Can the pass rush-challenged Kansas City Chiefs afford to let Melvin Ingram go?

Melvin Ingram, who joined the Chiefs at the trade deadline, celebrates a sack against the Raiders. David Eulitt/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Defensive end Melvin Ingram announced his presence on his first play with the Kansas City Chiefs, driving a blocker backward into Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love and forcing an incomplete pass.

Ingram had one sack in nine games during the regular season and two more in the playoffs, but the Chiefs' fortunes -- as a team and defensively -- changed after his midseason arrival in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had one of the biggest plays of the Chiefs' season during Week 18 in Denver, when he forced a fourth-quarter fumble that was returned by teammate Nick Bolton for the winning touchdown against the Broncos.

Ingram, a potential free agent, had enough impact that as the Chiefs assess what they can afford this offseason, they must also ask: Can they afford to let him go?

Improving the pass rush is a priority for the Chiefs after they slipped to 29th in the NFL in sacks with 31. Ingram said during the playoffs, "I've definitely got a lot of desire" to remain with the Chiefs and the feeling seems to be mutual.

"His leadership and his approach, I think, elevated everyone else's game," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. "I don't think it was just a fluke that the defense kind of took off from there. We had a really good string of late-season football and I think he was a huge part of that.

"He'll go through the process of taking some time and getting with his family and seeing where he wants to play and what makes sense for him. But I do think if a guy like Melvin decides he wants to come back and play, I think that we would be at the top of his list and that's something we'll work to keep the dialogue open with."

The Chiefs are familiar with Ingram from playing regularly against him during his nine seasons with the Chargers. Ingram had 8.5 sacks in 15 career games against the Chiefs.

Still, Ingram was a surprise in some ways to the Chiefs.

"He's a great teammate and you don't know those things about him when you watch him from afar," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said late in the season. "He's passionate about the game of football and he's a real intuitive football player. He gets football. When you go over and explain something to him, or we're doing it this way because of, it makes sense to him. Some guys you coach through the years, they'll shake their head and say that they've got it, but you're not really sure if they do. You know that when Melvin says, 'Yeah, I know what you're talking about, coach,' that he surely does.

"What's great about Melvin is watching him, not just on the field, but in the meeting rooms, around the building, around the guys when he's not out there on a particular rep. It was evident to me that this man loves football. He's always here. He's always around. He's not just with defensive guys. I love the fact that he's relational. I think that goes a long way when you come in new in the middle of the season that you're like that instead of off on your own, but I think he's been a great addition that way, in addition to what he's been doing on the field."

Ingram indeed was able to be productive for the Chiefs, unlike some of their other recent midseason additions such as wide receiver Josh Gordon and running back Le'Veon Bell, though at a much different position.

"Just came in and bought in, just bought in to what they already had going on," Ingram said. "That's the best way you can fit in anywhere. Don't try to come in and do your own thing. Don't try to come and be somebody else -- just buy in to what they've got going on and come in and do what they need you to do."

On his forced fumble against the Broncos, Ingram quickly got through a gap in Denver's offensive line to hit running back Melvin Gordon as soon as he took a handoff.

"He just has a knack for really understanding blocking schemes and what offensive lines want to do, what coordinators want to do, and it kind of helps him anticipate what's coming," safety Tyrann Mathieu said.

The Chiefs were 4-4 before Ingram's arrival, 8-1 after. Seven of their best nine games in terms of pass rush win rate came after he entered their lineup. The Chiefs allowed 27.5 points per game in their eight games without him but 16 per game after he showed up.

It's too easy to assign all of the credit to Ingram, but the Chiefs believe he was a big part of their turnaround.

"He plays angry," Spagnuolo said. "I say that to him all the time. I say, 'You play angry and I love it. You've got everybody else getting angry too.' He's had a couple plays ... where he just knocks people around, and I think that's contagious and that helps us.

"It's not just about sacks. It's [that] he's demanding a double-team or if he's driving somebody into the quarterback, the quarterback's got to move his feet and then he falls into somebody else. So, those kinds of things are what we're getting, and it's helping. It's helping a lot."