While it seems unlikely, given Steve Spagnuolao’s history as a base 4-3 coach, the Chiefs have left small clues with their coaching changes, player personnel, and their approach to the NFL Draft.
For the entire offseason up to this point, I have had to listen to, read, and even involve myself in every conversation involving some mythical trade, or massive free-agent acquisition that people wanted the Chiefs to make. Hypothetical situation after hypothetical situation until, well it just gets tiring to listen to the same three people being brought up again and again. The day the Chiefs traded for Tyreek Hill I knew very well they weren’t going to make any trades for another wide receiver, especially with signing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency.
“Well, what about D.K., or Scarry Terry, or A.J Brown, or Deebo”…
Trading Tyreek Hill and then in turn trading the picks to another team for another wide receiver would have not made any sense. It’s just filler time for radio stations, filler articles for bloggers, and something to talk about in March. It’s not really what I’m interested in, not really the hypotheticals I like to talk about.
When it comes to big trade rumors or things like that there is often no substance to back it up, and the people talking about the “possible trades” want to have an argument as light as a feather when it comes time to back it up. As I mentioned I don’t like those debates, but as someone who enjoys studying film, and looking at trends in football I do find debates about scheme and personnel grouping interesting. This brings me to my wild offseason hypothetical, what if the Chiefs are changing to a 3-4 defense before our very eyes.
Changes to coaching staff are not uncommon in the NFL, and most teams have a regular cycle of new coaches all around, whether it entire staff, coordinators or even position coaches. The Chiefs were no exception this offseason, with linebackers coach Matt House leaving to take the defensive coordinator position at LSU under new head coach Brian Kelly. This left a vacancy in the Chiefs staff, but instead of go get a new linebacker coach, Andy Reid elected to shift Brendan Daly from the defensive line to linebackers. This is interesting since Daly has primarily coached the defensive line since entering the NFL as an assistant coach in 2006, but his bump to linebackers, it left a void at the defensive line, which was quickly filled when the Chiefs added Joe Cullen. A long-time defensive line coach Cullen has most recently been with the Baltimore Ravens from 2016-2020 and spent last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, serving as their defensive coordinator. This is interesting because both of those teams ran primarily a 3-4 base defense. This could just be the Chiefs looking to add a coach who has had experience developing talent, but it does seem a little bit interesting that Cullen has been coaching in 3-4 systems for the last seven seasons or so, and now the Chiefs would bring him around. Adding to this Daly coached the defensive line in New England under Bill Belichick who deployed a 3-4 scheme and regularly ran odd defensive line fronts. It could just be talented coaches trying to add more talented coaches, but having coaches who have historically coached an odd defensive front adds fuel to the theory.
The Existing Personnel
The defensive line was not a strong suit for the Chiefs in 2021, but they did have glimmers of talent along with Chris Jones. This offseason they elected not to bring back Melvin Ingram or Jarran Reed, leaving them with just Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Derrick Nnadi as their major contributors with Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton off the bench. Jones is the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL, but the lack of a supporting cast had caused him to be double-teamed time and time again, often draining him late when the team needed his ability the most. Nnadi is a high-level run stuffer who does not offer much other than effort in the pass rush department. Clark turned in perhaps the most underwhelming season of any player for the Chiefs, drawing mass criticism from the fan base and analysts alike for his large salary cap hit and lackluster play. Whaton added some pass-rush ability off the bench but is more of a sub-package player where he can line up and rush from the interior. Danna is a good backup level player, with experience playing both inside and out dating back to his time at Michigan.
From a linebacker perspective, the Chiefs bring back both Nick Bolton and Willie Gay, who could potentially be the best young linebacker combination in the game. Currently, the Chiefs play a variation of the 4-2-5 defense, and just by the base of the 3-4 it is incredibly similar, especially with how Spags utilizes the under the front. The similarity in both defenses is that to be able to function they need to have good middle linebackers, with range to go sideline to sideline, plus the ability to stuff the run. Both Bolton and Gay fit the bill for that and can provide the skill up the middle that could allow the creativity to run different fronts, variations, and blitzes.
While the Chiefs were relatively quiet in free agency they made a splash in the NFL draft and made two key picks who could play a tremendous role for the defense, especially if they are considering a switch to a 3-4 defense. I have written already about both George Karlaftis and Leo Chenal, and while both could find roles in the 4-2 base as well as a classic 4-3, the best way to utilize their talents now and in the future would be in a front that utilizes defensive end/defensive tackle types such as Karlaftis in a 4i (inside the tackles inside shoulder) as well as walkup outside linebacker types who can rush the passer.
The general philosophy around rookie players, especially those who rush the passer is to expect very little because they are rookies. It’s a safe way to look at things, there is an obvious adjustment needed to play in the trenches at the NFL level, no matter how good the player was in college.
The unique thing about this year is the Chiefs will be in need of consistent play from rookies across the board early and often. This will put a ton of eyes on Karlaftis especially being a first-round draft pick playing a position the Chiefs definitely need a boost at. It is important to remember that if the Chiefs do go this route the learning curve could be enhanced some and it will likely take weeks to get adjusted. This is because Chenal was mostly an off-ball linebacker, and while he did blitz it was mostly through the middle gaps. He spent very few plays lined up on the edge, and when he did it was mostly to run stuff or set the edge as opposed to rush the passer. Karlaftis spent most of his time playing as a five-technique, and while he did have a few reps a game of playing more of an interior technique he was not asked to do it consistently. The experience is not there yet for both of these players, but the raw talent, athletic ability, and physicality is enough to make it possible down the line.
While Karlaftis and Chenal were both solid picks, it was quite obvious the goal of the Chiefs draft was to reload the secondary. The team drafted five defensive backs, and when including the offseason additions of safeties Justin Reid and Deon Bush the unit will have an all-new feel. The team is only returning Juan Thornhill, L’Jarius Sneed, and Rashad Fenton while they elected not to bring back key players in Tyrann Mathieu as well as Charvarious Ward. There will be big shoes to fill, but the structure of the secondary will likely look very similar. the 4-2-5 defense the Chiefs played a majority of the time last year relied heavily on the success of the secondary and pass rush.
Both the secondary and the pass rush fell short in the largest moments of the games and for the pass rush, it could mean a different front, while for the secondary it meant more as a personnel reload.
I expect Reid and Thornhill to both the starters at safety, with Bryan Cook working in later on in the season. As far as the cornerback room goes I fully expect Trent McDuffie to be a day one starter. It is very rare that teams move the draft capital the Chiefs did for a non-quarterback and with Ward gone the need is there for a high-level outside corner. McDuffie will provide this as well as the ability to play man or zone, which will fit well with Spags. I expect L’Jarius Sneed to bounce back after somewhat of a down 2021 year, and if the Chiefs are wise they will move him to play as the slot corner full time. With a look in a 3-4 defense, it could re-open some of the blitzes that he was utilized so much with as a rookie. I would expect Rashad Fenton to start the season as the opposite outside corner. The Chiefs also drafted Josh Williams in the 4th and Jaylen Watson in the 7th. Watson will be a stretch to make the roster, while I expect Williams to end up competing for playing time down the line.
The young unit will likely take time to gel, which means that early on the Chiefs will be looking to rely on the front seven to help generate positive play.
So What will it look like?
The base look the Chiefs have run the highest percentage of the last couple of season is the 4-2-5 base look.
This look put a lot of pressure on the secondary as well as the front seven, which they did not always produce. This look worked in the past in large part due to versatility at the safety position by Tyrann Matheiu. With Matheiu gone, Justin Reid will look to be the Swiss Army knife, even if his skill set translates to more of a box safety and centerfield type role. Drafting McDuffie will allow Sneed to play the slot.
A reason this defense was so popular by Spags is that it masked poor linebacker play and maximized coverage.
This year is different. With the addition of Leo Chenal the linebacking group will be as diverse and as talented as they come. They now need to find a way to max out on how many LB’s they can have on the field at a time. They also need to find a way to get Chris Jones more one on one looks and get double teams off of him. This is where I had the idea that they may look good in a 3-3-5 stack look.
It’s not a traditional 3-4 defense, but it employs a lot of the same coverages and looks that the 4-2-5 would show. With a look like this, it puts tremendous pressure on Bolton and Gay, but they should be up for the task. It would get Chenal on the field, and allow Jones and Karlaftis to go to their more natural interior rusher positions. Chenal could be utilized as a walkup or from a blitzing situation while he is learning the finer points of the game.
This would also give Sneed a chance to get more active again, and allow him the versatility to play from the slot and the box doing what we saw in his rookie season. He is a playmaker and needs to be put in situations to play around the ball as much as possible.
The AFC West is going to be as pass-happy as ever this year so the Chiefs will more than likely have a multitude of defensive sub-packages and looks that they will employ in order to put pressure on the quarterbacks, but also find ways to cover the weapons that have entered the division. I like this double three-technique look with Clark and Chenal off the edge. Karlaftis on the inside should speed up the IOL, and it should also give Chris Jones a chance to isolate on a guard, but open up a one on one backside for Karlaftis and Clark.
The Bottom Line
Is this going to happen? I don’t know, but it would make a lot of sense given the types of players the Chiefs added and what they currently have on the roster. They drafted guys who played from multiple different looks in college, but a move to more of an odd front look will allow Chris Jones to go back to where he had the best year of his career. I still expect them to play a lot of the 4-2-5 base under look, but with this look sprinkled in on pass rush downs or big downs late in games it will keep teams off balance, and unable to pinpoint where pressure will come from, as well as create confusion when the quarterback is trying to get his pre-snap reads in. Change is good, and the Chiefs must take advantage of their elite defensive tackle an influx of young talent to stop the impeding passing on-slaught from the AFC West.