Draft shows Chiefs want Legion of Zoom to carry over to defense

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After the Kansas City Chiefs drafted two of the fastest defensive players from this year's scouting combine in the 2020 NFL draft, general manager Brett Veach just shrugged.

"It's how those positions are played nowadays," he said.

Speed is how the whole NFL game is played nowadays. With a set of offensive skill players so speedy they acquired the nickname "Legion of Zoom," the Chiefs played fast enough last season to win the Super Bowl.

But they weren't as fast on defense and that was a weakness, particularly at linebacker, where they had trouble matching up in pass coverage. After watching the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos try to imitate them by loading up on fast receivers in the draft, the Chiefs decided they needed to make some defensive moves to keep up.

They drafted Mississippi State's Willie Gay, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash for a linebacker at the combine at 4.46 seconds, in the second round. They also added Louisiana Tech's L'Jarius Sneed, who ran the second-fastest 40 for a defensive back at the combine at 4.37, in the fourth round.

"If you look at what the AFC West is doing, our division, they are trying to get fast," said Willie Davis, a Chiefs scout. "They're trying instead of stopping us, they're trying to score points with us. So it's very important that we get faster on defense. I think we've done a great job in this draft of doing this.

"We've added two really fast guys on defense."

If Gay and Sneed can crack the Chiefs' lineup, it would expand the number of things defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can do.

"Anytime you get a guy with speed, you're able to play a little more aggressive," defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said. "You're able to take a lot more chances; you're able to take a lot more risks. You understand that the big play won't happen often because you've got guys that can really run down the field."

Having a fast defensive team is more important than it was just a few years ago.

"It is only because of the way offenses are playing with so much three-wides," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "You're looking at over 70%, almost 80%, of your snaps are against what people before would only play on third down, with three wide receivers.

"It's changed the linebacker position and the safety position a little bit. The big plugger guys, they struggle because of having to run and cover, so you've really got to evaluate that and do a good job of it."

The Chiefs' veteran linebackers, as bigger players who were brought in more as run defenders, fall more into the plugger category. The Chiefs had hopes for Dorian O'Daniel, whom they drafted in the third round in 2018 out of Clemson, as a nickel linebacker. But O'Daniel, who ran a 4.61 40 coming out for the draft, hasn't developed and isn't as fast as Gay.

"I started playing the game when I was 6, and I was always the fastest guy on the field," Gay said.

Gay is enough of an athlete that he at times played quarterback in high school in Mississippi. He once ran for 325 yards and five touchdowns in a game. That led Reid to joke, "I have a tendency to steal guys over to the offensive side if you have any talent."

In reality, he has different plans for Gay.

"We're hoping that he can come in and as he learns the defense that he can work and be a guy that can actually cover running backs and do a nice job of that, and/or tight ends," Reid said.

The Chiefs haven't said whether Sneed will be a cornerback or safety. He played both spots in college, but Davis said corner is a more natural fit.

"The kid can run as fast as he needs to run, and he plays fast," Davis said. "You can get into T-shirts and shorts and run a fast 40, but this kid actually plays the game fast."

Since drafting wide receiver Tyreek Hill in 2016, the Chiefs have been serious about finding fast offensive skill players. They signed Sammy Watkins as a free agent two years ago and last year drafted Mecole Hardman.

That trend has spread to their defense, and it looks like it's here to stay.

"When you have guys that test extremely well and perform at the combine or if they had pro days, if you didn't like them on tape, those are the guys that are going to get second and third looks just because of their athletic attributes," Veach said. "Those are guys we certainly want to target, guys that run and test well but they're not just testers. They're football players that test well, not testers that play football."