With NFL training camps set to get underway later this month, teams will be looking to finalize their camp rosters while also creating preliminary rotations for players at different positions. Whether or not the league will have an actual pre-season this year is still to be determined, but the teams will still plan out their game situations and rotations accordingly. A position that emerged as a strength for the team last season was the defensive line, where we saw multiple players flourish in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defensive scheme. This should be a position of strength again for the Chiefs in 2020 despite some questions headed into the season. Here is an outlook on the rotation we could see from the Chief’s defensive line this season.
End: Frank Clark
One Technique: Derrick Nnadi
Three Technique: Chris Jones
End: Alex Okafor
End: Tanoh Kpassagnon
One Technique: Khalen Saunders
Three Technique: Mike Pennel
End: Taco Charlton
With the announcement that Jones reached a contract extension with the Chiefs, Jones will be a member of the team for the next four years, while also rewarding him for what he has accomplished and what he will accomplish in the future. Jones should be once again a top DT in the league and can create plays for those around him based on the attention he will receive from opposing teams’ offensive lines.
Jones is an elite talent but the rest of the Chiefs interior thrived playing alongside him last season. Derrick Nnadi was quietly a key contributor last season during the overhaul of the defense and played his best game in the Super Bowl. Looking for growth in his game this season will be something to watch for as he emerges more as a player.
Mike Pennel will return to Kansas City on a one year deal as a three-technique and back up to Jones. Despite being an off the bench player he will still play a key role for the Chiefs. Pennel was instrumental in stopping the run last season and his ability to take on double teams and stuff run gaps allowed him to play his way onto the field in 2019. He will still be a key player on run downs in 2019 and we should expect to see him play both the one and three techniques.
Khalen Saunders’s role should also grow this fall, and he should be a player to watch regardless. A slow start to the 2019 season left some questions around his game but strong second-half performance as well as playing key downs in the AFC Divisional Round against the Houston Texans while Chris Jones was injured might pave the way for more reps in 2020 for Saunders. If Saunders starts to show the same things he did on his tape at Western Illinois the league might have a big problem on their hands in the near future.
With Jones on the roster, the interior of the defensive line unit is one of the deepest units in the NFL, with the ability to clog the run while Jones gives the unit an impact rusher which makes them even harder to stop at the end of the day. The Chiefs also have another impact pass rusher lining up at the defensive end as Frank Clark looks to carry the momentum from his monster postseason, in which he recorded five sacks in three games, into 2020.
Clark dominated the postseason and etched his way into the Chiefs history with clutch performances and plays down the line. Clark will draw most of the attention with his edge rush but the team should expect to see Alex Okafor start the opposite of him with a solid dose of Tahno Kpassagnon. Injury shortened Okafor’s season last year and while Kpass did come on to play a lot of edge reps in the postseason, Okafor should still start out the season taking most of the reps. As he showed in 2019 he’s not a flashy player but will consistently get the job done and can play solid against the run and still engineer rush against the pass.
If Kpass can continue to show growth in his game he should be able to challenge Okafor at some point in the season for the second end spot. While Kpass was solid against the run for most of 2019 he will need to show improvement in his pass rush. With physical gifts, he still lacks a go-to rush move at times but did start to show a power move with a long arm to bull rush toward the end of the season. If he is able to work this move more consistently and even create a counter move off of it Kpass could be a breakout player in 2020 for the Chiefs.
Taco Charlton should be a solid depth player for the Chiefs and will take the role that Emmanuel Ogbah had last season as a change-up pass rusher. Charlton has shown flash in his first few NFL seasons but has not been able to put it all together, much like Ogbah from a year ago. Being around former Michigan teammate Frank Clark and DL coach Brendan Daly should provide him with the resources to turn his career around.
Three players who I expect to make the roster but not have a set role early on, or who I expect to play multiple positions or in sub-packages are Breeland Speaks, Mike Danna, and Demone Harris. Speaks has the most questions surrounding his game headed into the season. While recent pictures show that he might finally be in shape for the first time since arriving in Kansas City, there are still questions surrounding his game, with the big one still being where to line him up at. It appears as though he will be playing an end position with his recent weight loss but it might still not be out of the question for him to play an interior position give the down and distance. He will face competition in camp from rookie Mike Danna, who like Speaks played multiple positions in college and will get a chance to show what he can do on the inside and outside in 2020.
Danna is a high effort player who I think will transition well to Spag’s scheme, especially his twist and stunt packages. We could also see Speaks or Danna as inside players on nickel or NASCAR packages which are passing downs, and as outside players on run downs. This brings us to Demmone Harris who we saw at times last year lined up as a true defensive end, but we also saw him as a walk-up LB on some early run downs. This was similar to what the team saw late in the year from the now-departed Reggie Ragland. We saw Ragland play the same kind of walk-up edge to contain the run, and I think Harris takes the role for next season.
Danna, Speaks, and Harris should all end up being rotational players who we see when the Chiefs decide to go with different packages or even against different opponents looks based on who they are playing week to week.
The Chiefs were able to strike a deal a day before the deadline with Chris Jones and have now solidified one of the best defensive lines in football. With Jones and Clark, the Chiefs should have more than enough ability to rush the passer from the line this year, and with the way the offense is shaping up this could be the biggest key for the Chiefs in 2020, especially with the surge of offensive firepower in the AFC West. The unit should again be solid against the run and build on the strong late-season performance that they turned in. The Chiefs defensive line has the perfect combination of elite talent, butting potential, and versatile skillsets to be one of the elite units in the NFL this year.