Instilling toughness and speed in a porous defense that let down the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago emerged as the top mission for general manager Brett Veach during the offseason, and that attitude percolated though a defense-heavy class during the 2018 NFL draft.
"We weren't happy where we were," Veach said about a defense that saw itself pushed around last January in a home playoff loss to Tennessee. "Sometimes it just comes down to having guys that are wired right. Guys that want to line up and play four quarters of football. Our need is to just get tougher."
The Chiefs entered the draft without a first-round pick but Veach engineered deals to move up in the second and third rounds in picking up Mississippi defensive end Breeland Speaks and Florida State defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi.
Head coach Andy Reid projects Speaks as an outside edge rusher who moves to defensive end on third down.
"I think what we're getting here is a high motor, very intense player," Reid said. "Love his core strength, his ability to play the run and the pass."
Speaks found trouble at times in college for his emotional play, getting ejected from two games last season. But with the Chiefs on the hunt for spirited, aggressive defenders, Speaks believes he fits the bill.
"You're getting a passionate player who is going to play with relentless effort and who's basically not going to give up on any plays," Speaks said in describing his approach to the game. "You're getting somebody who's a hard worker, a blue-collar guy from Mississippi."
Veach grew up in a world not so different. He cut his football teeth in the coal country of Pennsylvania where the defensive styles of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens reign supreme. He believes in the view of the game as a four-quarter battle, and he wants a blue-collar defense that packs a punch on the field.
"Speaks is a guy like that, Nnadi is a guy like that and Dorian O'Daniel is guy like that," Veach said. "These guys play four quarters, they leave it all on the field and again they bring that kind of temperament we're looking for."
O'Daniel, the team's second selection in the third round, won a national championship with Clemson in the 2016 season. Veach again cited his physical nature and instincts in his selection.
"He is quick to the ball, he has great range," Veach said. "In regards to his ability to slip, duck and elude, that is kind of what he does. Again, the guy just played hard."
The Chiefs continued their defensive streak into the final rounds of the draft, nabbing Texas A&M safety Armani Watts in the fourth round. The club added Central Arkansas cornerback Tremon Smith in the sixth round. Tennessee defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie rounds out the class but the team projects him as a guard.
Smith faced lesser competition in the FCS Southland Conference, but he again fits the mold of tough, aggressive defenders with a knack for creating turnovers.
"You saw the speed but you couldn't help but notice how this kid's always around the ball," area scout Willie Davis said. "Whether it's playing his man or coming off his man seeing the ball come out the quarterback's hand, he's always around the ball."
The defense-heavy draft follows on the heels of the Chiefs saying goodbye to veterans Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Ron Parker and trading away Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters. The club may see as many as seven new starters from the team that took the field for their playoff letdown against the Titans.
"It was how these guys are going to approach the process and what they're going to bring on Sunday," Veach said about the new faces on defense. "These guys are physical players and they play that style that we want to emulate."
A closer look at the Chiefs' picks:
Round 2/46 - Breeland Speaks, DE/OLB, 6-3, 285, Mississippi
The Chiefs moved up eight spots in grabbing Speaks to bolster their pass rush. The Chiefs view Speaks as a power rusher who can line up as an outside linebacker but kick inside when necessary. His addition signals an increased commitment to a four-man front at times for the 3-4 defense of coordinator Bob Sutton. The Chiefs like his motor and tenacity, comparing his size and Combine numbers to Tamba Hali.
Round 3/75 -- Derrick Nnadi, NT, 6-1, 317, Florida State
You can draw a straight line to this pick from Kansas City's playoff loss at home to Tennessee in January when the Titans gashed the Chiefs for 202 yards on the ground. Nnadi provides a run stuffer in the middle of the line the Chiefs haven't had since the departure of Mike DeVito after the 2015 season. Nnadi has the strength to take on multiple blockers and deliver penetration up the middle.
Round 3/100 -- Dorian O'Daniel, ILB, 6-1, 220, Clemson
The Chiefs view O'Daniel as a key situational player, a physical dime linebacker on passing downs and providing depth at inside linebacker. O'Daniel may see substantial playing time with the Chiefs frequently in substitution packages. The club also rated him as the No. 1 special teams player on their draft board.
Round 4/124 -- Armani Watts, S, 5-11, 205, Texas A&M
Watts was a four-year starter for the Aggies and earned all-SEC honors as a senior with 86 tackles including 10 for a loss. His ball-hawking skills first captured the attention of the Chiefs with his 10 career interceptions and 29 broken up passes. Needs to polish his tackling skills, but the club's scouts like his football instincts and leadership qualities.
Round 6/196 -- Tremon Smith, CB, 6-0, 190, Central Arkansas
Smith may come from an FCS school but the speedy defensive back twice earned first-team All-Southland conference honors for his ball-hawking abilities. He picked off 15 passes with 53 passes broken up during his college career, and excels at the press-man coverage the Chiefs prefer at cornerback. Smith can also return kicks and contribution on special teams.
Round 6/198 -- Kahlil McKenzie, G, 6-3, 320, Tennessee
The son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie entered the draft after his junior season, and the Chiefs plan to move him from defensive tackle to guard. The club believes that his lower body strength and technique will make the transition seamless. McKenzie played offensive and defensive line as a five-star recruit coming out of high school.