Through five weeks of play, the Kansas City Chiefs remain unbeaten while boasting the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense. Just one short year removed from a 2-14 record and the No. 25-ranked scoring defense, how are the Chiefs playing the best defense in the league?
The short answer is that the talent was already there. Much like the San Francisco 49ers teams under Mike Singletary, the defense had talent, but the scheme and coaching didn't maximize the talent of the team. But now, under head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the Chiefs are capitalizing on the potential that existed all along.
How was this league-leading defense built?
Of the team's 13 key players on defense—11 starters and two nickelbacks—a staggering five of them are former first-round picks. Add another from Round 2 and a steal in Round 3 and you have the backbone of the defense.
LE Tyson Jackson
Predraft grade: No. 12 overall
Tyson Jackson has quietly developed into a solid 3-4 defensive end. He'll never have the big sack numbers many expected from the LSU defensive tackle before the 2009 draft, but he's holding his own as a three-down edge defender.
Heading into Week 6, Jackson ranks as the sixth-ranked 3-4 defensive end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Not bad for a player many consider a draft bust.
NT Dontari Poe
Predraft grade: No. 35 overall
A slow start to 2012 caused panic in Kansas City that former general manager Scott Pioli had "wasted" another high pick on a defensive lineman. And then Poe started to show his true ability as the weeks progressed. By season's end, he was playing as well as any young nose tackle in the NFL.
Now in Bob Sutton's aggressive defensive scheme, Poe is playing as well as any NT in the league—period. His quick first step is unstoppable, and he has the natural strength to shed and split double-teams from a center/guard combination up front.
Poe's ability to anchor and/or drive at the line of scrimmage makes him into a younger Vince Wilfork in the Kansas City defense. Looking back on it, he was well worth that No. 11 overall pick.
LOLB Justin Houston
Predraft grade: No. 92 overall
A failed drug test during the combine caused first-round talent Justin Houston to fall in the 2011 draft. Thankfully, the Chiefs took a risk on him in the third round and focused instead on the 17.5 sacks the defensive end posted in his final two seasons at Georgia.
Houston hit the ground running, and soaked up as much knowledge as he could from veteran Tamba Hali. That's resulted in 24 career sacks in under two-and-a-half full seasons in the league. Houston's quickness and relentless pursuit from the left outside linebacker position make him an almost unstoppable force—especially for slower, heavier right tackles who often get left on an island to block the hyper-athletic Houston.
It's mismatches like this that make the Chiefs defense so tough to counter. If you load up to stop Houston, you have to deal with Poe and Tamba Hali. It's like a chess match, and Sutton can move his pieces around to counter anything you do on offense.
ILB Derrick Johnson
Predraft grade: Top five overall
A legend at the University of Texas, Derrick Johnson remains one of the highest-graded players of my short career. The fact that the Chiefs were able to steal him at pick No. 15 remains a mystery.
Johnson took time to acclimate to the NFL and the early defenses he played on in Kansas City, but he's taken to the 3-4 defense like a duck to water. Johnson has transformed himself from college superstar into a two-time Pro Bowler and, recently, an All-Pro at inside linebacker. And were it not for Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis, he'd have a few more of those plaques on the wall at home.
As the unquestioned captain and leader of the Kansas City defense, Johnson deserves a ton of praise. He's an athletic specimen with the speed to spy quarterbacks, cover slot receivers and track running backs outside the hashes. Johnson has a legitimate claim to the title of best inside linebacker in the AFC.
ROLB Tamba Hali
Predraft grade: No. 35 overall
When Tamba Hali left Penn State, the term "elephant end" was all the rage in the NFL. Guys like Charles Haley made the big rush end popular in his time with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, and looking to the future many (myself included) thought Hali could be a similar player.
He has been.
Hali has posted an incredible 66.5 sacks in his career. That's 15th overall among all active players. Hali might not be the best Chiefs draft pick ever, but he's definitely in the conversation.
LCB Brandon Flowers
Predraft grade: No. 40 overall
Drafting and developing star-quality cornerbacks is not easy. In fact, in my 10 seasons of scouting and grading players, cornerbacks rank second only to quarterbacks on my own personal bust list. The Chiefs didn't get a bust when they nabbed Brandon Flowers in the second round in 2008.
Ranked as a solid second-rounder coming out of Virginia Tech, Flowers has developed from a short-but-speedy corner into a short, speedy, physical, smart cornerback with shutdown skills. His 17 career interceptions are reputable, but alone don't tell the story of how talented Flowers is at limiting targets and shutting down No. 1 wide receivers.
SS Eric Berry
Predraft grade: Top 10 overall
The top-graded safety I've scouted since Sean Taylor, Eric Berry is a rare talent at the position.
Thought to have upside as both a cornerback or safety coming out of the University of Tennessee, Berry quickly proved himself as a coverage safety. He earned a Pro Bowl invite his rookie year after nabbing four interceptions. The 2011 season was lost to an ACL injury, but Berry bounced back quickly and earned another trip to Hawaii in 2012. In two active seasons, he's earned the honor both times.
Berry's 2013 season is shaping up to be his best. He's bigger now, stronger and smarter about angles and reading the offense pre- and post-snap. A better Berry should terrify offenses, as he's already one of the game's true weapons at DB.
FS Kendrick Lewis
Predraft grade: Not ranked
Kendrick Lewis earns the love and hate of Chiefs fans on any given week, but to have found a starting free safety with pick No. 136 overall, former GM Pioli deserves a bit of credit in hindsight.
Lewis has his share of mistakes, but when paired with Berry, they make a solid duo in the backfield. While he definitely struggled without his teammate in 2011, we're seeing a more talented player this year at free safety.
Lewis may be the one player on the K.C. defense that will be looking over his shoulder in the offseason. An upgrade at FS is something the fanbase feels is needed, and on film it's easy to see why the team may want a bigger playmaker at the position.
The best teams in the NFL build through the draft and by developing their own players. That method is working in Kansas City, where only three starters were found through free agency.
RE Mike DeVito
NFL 1000 ranking: DE No. 10
An underrated, underpaid performer on the defensive line, Mike DeVito has quietly solidified the Kansas City defensive line almost single-handedly.
DeVito's experience with Sutton in New York not only allowed for a seamless transition in Kansas City, but also establishes him as a second coach on the field and in huddles. DeVito knows the scheme inside and out, and while he's not the most athletic player around, he's quick enough to attack in this revved-up defensive scheme that calls on the linemen to be aggressive from the first movement of the ball.
DeVito likely won't get Pro Bowl accolades, but he's as valuable as any player on the team when you look at his on- and off-field contributions.
ILB Akeem Jordan
NFL 1000 ranking: OLB No. 23
Akeem Jordan followed Andy Reid from Philadelphia and quickly stepped into the starting inside linebacker job next to Derrick Johnson.
That's an impressive feat for a player who lined up at outside linebacker in the Eagles' 4-3 defense during the 2012 season. But Jordan has played well early on, giving the Chiefs a balanced, athletic duo at ILB. Mimicking in some ways the San Francisco 49ers scheme, Sutton now has two athletes in the middle who can both cover, stop the run inside and track the ball outside the tackles when needed.
That Jordan has played well so early at a new position and scheme is a credit to his abilities. He may not be a superstar, but he's doing his job and allowing the players around him to flourish while he cleans up messes on the inside. Few inside linebackers are stopping the run as well as Jordan—something that will go unnoticed by too many viewers.
RCB Sean Smith
NFL 1000 ranking: CB No. 44
The loss of Brandon Carr to the Dallas Cowboys opened up a starting spot opposite Brandon Flowers. The Chiefs were determined to get physical cornerbacks who could take away bigger receivers in the AFC West.
They hit gold with Sean Smith.
For the price he came at, Smith has been a high-level starter in the K.C. secondary. On the year, he's allowing just 40 percent of passes to be completed and is holding quarterbacks to a rating of 39.3. That's good enough to make him the No. 5-ranked cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus ($).
Nickelback Dunta Robinson
NFL 1000 ranking: CB No. 84
Dunta Robinson was the higher-profile signing by the Chiefs this offseason compared to Sean Smith, but Robinson's role has been to play more in three-cornerback sets. This allows Smith to stay on the outside while Robinson lines up in the slot.
The first five weeks of the season haven't been as kind to Robinson as the rest of the defense, but his presence and experience will be vital down the stretch as the Chiefs compete for a playoff spot.
Dime back Marcus Cooper
NFL 1000 ranking: Free agent (not ranked)
The team hasn't been crippled by Robinson's poor play because free-agent rookie Marcus Cooper has stepped up in a big way.
Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round in April, Cooper was quickly picked up by the Chiefs after roster cuts. It's a good thing he was, too. Cooper has excelled as a big-bodied cover man on the edge, limiting his man to just three catches on 14 targets this season.
Cooper is quickly emerging as a legitimate talent in the secondary. As his experience and role grow, he could allow the team to move Robinson to free safety or simply push the veteran to the bench.
Again, the Chiefs had talent last year, but they weren't a solid, cohesive unit on defense. Now they are, thanks to Coach Sutton's D.
Getting the most out of the talent around you is the best trait of a successful coach, and Sutton quickly fit his scheme to match his personnel. He's allowing pass-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to attack the edges while defensive linemen like Dontari Poe are able to penetrate the line this season (as opposed to 2012, when the three down linemen were asked to "two-gap" and clog lanes).
Man coverage on the edges, a ball-hawking safety in Eric Berry, and the athletes in the front seven to match up against any offense make the Chiefs defense a scary one to game-plan against. And that's quite a change in such a short amount of time.
In somewhat of a rarity in this day and age, the Chiefs have rarely missed on high draft picks spent on the defensive side of the ball. Only Glenn Dorsey—now a starter for the San Francisco 49ers—could be considered a miss. While Tyson Jackson was drafted too high for his position, he's been a solid starter and improving young player. With a string of success drafting on defense, the Chiefs have built a contender.