How the Kansas City Chiefs Built the 2020 Defense

How did the Kansas City Chiefs become Super Bowl Champions, and how will they attempt to defend their crown? Here's how the defense has shaped up for the 2020 season.
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The Kansas City Chiefs' 2020 roster is set.

Fresh off a championship, the Chiefs are looking to repeat during the COVID-19 ridden 2020 season. Without a preseason, teams went from their expanded rosters all the way down to the 53-man active rosters without putting a single snap on film.

Where have the 55 players on the Chiefs' active roster come from to help defend the title? In this two-part series, we will examine every player on offense, defense, and special teams and how they entered the NFL, made their way to the 2020 Chiefs roster, and what their role should be for the 2020 season.

First up is the defense.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

Frank Clark, #55

Drafted: 2015 Draft, 2:63 by the Seattle Seahawks.

Path to Chiefs: Traded for in the 2019 offseason for a first-round pick in 2019, 2nd round pick in 2020, and third-round pick swap in 2019.

Contract: Second year of five-year/$104 million contract with a salary cap hit of $19.3 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Frank Clark is back for his second season with the Chiefs, hoping to improve on his 2019 season, which was hampered by injuries and stomach bugs. As the Chiefs' primary edge rusher, Clark will need to provide much-needed edge pressure to compliment the inside pressure of Chris Jones. Clark is being paid big bucks to perform at the high level he did in the 2019 postseason, so it’s now time to see if he can build on that stellar postseason performance.

Tanoh Kpassgnon, #92

Drafted: 2017 Draft, 2:59 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Last year of four-year/$4.3 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $1.37 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Tanoh hasn’t lived up to his draft stock, but the former second-round pick has still been a quality rotational end for the Chiefs the last few years. Tanoh is listed as the starting left defensive end for the Chiefs on the unofficial depth chart, so Tanoh could have a chance to prove himself and show he is more than a rotational piece this year on the final year of his rookie deal.

Alex Okafor, #97

Drafted: 2013 Draft, 4:104 by the Arizona Cardinals.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a three-year/$18 million contract in 2019 free agency.

Contract: Restructured contract in 2020 offseason, now due a max of $4.96 million in 2020 and is a free agent after the 2020 season.

Player Summary: Okafor was added to the 2019 Chiefs to provide depth at defensive end because the Chiefs switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under Steve Spagnuolo. Okafor was a good rotational defensive end last year who didn’t live up to his price tag due to tearing his pectoral muscle during the season and going on IR. With Okafor healthy now, he should be a good rotational defensive end and is probably the first end off the bench if Kpassagnon does start.

Taco Charlton, #94

Drafted: 2017 Draft, 1:28 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a one-year/$825k contract in 2020 free agency.

Contract: one year/$825k for 2020.

Player Summary: Taco was a disappointment for the Cowboys, in which he never lived up to the first-round investment over his two years with the team. His limited athletic profile was a concern when coming out of college, and it seems to have been a valid concern in the NFL. The Chiefs have picked up former high-round draft picks a lot in free agency over Brett Veach’s tenure as general manager, and while this strategy hasn’t always been fruitful, the gambles are good low-risk, high-reward signings that could provide value. Taco is slated to be a backup at defensive end, and he will get some snaps to prove he still belongs in the NFL.

Mike Danna, #51 (Rookie)

Drafted: 2020 Draft, 5:177 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Played three years at Central Michigan. Transferred to Michigan for the 2019 college football season and was a rotational starter. Drafted by the Chiefs in the 2020 NFL draft.

Contract: First year of four-year/$3.295 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $676k in 2020.

Player Summary: Danna is entering his first year as a Chief and should be a backup this year unless he impressed the coaching staff in training camp. The Michigan product didn’t impress in his one year at Michigan, but if the Chiefs can unlock the tape Danna put up at Central Michigan, he could be a quality player at the next level.

Demone Harris, #52

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2018 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Path to Chiefs: Chiefs signed Harris off of the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad on November 21, 2019.

Contract: one year/$750k for 2020.

Player Summary: Demone Harris played a few games for the Chiefs in 2019 and recorded a few tackles in his playing time. Harris is a somewhat prototypical Spagnuolo defensive end who will probably just function as depth at defensive end this year for the Chiefs.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES

Chris Jones, #95

Drafted: 2016 Draft, 2:37 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by the Chiefs.

Contract: First year of a four-year/$80 million contract that can earn up to $85 million with incentives with a salary cap hit of $15 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Jones gets to go out on the field in 2020 with a new contract and the security that brings. It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs try to move Jones around along the defensive line this year, as the team did at the end of last year. Jones has actually asked Spagnuolo about moving around on the defensive line this year. Even if he stays at defensive tackle, Jones is the anchor for the interior line who really makes the defense hum, and that will be needed for the Chiefs to defend their title.

Derrick Nnadi, #91

Drafted: 2018 Draft, 3:75 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by the Chiefs.

Contract: Third year of four-year/$3.745 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $1.21 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Nnadi has developed into a really good 1/0-tech nose tackle for the Chiefs and really stepped it up on the inside during the Chiefs' championship run. Nnadi is asked to do a lot in the Chiefs' defensive scheme and he has risen to the occasion and performed when asked. He is one of the unsung heroes of the defense.

Khalen Saunders, #99

Drafted: 2019 Draft, 3:84 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by the Chiefs.

Contract: Second year of four-year/$3.975 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $928k in 2020.

Player Summary: Saunders played a fair amount of snaps his rookie year and looked pretty good with this playing time. He wasn’t dominating interior offensive lines, but Saunders did provide some good inside defensive line depth. If Saunders can improve on his rookie campaign, the Chiefs will be more than set on the inside.

Mike Pennel, #64

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2014 by the Green Bay Packers.

Path to Chiefs: Signed October 19, 2019, by the Chiefs. Re-signed with the Chiefs in 2020 free agency.

Contract: One year/$1.05 million for 2020.

Player Summary: Pennel was a huge reason the Chiefs defense improved their run defense down the stretch in 2019. His addition allowed the Chiefs to actually control the run game and led to great performances by the defense against running backs such as Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook. Pennel is suspended for the first two games of 2020 and he’ll be a welcomed addition to the interior defensive line when he comes back.

Tershawn Wharton, #98 (Rookie)

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2020 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Wharton played in college at Missouri S&T and signed with the Chiefs as a UDFA.

Contract: First year of a three-year/$2.29 million UDFA rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $612k in 2020.

Player Summary: Wharton is a feel-good story for making the active roster. Due to Mike Pennel being suspended the first two games of the 2020 season, the spot was awarded to Wharton, a Missouri native. Wharton projects as a three-tech defensive tackle so he’d rotate in for Chris Jones if he does play snaps in the first few weeks. It will be interesting to see what happens to Wharton when Mike Pennel comes back from his suspension.

LINEBACKERS

Anthony Hitchens, #53

Drafted: 2014 Draft, 4:119 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a five-year/$45 million contract in 2018 free agency.

Contract: Third year of a five-year/$45 million contract with a salary cap hit of $12.7 million for 2020.

Player Summary: Hitchens is entering his third year as a Chiefs starting linebacker and it hasn’t exactly been a great tenure so far for him. While the linebacker has a good command of Spagnuolo’s system and a solid run defender, he just hasn’t played up to his contraft, especially in pass defense. It will be interesting to see if Spagnuolo tries to put Hitchens in situations that better suit his strengths in 2020.

Damien Wilson, #54

Drafted: 2015 Draft, 4:127 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a two-year/$5.75 million contract in 2018 free agency.

Contract: Last year of a two-year/$5.75 million contract with a salary cap hit of $5.38 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Damien Wilson was a fine linebacker in 2019 for the Chiefs, especially when asked to attack the line of scrimmage. Like the other Chiefs linebackers, however, Wilson did not excel in pass coverage and actively hurt the team at times. He will be a fine starter for 2020, but he’ll need to have a breakout year for the team to have interest in bringing him back after this year.

Willie Gay Jr., #50 (Rookie)

Drafted: 2020 Draft, 2:63 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Gay was an off-and-on starter for Mississippi State for three years and was drafted by the Chiefs in the 2020 draft.

Contract: First year of a four-year/$5.27 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $958k in 2020.

Player Summary: Gay is an exciting rookie prospect at linebacker who is incredibly athletic for his size. Gay didn’t have a ton of production at Mississippi State but reports out of training camp are that he made a ton of plays and looked excellent. He seems to have a role in the linebacker rotation, but it’s hard to know what exactly that role will be until the Chiefs play in Week 1.

Ben Niemann, #56

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2018 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Signed as UDFA with the Chiefs in 2018.

Contract: Final year of three-year/$1.8 million UDFA contract with a salary cap hit of $752k in 2020.

Player Summary: Niemann has carved out quite a role on the starting defense over the past few years, and even started at WILL linebacker for the Chiefs in their 2019 playoff run. While many would rather see Willie Gay Jr. take WILL linebacker snaps, it seems like the responsibilities will fall on Niemann to start the year.

Dorian O’Daniel, #44

Drafted: 2018 Draft, 3:100 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Third year of four-year/$3.57 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $964k in 2020.

Player Summary: O’Daniel has not lived up to expectations so far on the Chiefs, and with Niemann starting at WILL linebacker, the disappointment seems to be continuing. It’s hard to figure out the real reason why O’Daniel hasn’t seen more snaps on defense so far in his career, but something is holding him off the field. O’Daniel is still a fantastic special teamer, so he still has an important role on the active roster.

CORNERBACKS

Charvarius Ward, #35

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2018 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Path to Chiefs: Chiefs traded guard Parker Ehinger to the Cowboys for Charvarius Ward in the 2018 preseason.

Contract: Final year of three-year/$1.8 million UDFA contract with a salary cap hit of $750k in 2020.

Player Summary: Charvarius Ward was a pleasant surprise for the Chiefs in 2019, where he stepped up as the Chiefs' de facto starting cornerback and played well. Ward was one of Brett Veach’s best moves as Chiefs general manager, as not only was Ward a product of great scouting, he also traded for Ward with a player the Chiefs would’ve cut. With Bashaud Breeland suspended and inexperienced cornerbacks behind him, Ward’s play will be as important as ever in 2020.

Bashaud Breeland, #21

Drafted: 2014 Draft, 4:102 by the Washington Football Team.

Path to Chiefs: Re-signed by Chiefs in 2020 free agency to a one-year/$3 million contract.

Contract: One-year/$3 million contract in 2020.

Player Summary: Breeland will be out for four games due to a suspension for substance abuse to start the 2020 season. When he plays, he is a solid cornerback who was able to hold down an outside cornerback spot for the Chiefs in their championship year in 2019. When Breeland returns from suspension, the Chiefs' cornerback room will get a solid boon.

Rashad Fenton, #27

Drafted: 2019 Draft, 6:201 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Second year of four-year/$3.17 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $723k in 2020.

Player Summary: For a sixth-round rookie, Fenton had an impactful rookie year. Fenton saw snaps on the starting defense later in the year in the slot and at safety, and looked consistent and solid while doing so. The Chiefs are reportedly high on Fenton and his ability coming into 2020, and Fenton might see an expanded role. Fenton’s growth in his second year is an interesting subplot to watch on defense in 2020.

L’Jarius Sneed, #38 (Rookie)

Drafted: 2020 Draft, 4:138 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: L’Jarius Sneed was a four-year starter for Louisiana Tech, with three years being at cornerback and one year at safety. He was drafted by the Chiefs in the 2020 draft.

Contract: First year of four-year/$3.93 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $769k in 2020.

Player Summary: Sneed was a three-year starter at cornerback at Louisiana Tech before switching to safety his senior year. While he was fine at safety in that senior year, his true skills lie at cornerback. Sneed is a long, rangey cornerback who has great measurables and the ability to play press. There was a lot of talk around Chiefs training camp that Sneed looked great, and Spagnuolo has mentioned Sneed among the group of corners who could step in during Breeland's absence.

Antonio Hamilton, #20

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2016 by the Oakland Raiders.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a one-year/$1.05 million contract in 2020 free agency.

Contract: One-year/$1.05 million contract in 2020.

Player Summary: Hamilton is an elite special teamer who also has some chops for playing defense. He has great measurables, but other than that, he really hasn’t shown too much on defense. In 2019, he played the highest number of snaps he's taken on defense, but it still was only 133 snaps for the entire season on the Giants' defense. One thing to note is that Hamilton talked about Spagnuolo playing him at the safety/cornerback hybrid position that Kendall Fuller played in the playoffs last year. Hamilton’s role on the defense is unclear for now, and it remains to be seen if he is strictly a special teamer or if there is something more there.

Thakarius “BoPete” Keyes, #29 (Rookie)

Drafted: 2020 Draft, 7:237 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Two-year starter at Tulane and was drafted by the Chiefs in the 2020 draft.

Contract: First year of three-year/$3.38 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $631k in 2020.

Player Summary: He goes by BoPete. Keyes is a two-year starter at Tulane who the Chiefs traded back into the 2020 draft to select so they wouldn’t lose him in the undrafted rookie signing period. Keyes will probably not see the field much in his rookie year unless there are major injuries, so his contribution to the team will be mostly on special teams.

SAFETIES

Tyrann Mathieu, #32

Drafted: 2013 Draft, 3:69 by the Arizona Cardinals.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a three-year/$42 million contract in 2019 free agency coming from the Houston Texans.

Contract: Second year of three-year/$42 million contract with a salary cap hit of $16.33 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Mathieu was a huge boon to the Chiefs' defense in 2019, and he is probably going to fulfill a similar role in 2020 for the Chiefs defense as a Swiss army knife. Tyrann actually played most of his snaps on defense in 2019 in the slot at cornerback, so it will be curious to see if he does that again in 2020 or if his alignments change in 2020 to focus more on being more of a roaming box safety.

Daniel Sorensen, #49

Drafted: Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2014 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Last year of a four-year/$16 million contract with a salary cap hit of $4.75 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Fan-favorite Dirty Dan is back again. The man who made the tackle to spark the comeback against the Texans might be entering his final year with the Chiefs as he is 30 and has never been an overwhelming player. However, Sorensen still has a role in the Chiefs' defense as the third safety and will possibly take snaps at free safety while Thornhill eases back into the swing of things.

Juan Thornhill, #22

Drafted: 2019 Draft, 2:61 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Second year of four-year/$4.615 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $1.05 million in 2020.

Player Summary: Thornhill had a great rookie season playing the tough roll of deep safety for the Chiefs in 2019. Sadly, the season ended in Week 17 when Thornhill tore his ACL. His progress has been quick to rehab the knee injury but it still seems like he will not be ready to be the main starter at free safety in Week 1. When he does get back on the field full-time, his development in his second year will be a story to watch.

Armani Watts, #23

Drafted: 2018 Draft, 4:124 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Path to Chiefs: Drafted by Chiefs.

Contract: Third year of four-year/$3.3 million rookie contract with a salary cap hit of $918k in 2020.

Player Summary: Watts has been a solid depth player and special teamer for the Chiefs in his time with the team. While expectations for him have never come to fruition, he’s still a good backup with chops to start if needed.

Tedric Thompson, #24

Drafted: 2017 Draft, 4:111 by the Seattle Seahawks.

Path to Chiefs: Signed a one-year/$825k contract on July 30, 2020.

Contract: One-year/$825k contract in 2020.

Player Summary: Thompson had a disappointing end in Seattle. He showed promise early on in his career with the Seahawks but that faded as his play got worse and worse. The Chiefs picked up Thompson to be insurance for Thornhill if he was not ready to go as Thompson played mostly deep safety for the Seahawks. Thompson projects mostly as depth for the safety group.

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Overall, the 2020 Chiefs defense is a lot of familiar faces backed up by some new blood. While the main contributors are the same as 2019, in Jones, Clark, Mathieu, Ward, and others, there is a lot of young talent on the defense and if some of that young talent can develop, then the Chiefs might have a stout defense to pair with a potent offense. It will be up to Steve Spagnuolo coaching up these players in this abnormal year to get the best out of them, but the talent is there for a potentially great defense.