to a three-year deal during free agency, and he projects as a starter alongside Thornhill. The Chiefs also signed Bush to a one-year deal — he brings help with depth and special teams experience from six seasons with the Chicago Bears.

As of now, Thornhill, Reid and Bush project as the top three, with Cook, one of the Chiefs’ two second-round picks last month, the inside favorite to be the fourth safety.

How deep the Chiefs go at safety remains to be seen. Last season, they opened with Mathieu, Thornhill, Sorensen and Watt before eventually calling up Anderson from the practice squad.

WILDCARD: Key enjoyed a strong start to training camp last year, even working with the first-team defense. But he took a big step backward after the preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers before getting cut as part of the roster trimming to get down to 53 guys. He subsequently joined the Chiefs’ practice squad and had all of last season to develop more fully. Now he might push Anderson or Johnson, one of the team’s three seventh-round picks this year, for a roster spot, should the Chiefs decide to go with five safeties.

SPECIALISTS (3): Harrison Butker, Tommy Townsend, James Winchester

As is the case with the quarterback position, the Chiefs’ specialists are all but set in stone. But they could bring in a long-snapper and/or punter during training camp so Townsend and Winchester can rest.

WILDCARD: None.