It’s not often that top Super Bowl contenders like the Kansas City Chiefs need to rely too heavily on their rookies. More often, rookies on those teams are there to complement the players who are already there and fill in potential gaps from veteran free agent departures or the roster holes from subpar play.
That’s what makes the 2022 Chiefs such an interesting case, especially as we look at their defense. Despite being among Super Bowl favorites once again, the Chiefs’ rookie defenders will have to be real contributors for the team to win another championship.
It’s no secret that when it came to Kansas City’s 2021 roster, any problems it had didn’t lie on the offensive side; they were just really bad at stopping other teams’ offenses for a large part of the season. Though the Chiefs’ defense improved slightly as the year went on, it didn’t stop them from being among the league’s worst in several defensive categories.
Kansas City had the worst run stop win rate in the league in 2021 according to ESPN, and it’s not because they saw a small sample size of run plays last year. Chiefs opponents last season averaged 24.5 rushing attempts per game, good for sixth-most in the league. Kansas City was just consistently giving up chunk yardage on running plays with opponents averaging 4.7 yards per rush against the Chiefs.
The passing defense may have been even worse. The Chiefs gave up 4,273 total passing yards in 2021, sixth-most in the NFL. Sure, that number could be slightly bloated from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow’s 446-yard performance against the Chiefs in Week 17, but there’s a reason he was able to do that.
Kansas City had poor play from secondary defenders like safety Daniel Sorenson and didn’t get the production they hoped for in their pass-rush attack. The Chiefs’ 31 sacks during the 2021 regular season were the fourth-fewest in the NFL, the worst of any playoff team besides the Eagles and by far the worst of any division winner. In a relative down year for defensive end Frank Clark, there just wasn’t anyone else on the edge that could rush the passer. (I should note here that defensive tackle Chris Jones carried his weight in a phenomenal, nine-sack season, among the most of any D-tackle not named Aaron Donald or Cam Heyward, but I digress.)
To make matters a little worse for their passing defense, the Chiefs also lost impact safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency this offseason. That departure leaves behind a massive hole to fill in a defense that already needed tons of help to begin with,
Enter edge rusher George Karlaftis, cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Joshua Williams, safety Bryan Cook and linebacker Leo Chenal. These five rookies will all have the chance to make immediate impacts for the Chiefs in year one. Kansas City is really hoping that at least a few of them are able to do so and, as a result, pull the team’s defensive play up significantly in 2022.
Of the five rookie defenders the Chiefs drafted, the obvious candidates to play starring roles in the Kansas City defense are their two first-round picks: Karlaftis and McDuffie.
Karlaftis is already projected to be a starter in the Chiefs’ front seven opposite Frank Clark and Chris Jones. While he may not have the arm length, speed or finesse some other pass-rushers in today’s NFL have, he does have the ability to generate tons of power with his hands. Karlaftis also excels at using his hands with his initial moves and counters that, combined with his power, make him an exceptionally hard man to block. Given that he’s already been praised by head coach Andy Reid for his great hands and high motor, it’s not hard to envision Karlaftis carving out a significant role in Kansas City’s defense.
As a fellow first-round pick, McDuffie is also slated to be a starter in his first year as a pro and replace Charvarius Ward, who headed to San Francisco in free agency, as the Chiefs’ LCB. McDuffie is an extremely versatile defensive back who’s willing to play anywhere if it means he can make an impact. He’s obsessed with football to the point where he’ll watch around four and a half hours of film every night, and it shows up in his game. McDuffie is an exceptional talent both as a zone defender and as a lockdown man-coverage corner. He’ll be a fantastic addition to a secondary that had their fair share of struggles last year and lost some of its most important players this offseason.
Williams, Cook and Chenal will all get the chance to make big contributions to the Chiefs’ defense this season as well, but their current roles on the roster are less clear right now. Williams’ ball skills are too good for Kansas City to not try to take advantage of them. Cook’s ability to set the tone with his toughness and physicality could make him a worthy replacement of Mathieu eventually, even if it’s not immediately in his first season. Chenal has all the tools to be a MIKE linebacker as a great tackler and run defender, something the Chiefs—or any team—could always use more of on defense.
Kansas City might have to rely a little more on their rookies than most Super Bowl contenders do in 2022, but the guys they brought in are all great prospects with bright futures. Even if only a few of them are contributors in their rookie season, the Chiefs’ defense should look much better this year.
- Aug 02, 2022
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