Kansas City Chiefs defensive line the latest unit due for teardown

The Chiefs could save almost $13 million from their salary cap by releasing Frank Clark from a defensive line that ranked 29th in sacks in 2021. William Purnell/Icon Sportswire

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When general manager Brett Veach focuses the resources of the Kansas City Chiefs on improving a particular area, he tends to get the job done. Veach basically tore down the Chiefs on defense in 2019 and they emerged with seven new starters. Many played a significant role as the Chiefs won the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.

Last year, the Chiefs needed to upgrade a decaying offensive line that collapsed in the Chiefs' appearance in Super Bowl LV. The Chiefs began the 2021 season with five new offensive line starters.

So it's wise to listen to what Veach said in the days after the Chiefs' season ended with an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game: "We have some work to do on the defensive side. On the defensive line, we'll have some decisions to make."

The Chiefs will specifically be looking to upgrade their pass rush around tackle Chris Jones, who had nine sacks last season to lead the Chiefs for the fourth straight year. But as a team, the Chiefs had just 31 sacks, which was 29th in the league. They could only get to Joe Burrow once in the AFC title game, one week after Burrow was sacked nine times by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and two weeks before he was sacked seven times by the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.

During the last half of 2021, the Chiefs often lined up four pass-rushers who at one point in their careers had at least 10 sacks in a season: Jones, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed and Melvin Ingram. They were still frustrated by the results.

"You got this group of guys and all we want to do is pass rush from third downs," Clark said at one point during the season. "But we kind of take it and make it hard on ourselves when we don't do a great job of stopping that run on the first down, second down to put ourselves in position to do that on third down.”

Of the Chiefs' top eight defensive linemen in terms of playing time from last season, four are potential free agents, the list being Reed, Ingram, tackle Derrick Nnadi and end Alex Okafor.

The Chiefs could save almost $13 million from their salary cap by releasing Clark, which is possibly one of the decisions Veach referenced.

"We'll always prioritize the offensive and defensive lines," Veach said. "Once you get the quarterback, you're going to invest in the O-line and D-lines.

"I don't think it's far-fetched to think that we'll prioritize the lines like we always do. Knowing that we have a good offensive line in place, defensive line probably makes the most sense. ... I think the defensive side is one that we'll probably focus on right off the bat."

Jones will be a part of things regardless of what happens around him. He led the Chiefs in pass rush win rate at 20%, far ahead of his next closest teammate.

"There's a lot that goes into rushing the passer: hand placement, eye coordination, skill, a little luck, a little playcalling," Jones said. "When all of that comes together, when all of it works together for you, then you're able to reach the quarterback. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does."

But he will need help and the only linemen from last season's top eight under contract for next season in addition to Clark are Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton. The Chiefs could try to retain some of their own free agents, Ingram in particular, or they could shop for a veteran free agent like Derek Barnett of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The draft might be a better option for the Chiefs, who haven't selected an edge rusher in an early round since Breeland Speaks in the second round in 2018. ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said this is a good year for teams looking to upgrade their rush through the draft.

"It's very deep through the first two days of the draft, through the third round and into the fourth, I would say," Reid said. "Everybody knows about Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson but there are plenty of other guys that will be in range for the Chiefs where they're sitting at the back end of the first round. There are some others in the second round they could end up taking."

Reid pointed to a player such as Purdue's George Karlaftis as a possibility for the Chiefs in the first round and ends like Myjai Sanders of Cincinnati or Kingsley Enagbare of South Carolina in the second.