Sam Mellinger

Decoding the overhauled Chiefs, and Brett Veach's first offseason

The most interesting and introspective thing said publicly by a Chiefs employee came last week, when Brett Veach addressed a dozen or so reporters about the first three NFL Draft picks of his career as general manager. Really, he was also speaking about a bigger philosophy and his own priorities. Basically, he was describing the direction of a franchise.

Each man the Chiefs drafted has flaws. They're human, and none was a first-round pick. Breeland Speaks is something of a hothead. Derrick Nnadi isn't much of a pass rusher. Dorian O'Daniel has some technical flaws to address.

But they also have specific strengths, and one they — in addition to later picks, most notably Armani Watts and Kahlil McKenzie — share is toughness. They have some nasty, is how a scout might put it.

Veach could not have been clearer that this was the plan all along, implemented to address a primary weakness of a team that lost six of seven in midseason and cratered an 18-point lead at home in the playoffs.

"Not good enough," Veach said. "Sometimes it just comes down to having guys that are wired right. Guys that want to line up and play four quarters of football. Our need is to just get tougher."

That's pretty strong, at least on the scale of what's usually said publicly by NFL executives, implying too many defenders on last year's team weren't "wired right" and were unable to play hard enough in a postseason game.

It also echoes a critique you hear around the league too often to ignore. The Chiefs are talented. They are fast, at least on offense, and generally smart.

They're not always tough.

They struggle to run between the tackles and with head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton have ranked 26th, 30th, 16th, 24th and 23rd in average run defense.

You can see it beyond the numbers, too. Until their quarterback situation imploded, the Broncos dominated the AFC West by essentially acting like pirates. Before the Titans, it was the Steelers beating the Chiefs with biceps in the playoffs. The low point of the losing streak in 2017 was giving up 488 yards to the Jets, who ranked 28th in yards gained per game and fired their offensive coordinator.

Like the man said — not good enough.

The plan then is to double down on speed with the offense while attempting to ante up with toughness on defense.

The Chiefs gave Sammy Watkins the biggest signing bonus for a wide receiver in league history. His value is in winning deep routes, with the tracking ability and hands that his previous two teams could not maximize. Defending him, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, a deep stock of backs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes' arm talent sounds like a rotten way to make a living.

But this offseason, Veach showed the plan isn't simply hoping to win 41-35 with a first-year starting quarterback.

Anthony Hitchens and Kendall Fuller will immediately be among the Chiefs' best defenders. Hitchens is a bull against the run, clearly well-prepared with an understanding of where and when opponents will run and how they might try to block him. The Chiefs have had problems with counters. At least with the Cowboys, Hitchens seemed difficult to fool and significantly more physical — remember Veach's emphasis on toughness — than Derrick Johnson.

Fuller is a cornerback, and at that position, toughness is much more mental than physical. His film last year is full of solid tackles, jumped routes, finger-wagging and a pat-me-down-and-put-me-in-handcuffs interception celebration. Notably, the biggest play he gave up may have been against Kelce in the Monday night game — Fuller bit on an outside fake and was beat for 32 yards down the seam.

Watch the college film of the Chiefs' draft picks, and you see a steady theme of taking on blockers, aggressive tackling and confidence. No teams are perfect, but it's hard not to believe the Chiefs would've advanced in the playoffs with a little more of those traits.

If Mahomes is even close to as good as the Chiefs believe, offense won't be a problem. This was always going to be about finding enough defense, and the team made it harder on itself than it needed by trading Marcus Peters.

The Chiefs are betting that the failure last season was about personnel, not scheme. That's why Sutton is still here, much of why Peters isn't, and why Veach is talking about whether guys are wired right.

This is probably more than a one-year project, whether the Chiefs admit that publicly or not. But you can see how this might work. Or, at least, how the Chiefs envision it working.

Beyond a lack of toughness, a primary problem last year was a lack of versatility. Eric Berry is one of the more versatile defenders in the league, and his injury exposed a wicked combination of personnel flaws and Sutton's own deficiencies. Without Berry around, running against the Chiefs' nickel and dime packages became agonizingly easy.

Without Dee Ford or any real priority by Sutton to generate a pass rush, opponents could focus on blocking Justin Houston with doubles or chips. On other snaps, they could dictate Houston drop into coverage based on their own personnel.

The Chiefs appear to believe Sutton did not have the pieces necessary to be versatile and unpredictable. Either that, or they believe he can regain the mojo from previous seasons.

Nobody can be sure if this will work, and enough problems existed on the Chiefs' defense at several levels that it's probably more than a one-year fix. But you can see what they're trying to do, if you're watching, if you're listening.