The Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive struggles through the first two weeks are apparent in the numbers: last in total yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, red zone defense. Bottom-five in points allowed. That’s not what the front office envisioned when they spent money in free agency and used multiple draft picks to beef up that side of the ball.
What makes this rough start particularly puzzling is the number of resources and talent the Chiefs possess at all three levels of the defense. While defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme requires some obvious tweaking, the players themselves should be executing at a higher level.
The clamor for better play isn’t evenly applicable to the whole group. Two of their higher-paid stars have performed well this season. Defensive end Chris Jones already has two sacks in his new position, while free safety Tyrann Mathieu returned from his Week 1 absence to snatch two interceptions in the first half, one returned for a touchdown. Perhaps they have not performed as the consistent playmakers we have become accustomed to, but they’re making an impact nonetheless.
Frank Clark is not performing up to his contract, though. One could suggest he isn’t performing at a level deserving of a roster spot at all. Clark missed the first game with a hamstring injury, but he returned in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens for a highly favorable matchup. Baltimore’s Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley was sidelined by an injury he sustained against the Las Vegas Raiders. An already-thin offensive line brought an excellent opportunity for Clark to feast on quarterback Lamar Jackson all night.
However, Clark mustered just two tackles and produced absolutely no pressure on Jackson all night, ending with zero sacks and not a single QB hurry. Not an inspiring stat line for someone with the NFL’s third-highest salary cap hit among defensive players this season. That wasn’t a typo. Per www.OverTheCap.com, Clark carries a $25.8 million cap hit this year. To put that in perspective, it’s just a shade over $18 million more than Patrick Mahomes’ hit this season. For a defensive star to take up that much of the cap, you would hope for more production in a game where he was facing off against backups.
Assessments from a small sample size early in the season can often be unfair. Still, as we discussed earlier this week about the Chiefs’ porous red-zone defense, these early-season shortcomings are more alarming if they’re part of a trend carried over from the previous season – and the lack of production from Clark merits discussion.
Clark struggled mightily last year, amassing just six sacks and 29 tackles in 15 games, both career lows since his rookie season in 2015. Add in the felony weapons charges stemming from two different occasions this off-season, and Clark’s standing with the team seemed contentious all summer.
Moreover, Clark’s 2021 campaign is not only tied to his reputation with the team and the fans but also his bank account. Before the 2019 season, GM Brett Veach manufactured a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to land the coveted pass rusher, then immediately signed him to a 5-year, $104 million contract. However, most of the $62.3 million in guaranteed money was front-loaded in the first three years. If Clark doesn’t produce enough on the field to justify his contract, the Chiefs could cut him next summer, saving themselves about $20 million in cap space for the final two years of his contract.
For a team hoping to compete for the Super Bowl in both of those seasons, dropping a player producing like a backup to gain $20 million in cap space is a no-brainer.
Clark’s season is off to a shaky start. If he can’t find a way to start being a more impactful contributor on and off the field starting this Sunday at home against the Los Angeles Chargers, he might find himself out tens of millions of dollars and searching for a new team.