Rookies from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2022 NFL Draft class are already playing snaps for the defense in St. Joseph, MO.
The very first defensive alignment for the Chiefs as they started 2022's camp included the two first-round rookie defenders: Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis. However, a surprise rookie got in a lot of work on day one and has gotten snaps since: fourth-round pick Joshua Williams.
Williams is likely taking these snaps because longtime cornerback Rashad Fenton is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list due to a shoulder injury he had surgery on earlier this offseason. With that said, it's still notable that Williams earned these snaps over other cornerbacks on the roster such as Lonnie Johnson or DeAndre Baker.
Not only is Williams getting snaps with the first team in training camp, but he is also making plays during those reps.
Having three rookies take serious snaps for the Chiefs' defense this early in camp is very much unheard of. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has famously, or maybe infamously, preferred veterans who are familiar with his scheme over younger players, even if the talent discrepancy is large. Daniel Sorensen and Ben Niemann getting snaps (and eventually playing time) over Juan Thornhill and Willie Gay Jr. last year serve as recent examples of this phenomenon.
The aforementioned three rookies getting snaps with the first team aren't the only ones that could become starters, either.
While Bryan Cook only got snaps with the first team defense due to Justin Reid coming out of practice for a bit, his inclusion is still notable due to the Chiefs running three-safety nickel defenses a lot in the past. All of Thornhill, Tyrann Mathieu and Sorensen played more than 65% of the defense's snaps last year. This fact, if it carries over to this year, means that Cook could be in line to play a lot of snaps.
The last rookie that could have serious playing time is linebacker Leo Chenal. He is currently playing on the second team with Elijah Lee starting ahead of him but with Chenal’s attitude and physical profile, it's easy to see him winning that battle eventually.
Five rookies logging serious playing time on the defense is a huge departure from the norm for Spagnuolo and is an outlier in the NFL overall as well. That is an incredibly young defense that has many implications surrounding it. One interesting one is that if these players pan out, the Chiefs' defense is going to be very cheap, very soon.
Kansas City is currently ranked 19th in spending on defense in 2023 with $87.5 million being currently earmarked for the unit. This spending includes over $57M for two players: $30M for Frank Clark and $27M for Chris Jones. Without those two players — two players who might not be wearing Chiefs red next year — the defense would only cost $30M total. That's dirt cheap.
This cost is entirely due to the youth the Chiefs are employing on defense. If the Chiefs' defensive lineup from the first training camp practice is the starting lineup for the team come Week 1, six of the club's defenders will be players on their rookie contracts. Cook, Chenal and Williams getting snaps in nickel and dime looks could push that number up to eight players. That's a ridiculous ratio of players being on cheap contracts. Out of those players on rookie deals, only Thornhill is on a contract that will be expiring after this year.
What remains to be seen is how many of these young players stick. The odds indicate that it won't be all of them. If the Chiefs hit on three of the five rookies who could start on defense, though, that's an incredible boon for the defense. With Clark’s contract coming off the books next year, the defense will have a substantial amount of money set aside to continue bolstering that side of the ball.
The youth movement on the defensive side of the ball for the Chiefs is in full swing. The implications of this movement are monumental. It signals a new era for the defense — and an era with a sky-high ceiling.