The Kansas City Chiefs were ranked 29th in the NFL in 2009 in scoring defense as they gave up an average of 26.5 points per game. In 2010 they ranked 11th in the NFL giving up an average of 20.4 points per game. They improved by 18 spots over the course of just one season. There isn't just one explanation for this huge turnaround, but there is one common theme: talent. They brought in a talented defensive coordinator in Romeo Crennel, and they brought in a heap of talent on the defensive side of the ball with the draft selections of Eric Berry, Javier Arenas and Kendrick Lewis.
The Chiefs also brought in Emmitt Thomas last year, the defensive backs coach that was hired away from the Atlanta Falcons where he had spent eight years in the same post. He returned to coach where he had made his name as a Hall Of Fame player for the Chiefs for 13 seasons ('66-'78). He still holds the franchise record for interceptions in a career with 58, and was a member of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs team in 1969. Thomas has over 43 years experience in the NFL as a player and assistant coach. It's clear his coaching acumen, along with Crennel, changed things significantly.
There is also no denying that Eric Berry and the rest of this Kansas City defensive backfield is on the verge of putting together something very special. Berry was a Pro Bowl safety as a rookie and was as good as advertised coming out of the University of Tennessee as the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft. In a secondary full of young, talented players, Berry stood out above the rest. He's already been named by his peers as one of the top 100 players in the NFL heading into the 2011 season. He was named the Chiefs rookie of the year by his teammates, and according to Pro Football Focus Berry was the best blitzing defensive back in the league last year.
Eric Berry is the kind of player that you build your team around, not just your defense. He is going to have that kind of an impact throughout his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs were not completely lacking talent in the backfield when they drafted Berry, Arenas and Lewis last year. They had two young corners in Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr that were both taken in the 2008 draft, Flowers in the second round out of Virgina Tech, and Carr out of Division II Grand Valley State in the fifth. Flowers was a budding star in this league and Carr was an underrated corner that still had a lot to prove.
Flowers finished the 2010 season as the best tackling corner in the NFL, missing just one tackle in 65 opportunities. Carr finished the 2010 season in the top 5 in the NFL in burn percentage, meaning that only 40% of the passes that were thrown to Carr's guys on the field were completed. Kendrick Lewis joined Berry on the Pro Football Focus All-Rookie Team for the 2010 season. So to recap, the Chiefs have the best tackling corner in the NFL, the other corner is in the top 5 in the league in completion percentage against, one of the rookie safeties already made the Pro Bowl and was the best blitzing DB in the league last year, and the other rookie safety was on the first-team All-Rookie team with our other choice. It's easy to see why Chiefs fans are optimistic about this defensive backfield for the next several years.
The Chiefs also just drafted Jalil Brown out of Colorado, the 6'0 204 lb cornerback has tremendous size for a player that spent most of his time at Colorado playing man-press coverage. He should compete with Javier Arenas for the nickel position and should play a big role on special teams.
There is still no word on the status of cornerback Travis Daniels and safety Jon McGraw for next season. Part of Brown's allure was that he is versatile enough to play safety, but bringing McGraw back as an unrestricted free agent would be a wise move for the Chiefs. He has been a leader for this team and helped groom the players he knew were drafted to take his spot. McGraw had this to say during training camp about teaching the new young safeties.
"I want to be the best player I can be and a lot of times becoming the best player, the way to get there is to be a better teacher. If you can really teach something well, you can actually help yourself and learn it better. It's a great way for veterans to get better at their skill to teach it to other guys. Guys that go into isolation mode, in the end actually hurt the team."
The Chiefs reportedly tendered safety Reshard Langford for next season in a move that is about depth and special teams more than anything else. Brandon Carr was given a second-round tender for the 2010 season but wouldn't be surprising to see the Chiefs try and give Carr an extension. They tendered Derrick Johnson last year before signing him to a five-year deal during the season. Maybe something similar with Carr is on the horizon.
Competition awaits for those last few remaining roster spots as the Kansas City defensive backfield is already full of young, talented players. Donald Washington is coming back from ending the season on injured reserve, as are Maurice Leggett and Jackie Bates. Ricky Price and Travis Daniels are two players that are most likely on the bubble, or already on the outside looking in at a spot on the 2011 roster.
The Chiefs defense was drastically improved from 2009 to 2010 and a lot of it had to do with the productivity they got from their rookie defensive backs. There is no reason to believe that these players won't get significantly better in their sophomore seasons and that should bode well for the Chiefs in 2011, but not for their opponents.