The Kansas City Chiefs' defense was a slightly underwhelming unit a season ago and with a pivotal offseason on the horizon, the team set its sights on a retooling of sorts.
With his back against the wall, general manager Brett Veach did out with the old (safety Tyrann Mathieu and linebacker Anthony Hitchens) and ushered in the new (cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis). The moves were necessary additions to a Steve Spagnuolo-coached unit that needed to get younger and more athletic, and both of those goals were primarily accomplished with two draft picks.
With change — even in a workplace environment — can come the bittersweet feeling of losing daily access to a trusted and valued friend. This is no different for Kansas City, as both Mathieu and Hitchens were critical cogs in the machine that ended up being Super Bowl LIV champions. Both players endeared themselves to their teammates, coaching staff and community. When asked about this change, Spagnuolo said everyone must move forward.
“First of all, we’re human, right?" Spagnuolo said. "Relationships are built, so I miss people. The guys you mentioned and others. But, in the profession as coach, you move on. You try to build and develop and come up with something else. And to the second part of the question with the leadership, we just look and see where it goes right now.
"Some guys are natural, they step up. I’m in their ears once in a while giving a couple pointers here or there. We’ll see where it goes. I think it’s going to take a little time. I think today was the fifth OTA where we can actually do some of the blending. But there are some positive signs, so hopefully it keeps going like that.”
The Chiefs' new-look defense is going to feature premier prospects leading the way, as McDuffie was a standout defensive back at Washington and Karlaftis was a steady contributor throughout his career at Purdue. The former is going to be a mainstay in Spagnuolo's cornerback unit, and the latter should start as a pass-rusher on day one. In order for Kansas City's defense to reach its potential early on, it will need the youngsters to step up. Spagnuolo was asked about Veach's first-round picks, and he praised the decisions.
“We were just sitting there waiting letting Brett Veach and his crew do their work," Spagnuolo said. "He’s asking questions and does all that but made the decision to go up and we certainly love that we did because of the player that we got. I think Trent is going to help us. George, it was nice to have a second first-round pick, right? And George (Karlaftis) was there. I think Brett probably went through all that. We’re just really happy we got two really good football players. And two guys that I think are what we look for in character, passion for the game of football, work ethic, all those things. And it’s showing up right now.”
As the Chiefs continue their Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the progress of their rookies will be one of the biggest storylines to follow. Replacing key elements of a defense is never easy, but the team opted to put its complete faith in several new players for the 2022 campaign. Whether that trust pays off remains to be seen, but as Spagnuolo mentioned, the early signs are positive.