Brett Veach paid a high price to get rid of his pass rush worries this offseason, but he’s got to be smiling bright at his current defense.
Once the Kansas City Chiefs decided to move on from Bob Sutton, it was clear that Brett Veach was going to go to work on the defense. His point of emphasis just wasn’t what anyone thought it might be.
One year after leading the NFL in total sacks (tied with Pittsburgh), the Chiefs looked primed to place a heavy emphasis on their pass defense, shoring up the coverage units in the second level and beyond. Veach, the team’s general manager, was expected to chase after linebackers with solid coverage skills along with pretty much any secondary talent in hopes of matching the skills up front.
Instead, the Chiefs underwent wholesale changes in their front seven. Dee Ford had 13 sacks and another 29 quarterback hits, but Veach flipped him for a future second round pick to the San Francisco 49ers after toying with the franchise tag. Justin Houston was the pass rushing anchor on the other side, but Veach decided to release him outright instead of working around his contract. Allen Bailey‘s six sacks were also allowed to walk in free agency.
From there, the Chiefs signed Alex Okafor to a nice sized three-year contract, traded safety Eric Murray for pass rushing Emmanuel Ogbah and, in the move of all moves, traded a first and second round pick for Frank Clark. As the cherry on top, he committed $104 million to the newest Chief.
At the time, the moves ranged from surprising to shocking, depending on the individual, and taken together, no one saw it coming. Veach completely cleaned house in the one area of the defense that seemingly was already set.
Under the surface, however, it’s easy to forget just how tenuous everything felt in K.C. before such production took over in 2019. The Chiefs led the league in sacks, yes, but from year to year, the team’s pass rush was a patchwork quilt of numerous worries and concern. It draped the team in a blanket of doubt—high level investments uncertain to actually, you know, rush the passer.
Take Dee Ford these days. He’s currently sitting out multiple days in training camp for the San Francisco 49ers. Tendinitis is to blame, and the team’s hot new defensive import will sit for a week and hop rest is the answer. At this point, the season is far away and any level of panic around Ford’s availability is overblown. Or is it? This is the quandary when it comes to Ford.
For the Chiefs, these questions were always there: the two concussions that bookended the 2015 season, the first back spasms in November of that same year, the hamstring strain in 2016, the lower back issues that stole all but 10 games in 2017. Technically the latter back injury is the only real long-term concern on his record, but even when available, he’s not been effective.
The same cloud of concern hung over Justin Houston as well for the last few years. It wasn’t just the looming shadow of a massive contract or expectations for another 22-sack season. In his latter years with the team, Houston has only played a single full season since 2014. Last year it was a lingering hamstring injury. Knee issues plagued him for multiple seasons before that. When healthy, he’s a well-rounded beast still capable of elite edge play. When healthy.
It’s those last two words that have plagued the Chiefs—not only year after year but even game after game. “Will he” were the first two words used in very important questions in and around Arrowhead Stadium for years. As important as a team’s pass rush can be, the Chiefs were rolling the dice each season.
The risks were understandable. Ford was a first-round investment still on his rookie contract and such flashes of potential had been there all along. Houston was still a Pro Bowl talent when he turned it on and the financial load was so heavy that cutting him before this offseason was too much to take. Simply put, the Chiefs had married Houston in previous years and were bound to that commitment—to both men, really.
This offseason, however, Veach had a way out from under his commitment to both players. Yes, he had the franchise tag to use on Ford, another way to keep the carrot dangling in front of an obviously talented player. But when the trade block yielded a future second round pick, that very asset became an important building block to add to a deal that brought back the anchor the team needed in Clark.
Think of it this way: in a single offseason, the Chiefs invested a first round pick and were able to come away with a clean sweep of their pass rushing concerns. Frank Clark is a defensive leader and an on-field monster who will anchor the rush moving forward for years. Chris Jones will continue to provide an interior push among the NFL’s best. Okafor and Ogbah, among others, will help spread the wealth.
The bottom line is that the Chiefs aren’t even asking the questions that once dominated the defensive conversation around the team. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but looking back, the void left by the former doubts and questions feels like important space carved out. Instead of shrugging, the Chiefs feel confident moving forward.
The cost was high, to be sure, and maybe things work out swimmingly for the new teams involved—the Niners for Ford and the Colts for Houston. But in K.C., they’re likely just happy not to worry about such matters anymore.