Camp Notebook: Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo Challenges New Arrivals, Leans on Vets in Defensive Retooling

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The script for the Chiefs’ defense hasn’t changed but it’s a new cast of characters for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is charged with directing a young and retooled lineup and blending it with mainstays from a show with division titles, two AFC crowns and a Super Bowl ring in the trophy case.

“There’s quite a number of new faces,” Spagnuolo said. “It would be different if it was just one, right.”

For some players, such as safety Justin Reid, it’s a brand new scheme to study and new coaches and teammates to get to know. He also understands that the defense in Kansas City has a recent trend of taking time to find its groove opening the season.

“You always want to start strong,” Reid said. “You can even look at how we’ve started in a couple of years past, and this is a totally new defense. We want to be out and from game one come out and start strong.”

Last year only two newcomers played more than 50% of the team’s defensive snaps: free-agent defensive tackle Jarran Reed (64%) and rookie linebacker Nick Bolton (56%). Thursday’s practice saw rookies Trent McDuffie, George Karlaftis, Joshua Williams and Bryan Cook taking reps with the presumably No. 1 defense along with free agents such as Reid and linebacker Elijah Lee.

Also adding to the complication is that gone are linebacker Anthony Hitchens, the defensive quarterback who called the plays, and safety Tyrann Mathieu, who served as de facto leader and heart and soul of the defense.

In replacing Hitchens, Spagnuolo is placing his faith in Bolton, saying he’s “a natural thinker, he’s a natural football player.”

“I’m glad that we have Nick because I think he does a really good job at it,” Spagnuolo explained regarding Bolton’s ability to call plays on the field. “I don’t think he’s – just like Tyrann, safeties being at Tyrann’s level after Tyrann was in it for three years – I’m not sure Nick will be at that level as Hitch after Hitch had it for three years but I am encouraged with what he’s doing right now.”

Spagnuolo is also encouraged by what he’s seen from safety Juan Thornhill, whom he says stepped up when it comes to communications and running the show on the practice field.

“He has kind of taken that upon himself which is about what Juan should be doing right now in his fourth year,” Spagnuolo said. “And as Justin gets more comfortable with the system, I would expect him to do the same thing.”

The veterans who have been with Spagnuolo since his arrival in Kansas City are key to this year’s transition to a younger core. Just six defensive players who were on the practice field at training during Spagnuolo’s first season with the Chiefs: Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Derrick Nnadi, Thornhill, Rashad Fenton and Khalen Saunders. Darius Harris was part of the 2019 team but spent the entire season on the nonfootball injury list and did not practice during training camp.

It’s the veteran core responsible for teaching the new kids on the block the ropes and establishing the expectations. During training camp, Spagnuolo wants to throw everything he can at his new group of players. The playbook might be throttled back later, but right now it’s about learning how much the players can handle.

“We’re going to have to do that, we got to find out what these guys can do and be playing fast on game one,” Spagnuolo said. “Part of doing all of this is to find out which guys can think fast. If you go out there and you play two coverages and two fronts, right, and then you get into game five and you need to change somethings because of whomever you’re playing, we’ll know who can and can’t.”

Notes & observations

The pace is ramping up as the Chiefs took to the field for their second full-squad practice Thursday morning, a 90-minute workout under cloudy skies, periods of rain and cool temperatures in the 70s in St. Joseph. Today’s workout featured the typical stretch, individual, group and installation periods followed by a 7-on-7 session, two team periods and a special teams workout.

While conventional wisdom continues pointing toward left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. signing his franchise tag tender at some point and returning to the club, Roderick Johnson took his role for the second-straight day. It’s way too early to begin serious evaluations — especially since the pads don’t come on for the first time until Aug. 1 — but it’s worth noting when and if the Chiefs begin rotating other players into the position.

The Chiefs have plenty of familiar names on defense including Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Frank Clark, Willie Gay, L’Jarius Sneed and Juan Thornhill. But free agents, second-year players and rookies are going to play meaningful roles on this team.

Who are the most likely candidates to make the biggest impact? Thus far it’s clear Trent McDuffie will be a day one starter. George Karlaftis may reach that point soon. Safety Bryan Cook appears prime for the dime safety role. The absence of Rashad Fenton has allowed fourth-round cornerback Joshua Williams an opportunity and he’s making the most of it. If Leo Chenal doesn’t claim the SAM linebacker starting position he will at the least be an integral role player and a situational pass rusher. Fifth-round right tackle Darian Kinnard and undrafted rookie free agent guard Mike Caliendo are getting opportunities on the offensive line.

Highlights from the 7-on-7 and team periods:

  • Always remember: the Andy Reid offense runs through the tight end. The 7-on-7 session opened with three-straight completions to Blake Bell, Travis Kelce and Noah Gray.
  • While Marquez Valdes-Scantling impressed the most during the offseason program, JuJu Smith-Schuster has been the standout receiver through the first two days of camp. He and Mahomes connected for a touchdown on a crossing route during 7-on-7 work, and later they connected for a high-reel touchdown during the team session. After Frank Clark jumped offsides, Mahomes threw a free ball off his back foot in the direction of Smith-Schuster who hauled in the pass despite the best effort of Joshua Williams. The receiver hauled in the pass and backpedaled into the end zone for a score.
  • One rare misconnection between Mahomes and Smith-Schuster came on anther cross pattern, with this time Willie Gay getting a finger tip in to break up the pass.
  • Valdes-Scantling and Mahomes combined for a touchdown in 7-on-7 despite tight coverage from McDuffie.
  • Mahomes went a perfect 7-of-7 passing in his first set of reps in the team period, completing passes to seven different receivers.
  • The sleeper to watch in the wide receiver position battle might be Corey Coleman, the former first-round draft pick for the New Yoork Giants in 2016 who is looking for a fresh start in Kansas City. Coleman made a spectacular end zone catch on Wednesday and added a couple more nice snags on Thursday. Plenty of more work to do, but if Coleman can reduce the drops he showed during OTAs he absolutely possesses the talent to crack the 53-player roster.
  • On the final play of the team session, Chad Henne and Skyy Moore did their best to replicate the Mahomes and Smith-Schuster touchdown, and nearly pulled it off. The defense brought a zero blitz and Henne laid a deep ball out for Moore down field and narrowly missed connecting for a touchdown.

Each of the first two practices of full squad workouts have concluded with Clark and Karlaftis working one-on-one together on the sidelines among the last players on the field. Clark is underrated for his his positive influence on younger players and his willingness to teach others and share his techniques. The addition of Carlos Dunlap should provide the young players on the defensive line with another strong mentor on the field.

Injury report

Safety Justin Reid headed to the workout tent during the 7-on-7 period and worked with an athletic trainer briefly before returning to the sidelines. A club spokesperson said after practice that Reid was fine.

Cornerback Rashad Fenton (shoulder), right tackle Lucas Niang (knee) and offensive tackle Prince Tega Wanogho (leg) remain on the physically unable to perform list and cannot return to practice until they receive medical clearance. All three players count toward the 90-player roster limit.

Transaction report

After a whirlwind courtship that started Wednesday afternoon, the Chiefs landed free-agent defensive end Carlos Dunlap, signing him to a one-year deal worth a reported $8 million. The club waived tight end Mark Vital to free space on the 90-player roster.

Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton, who was waived Wednesday with a failed physical designation, cleared waivers on Thursday. He reverted back to the Chiefs on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. He does not count toward the 90-player roster.

What’s next?

Practices are slowly ramping up as the team kicks off its third full-squad workout on Friday, July 29 at 9:15 a.m. There is a $5 admission fee for Friday’s practice in addition to the $5 parking fee per vehicle. A team autograph session is planned for after practice. The forecast calls for clouds with temperatures in the 70s but no rain on Friday morning.

The first padded practice is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 1 at 9:15 a.m.