Sam Mellinger

Why the Chiefs aren’t as talented on defense as they were, and why they’re OK with that

The Chiefs are less talented right now than they were that January night when they lost an overtime coin flip, and the game, against the New England Patriots, and two reasons stand above all others:

1. They are looking long-term here, not short.

2. Patrick Mahomes.

Maybe that’s cheating, because the first comes from the second, but that’s where we are with what is now essentially a brand new team from even a year ago. Mahomes, the 23-year-old NFL MVP, has turned the offense from nice to jaw-dropping, and the defense has been so extensively made over we should start a new paragraph.

New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has brought in an entirely different coaching staff. Head coach Andy Reid’s son Britt is the only position coach back on that side of the ball, and even he’s in a new job — from coaching the defensive line to helping Matt House with the linebackers. The Chiefs have had eight defenders who made a total of 24 Pro Bowls since 2010.

Care to guess how many will be on the team in 2019?


With major contract extensions being discussed for receiver Tyreek Hill and defensive lineman Chris Jones this offseason, the Chiefs need flexibility to maintain their strengths and improve their weaknesses. The Chiefs signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million contract, and even he fits into this plan. Mathieu is just 26 and versatile enough to fill virtually any need.

“If you’re not proactive in your approach, then you’re always chasing your tail and you’re always in a position where you don’t have draft capital or don’t have cap space,” general manager Brett Veach said.

Veach is more honest publicly than most football people are willing to be. He’s saying it all here.

The plan — the hope — is to take this thing down to the studs and build back up with concrete instead of quicksand.

The plan — the hope — is that Mahomes and Spagnuolo are good enough to win in a temporary construction zone.

If it works, the Chiefs will set up the AFC’s next dynasty and they will pop champagne and prepare speeches.

If it doesn’t, the Chiefs will waste a transformative quarterback’s rookie contract, which is perhaps the greatest sin possible in the NFL (other than being a distraction, or tackling a star quarterback in an unsanctioned way).

Veach took on the opportunity of a lifetime when he became general manager two years ago this summer. The team he took over had a franchise quarterback nobody knew about yet (and who Veach himself had identified), a stable and successful head coach and a roster dotted with stars.

He also inherited a salary cap with all the efficiency of a conversion van dragging a trailer full of rocks.

“Just being real,” Veach said. “The cap’s an issue, right?”

Think about it like this: The Chiefs’ last two defenses were built largely around linebacker Justin Houston, safety Eric Berry and linebacker Dee Ford. Those three were such a wicked combination of declining, flawed and/or expensive that the first two received precisely bupkis trade interest and Ford brought back only a second round pick — in 2020.

But those moves saved $39 million in cap space for 2019 and cut the drag off future payrolls.

The contracts for Houston and Berry had become albatrosses, relics from former general manager John Dorsey’s waiting too long to talk and losing both leverage and the actual negotiations.

Veach’s decision, then, essentially became one of short term or long term. Keeping Ford on a franchise tag would’ve maintained a better pass rush, but it also would’ve eaten $15.4 million in cap space and created a bad choice in a year — sign a 29-year-old with a heavy injury history to an expensive contract or let him walk for even less compensation than the 49ers offered.

The Chiefs have a first-round pick and two seconds in each of the next two drafts. Their cap obligations are now streamlined beyond the 2019 season. Theirs is one of the younger rosters in the league, with Travis Kelce the only man currently on the books for major money after his 30th birthday.

This is all a bit wonky, and not why any of us started liking football. But if you’re trying to think along with Veach and the Chiefs’ front office this offseason, that’s the path. They’re shedding as much old money as possible before committing new money — not just to Hill and Jones, but soon enough to Mahomes.

Again, the Chiefs are not as talented or productive right now as the team that lost the AFC Championship Game. If this was purely about 2019, and purely about football talent, then Houston and Ford and perhaps Berry would be back.

But it’s not. This is about cutting free from past mistakes, creating a path toward a more efficient roster and eliminating the cycle of kicking the can down the road.

Veach has taken the more difficult path, and the one with the greater potential payoff. He should be applauded for that. He and his staff also need to make it the right choices in decisions to come.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.