Sam Mellinger

The Chiefs’ defensive makeover is essentially complete with big trade for Frank Clark

Chiefs GM Brett Veach on the NFL Draft and the importance of free agency

Heading into next week's NFL Draft, Kansas City Chiefs GM Brett Veach talked Thursday, April 18, 2019 about his strategy when it comes to draft picks, and how free agency plays an important role in the process
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Heading into next week's NFL Draft, Kansas City Chiefs GM Brett Veach talked Thursday, April 18, 2019 about his strategy when it comes to draft picks, and how free agency plays an important role in the process

The comprehensive transformation of the NFL’s worst defense is essentially complete. The Chiefs’ defense is now changed beyond recognition, which was always the point. The centerpiece move was a trade completed Tuesday that sent a first- and second-round pick to Seattle for Frank Clark.

Here is what the Chiefs’ front office and coaches see:

Clark, the league’s best pass rusher this side of Khalil Mack and the perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s tastes. Tyrann Mathieu, a relentless playmaker to upgrade the team’s weakest position group. Chris Jones, a premier force rushing the quarterback from the inside. None are older than 26.

Plus a deep set of second-tier talent led by Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland and Derrick Nnadi. Breeland is 27; the rest are 24 or younger.

Here is what others might see:

Two high draft picks for the right to give a premium contract to Clark, and still one fewer pass rusher than the 2018 group that was so bad you could say it was the only defense that could stop Patrick Mahomes.

Here is what it looks like from here:

A reach on compensation for the exact right player, the last major move of a defensive rehab that’s come a year later than it should have but is as complete in nature as anyone could have realistically expected.

As if all of that isn’t enough to digest, here is one more point:

The franchise rocked by the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in 2012 and Kareem Hunt’s ouster last fall, the franchise currently waiting out an investigation involving receiver Tyreek Hill, just devoted the NFL’s two most precious resources — high picks and lots of cap space — for a man who was dismissed from his college team after an arrest on domestic violence and assault charges.

NFL teams are often comically tight-lipped, but they’ll tell you everything you need to know through their actions — what they do. The Chiefs are being as clear as possible on several important points.

They believe they will have enough cap space and renegotiable contracts to not just sign Clark to a deal that mirrors the five years and $65 million guarantee the Cowboys gave Demarcus Lawrence, but to also sign Mahomes, Jones and (pending the result of the investigation) Hill to big, long-term deals.

During a press conference on Thursday, April 18, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach talked about the club's roster, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and trying not to be too aggressive come draft day.

They are all-in on building a young nucleus to prevent Mahomes’ career from being about gaudy numbers and hug-a-friend highlights but a defense bad enough to keep him from top.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt believes so completely in coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach that he will continue to allow them to take risks on players with histories that include violence against women.

On that last point, it’s worth noting that Clark’s charges were lowered to fourth-degree persistent disorderly conduct and that he is now married to, and has a family with, the victim. Clark has not been in trouble since that incident in November 2014 (when Clark was 21) and has a line of coaches who’ve vouched for his character.

Two reactions before we move on. First, the “due diligence” that coaches and executives like to talk about is pure nonsense. Often, the character witnesses they speak to are other coaches, who often judge acceptable behavior on a sliding scale according to ability.

They are taking guesses — educated, to varying degrees, but all guesses — about whether particular young men will do something stupid and/or violent (again), with the base standard of, “Will this guy disrupt the business of football?”

Second, we should all be far past the idea that a professional sports team, particularly an NFL team, can be any example of morality. Teams have been very clear about this, and if the Chiefs’ extensive history (and present) didn’t steer them away, it should only further make the point.

The Chiefs started looking at Clark months ago as part of their free-agency preparations. They judged Clark to be the best potentially available edge rusher on the market — in fact, better than anyone at that position other than Mack. That he is a natural 4-3 end with the length and strength Spagnuolo covets only drove the point home harder.

This week’s draft class includes star edge rushers like Nick Bosa and Josh Allen, but those players are expected to be taken higher than the Chiefs could realistically attain by trading up. Other potential fits were deemed risky because of injuries or other factors.

The Chiefs had to wait out the Seahawks, with the deal sitting for more than a week before coming to fruition. The Colts and Jets were among the other clubs that showed interest in Clark.

One way to look at it: The Chiefs essentially traded Dee Ford and a first-round pick for Clark. The contract Clark signs will be slightly bigger than Ford’s, but the difference in talent and production — to say nothing of a better scheme fit and Clark being two years younger — is enough to make this an upgrade.

NFL teams tend to overvalue draft picks, and particularly with the picks sent by the Chiefs being near the end of their respective rounds, this could be the club finding value at the margins.

Veach has a well-earned reputation for being aggressive. The Chiefs were always a candidate to trade up, and were always in search of another pass rusher. They spent a lot in picks and will spend more in cap space, but Tuesday’s exchange was not made just for a top-end talent but the certainty and immediacy of his impact.

The risk is in surrendering future flexibility and adding more off-field ugliness. The Chiefs are betting they won’t need the former and that fans won’t care about the latter.

This is the business of football, and today the Chiefs made themselves better at it.

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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.


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