Last season ended with a resounding thud, but the Chiefs’ offense seemed on solid footing for the future with a talented-but-inexperienced second-year quarterback soon to be handed the keys to the franchise surrounded by a dynamic core of skill-position players that included two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,300-yard rusher each 26 or younger.
The defense, meanwhile, which had just gotten carved up in the second half of a playoff loss to Tennessee, featured older mainstays with few up-and-coming players poised to take up the mantle. When injuries occurred last season, the Chiefs turned to over-30 veterans such outside linebacker Frank Zombo and cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The prospect of an aging defense didn’t sit well on the heels of a season distinguished by defensive futility.
The performance in the playoff loss to the Titans seemed like the final straw, but general manager Brett Veach made it a priority to address the defense as soon as he took over last July. He unsuccessfully tried to acquire linebacker Anthony Hitchens in a training camp trade, and he eventually pried Reggie Ragland from Buffalo via trade in late August.
This offseason served as the continuation of the clearly defined course charted when Veach took over, with last season’s playoff performance acting as further motivation. Through trades, the draft and free agency — including finally signing Hitchens — the Chiefs aimed to remake their defensive persona both physically and in terms of chemistry.
“Every team, at some point you have to do some roster overhaul,” Veach said. “We were very fortunate to have a lot of great players over the years, but at some point I think you have to dedicate yourself to retooling what you have out there. I think our depth was an issue. I think our age caught up to us a little bit. I think sometimes guys weren’t always on the same page.”
The Chiefs did not bring back 35-year-old linebacker Derrick Johnson or 34-year-old defensive end Tamba Hali, who were both members of the organization since 2005. The Chiefs also traded away starting cornerback and former first-round draft pick Marcus Peters, a young star who missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in his three seasons last year.
The defensive starters in last year’s regular-season opener averaged 27.1 years old, while the first depth chart unveiled this preseason displayed a first-string defense that averaged 23.6 years old. Their new second-string group features seven players with one season or less in the NFL, including three rookie draft picks, in outside linebacker Breeland Speaks, cornerback Tremon Smith and nose tackle Derrick Nnadi. With safety Daniel Sorensen due to miss an extended period of time due to a leg injury, rookie safety Armani Watts’ time with the first-team defense increased during training camp.
“Let’s get younger. Let’s get deeper. Let’s get guys that have that mindset that they’re going to come to work every day and they’re going to bring a toughness,” Veach said of the directive he gave himself and his personnel staff. “They’re going to bring that work ethic every day. That’s going to carry over to Sunday.”
The defense certainly started to show cracks last season. The Chiefs ranked 28th in yards allowed per game (365.1), last in first downs given up per game (22) and tied for 27th in yards allowed per play (5.6).
Opposing teams enjoyed success handing off, muscling the defense off the ball and gaining big chunks at a time. The Chiefs ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 23rd in rushing yards allowed per play during the regular season.
The Chiefs coughed up fourth-quarter leads in losses to Oakland and the New York Jets in the regular season. In their playoff loss to Tennessee, they blew a 21-3 halftime lead and allowed the Titans to rush for more than 200 yards.
“I know you saw the playoff game,” Ragland said of the different attitude on defense this season. “We didn’t finish. Every since then, Coach (Andy) Reid has been all about finishing. The team has been all about finishing. I feel like that’s what we’re going to do this year. It’s all a mindset.
“If you don’t want to do it, we don’t want you out there. All that guys that want to be out there, Coach wants you out there, I want you out there. I want to do it for Coach. He doesn’t have a Super Bowl (win) as a head coach. I want to get him one.”
While nobody from the Chiefs has publicly pointed fingers at Peters’ departure as a necessary part of the housecleaning, the team’s former defensive star was at the center of several high-profile and disruptive incidents last season.
Reid suspended Peters for a game in December following his behavior in the Chiefs’ 38-31 loss to the Jets on Dec. 3, which included throwing an official’s penalty flag into the stands and walking off the field, cursing at a fan during a home win against Washington and unleashing a demonstrative tirade on defensive coordinator Bob Sutton during a game against Houston.
Several defensive players referenced improved chemistry during training camp despite the myriad of new additions. Allusions to defensive players not being on the same page, the same term Veach used, were also a common refrain in explaining some of last year’s issues.
“I feel a connection more between everybody, yeah,” veteran defensive tackle Allen Bailey said.
Outside linebacker Justin Houston made what may have simply been a clumsy choice of words when describing how the new players have integrated themselves. He mentioned the lack of “hothead” guys and immediately attempted to clarify that his remarks were meant to convey the openness of the newcomers.
“One thing that we really care about as a franchise is the culture and the character of the teams,” Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said. “That’s something that’s really important to Brett Veach, and as he brought in players — both through free agency and in the draft — he wanted to make sure that each of those players was going to be a positive contributor in terms of the character of the football team.”
When asked specifically about the difficult decision to part ways with Johnson, Hali and Peters, Hunt only addressed the departures of Johnson and Hali by name in his response.
“Sometimes a change will benefit that player and the team,” Hunt said. “Sometimes, you know, it’s time for a player to retire. That’s always a tough judgment call. It’s a tough judgment call for the player, individually.
“It’s also a tough judgment call for the team, and that’s something that Brett and Andy just have to work through on an annual basis. And in this particular case, it was the right time to move on from both Derrick and Tamba.”