With the Kansas City Chiefs set to begin the regular season soon Next Sunday in Arizona, we preview the team’s defensive linemen outlook for 2022.
The Kansas City Chiefs boast one of their deepest defensive line rotations since the Marty Schottenheimer championship contending seasons with Derrick Thomas. After finishing 2021 with the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL with 31, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach made it clear in the offseason expressing a need for help in the defensive line unit so they can be a dominant force, and that’s exactly what the team would get when he first hired former Ravens Defensive line coach Joe Cullen.
He also used one of the first-round (30th-overall) picks in the 2022 NFL Draft to acquire Purdue All-American defensive end George Karlaftis, while the team also signed former Seahawks and Bengals Pro Bowl defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, in free agency. He also stole downhill linebacker Leo Chenal in the third-round from Wisconsin who will be part of team Sack Nation.
They’ll join All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones and Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark this season. They will also get to work with one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL. Before he became the defensive coordinator for the Jaguars last season, Cullen spent five seasons as the defensive line coach in Baltimore (2016-2020). During his five seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens allowed the NFL’s fewest total yards (318.0) and fewest rushing yards (98.3). He is known for his high-energy approach and his raspy voice can often be heard during practices especially if you were playing for the Ravens.
Here’s our latest Chiefs positional preview heading into the 2022 NFL season focusing on the all-important defensive line:
George Karlaftis: Karlaftis is clearly on the rise to start his first NFL season; through the Chiefs’ first three preseason games, he had accumulated 2 sacks, five quarterback pressures, 1 quarterback hit, and two hurries, especially one sack vs the Commanders against a double team. This can’t be considered too much of a surprise. There’s a reason the Chiefs selected the 21-year-old Karlaftis No. 30 overall in April’s draft. He’s considered one of the best pass rushers in this draft class at a position of utmost need for the Chiefs. Karlaftis will be asked to fulfill a lot of roles along the Defensive line from playing in wide nine techniques to playing nose tackle on pass-rushing downs just like Tanoh Kpassagnon. His size, length, and explosion allow him to move up and down the line and affect the run and pass. The rookie has the Kingdom speaking about the possibility of breaking the rookie sack record. I have compared Karlaftis to 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa due to the similarities in their measurables. There lies the biggest question here. Can Karlaftis stay productive in the regular season as he did in the preseason on a consistent basis? If so, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year performer out of the gate.
Frank Clark: To say that this is a make-or-break season for Clark in Kansas City would be an understatement. The Chiefs made the surprising decision to give Clark a two-year deal worth $29 million. Given that he’s recorded 18.5 sacks in the last three NFL seasons, expectations have to be muted somewhat. Head coach Andy Reid and Co. are hopeful that new defensive line coach Joe Cullen will light a fire under Clark. After all, he’s still just 29 years old and could be coming into a career-best season in 2022. With a much more talented core group around him, there’s a chance Clark could excel. Overall with his weight loss, Clark should be a more fluid mover and should show the flexibility to bend around the edge. Clark has flashed some pop in his hands and is quick at the point of attack to win leverage and set a hard edge in the run game. Clark should provide the Chiefs with a little more juice off the edge where he already is an important asset in the stunt game because he moves with ease. Clark can have a 10-plus sack 2022 season with an expanded role due to the departure of Melvin Ingram in free agency.
Chris Jones: Already one of the best interior linemen in the entire NFL, the 28-year-old Jones recorded 8 quarterback hits and 9.0 sacks en route to earning his fourth Pro Bowl appearance last season. The sky really seems to be the limit for Jones entering his seventh year. Jones will be aided this coming season by two new monster edge rushers in George Karlaftis and Carlos Dunlap. He also has a new defensive line coach that will help the Mayor of Sack Nation big time. Teams simply can’t afford to double-team the All-Pro lineman. In reality, this should lead to an even better 2022 campaign for Jones. The big defensive tackle can occupy two or three blockers a play, allowing Karlaftis and sometimes Nick Bolton in Nickel or Leo Chenal in Dime the freedom to run free and make tackles. If Jones is single-blocked, he will make the play.
Carlos Dunlap: After signing late in July, the 33-year-old Dunlap was the Seahawks’ best pass rusher and was coming off a strong finish in which he recorded eight sacks over the final six games. He finished with 8.5 sacks last season. His 96 sacks are the eighth most among active NFL players after spending his first 10½ seasons with the Bengals who drafted him in the second round out of Florida in 2010. The Seahawks acquired him via a midseason trade ahead of the 2020 deadline. It goes without saying that the Chiefs are anticipating the same production from Dunlap on a consistent basis moving forward. Dunlap has been slowed during training camp while undergoing treatment on a flared-up Achilles. Dunlap should be ready for Week 1. If so, he’ll team up with Frank Clark and George Karlaftis to form an elite-level trio from the edge position. That’s precisely why the Chiefs signed him.
Derrick Nnadi: The fifth-year player saw a major uptick in action last season. While Nnadi might lack the necessary athleticism to be a force in the offensive backfield, the 317-pound defensive tackle is exactly what teams want in a run-stuffing nose. Last season, Nnadi played in every game during the regular season and playoffs,
recording 21 tackles, five quarterback hits, three sacks, and two tackles for loss. He was the highest-graded Chiefs, defensive lineman, during the preseason with a 75.8 grade in limited snaps. Nnadi has an opportunity to be a key piece in 2022 on run-heavy downs.
Tershawn Wharton: The undrafted player from Missouri S&T has recorded a grand total of 6 quarterback hits and four sacks in two NFL seasons. The Chiefs are hoping that he’ll improve under Joe Cullen. At 285 pounds, some believe he’s best suited for outside. He wins most often when allowed to play upfield and into single gaps similar to what Aaron Donald does or John Randle, still showcasing the power and leverage game but also utilizing his quickness. Wharton may not have technical counters as a pass rusher, but his ability to work his feet to get upfield, then power to rip off a block is impressive. He often wins as a rusher with powerful hands, knocking blockers off balance and using his athleticism to push through.
Mike Danna: Surprisingly enough, Danna was on his way to being the Chiefs’ leading returning sacker having put up 3 in the first five games. He seems to be guaranteed a role as one of the starters or situational pass rushers behind Clark and Karlaftis. Still only 24 years old, there’s some nice upside here. He has the versatility to play outside and kick inside on rush downs after being asked to do that this preseason. He was quick inside to cross the face of interior offensive lineman in the run game and passing downs. Danna shows the potential to be a good edge setter and to get off blocks to make tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Khalen Saunders: A former third-round pick out of Western Illinois, Saunders was originally a roster bubble guy after injuries derailed his first three seasons. Chiefs made the super smart decision to keep Saunders. Since then, the 324-pound defensive tackle has impressed in limited action. How much? He was bulldozing opposing offensive linemen and his fellow linemen during training camp. Saunders has some pass-rush juice. He utilizes a quick hand slap and good lateral agility to reduce the pocket when he doesn’t clear hands and blockers get their hands on him. Saunders could finally break out in a contract year.
Malik Herring: The undrafted player from Georgia was the Chiefs’ best pass rusher during the 2022 preseason not named Jones or Karlaftis. He had 5 pressures and tied for the most run stops among Chiefs defensive linemen with Kaindoh with 4 stops. Herring has shown the ability to play outside and inside. What’s more: he is tough, physical, has powerful hands, and is good against the run. You’re not going to get much out of him as a pass rusher but you’re going to get a good rotational edge who can stop the run and give you quality snaps.
Joshua Kaindoh: Kaindoh surprisingly was going to be cut but the potential is still there. On the field, the measurables are fantastic and the athletic profile has a lot to offer which makes him a locker room dream for every NFL team. For the Chiefs, Kaindoh fits the mood of what the Chiefs look for in defensive ends. When playing the run, he does a good job identifying his assignment. His positioning against the run is very good. He can use his length and speed well to keep his chest clean or get leverage on an offensive tackle, showing accuracy with his hand placement. His motor and energy on pass rush reps wear offensive tackles down as the game and play runs on.
Leo Chenal: Don’t be surprised if Chenal is a Top 3 Defensive rookie of the year candidate at the end of the season. Chenal was Wisconsin’s leader who led the no. 1 defense in college football in 2021. Chenal is an explosive thumper of an athlete with true sideline-to-sideline range. Chenal is going to start immediately at SAM and contribute as the Mike with the green dot in the Dime for Spagnuolo, similar to other linebackers in his time with the New York Giants and utilize him in a 50-50 split as Blitzer and coverage player, similar to what Micah Parsons does for the Cowboys. Chenal is a massive upgrade over Ben Niemann. He wins by working off blocks to ball carriers. When he gets there, he’s not going to be missing a lot of tackles which is what fans criticize Niemann for. Niemann played 81 pass-rushing snaps in the regular season according to Pro Football Focus. Niemann only had 1 sack in those 81 snaps. I can imagine Chenal getting 4-6 sacks in that limited capacity.
Danny Shelton was a shocking cut but sources told us that he was coming back via the practice squad. They believe their defensive ends can play inside but Feast Mode provides great depth from the interior lineman position. Shelton was a starter for the Patriots’ top-ranked defense in 2019. That year, he started 14 of the 16 games in which he played and registered a career-high 3.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and 61 total tackles, along with two tackles for loss and six quarterback hits while playing just 49 percent of New England’s defensive snaps. Taylor Stallworth signed with the Chiefs this offseason after he notched 16 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, four tackles-for-loss, and three sacks last season while appearing in 16 games (1 start) for the Colts. It was a career season for the 4-year defensive tackle, whose 22 total pressures ranked fourth on the Colts. Those stats and his preseason play were another reason the Chiefs kept him on the practice squad given the talent ahead of him and Shelton.
We know for certain that Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap, and George Karlaftis are the most talented and impactful players on the Chiefs’ defensive line. Those four will help guide the Chiefs up front, and the team will go where those four go. How the rotation goes could be intriguing, as the other defensive tackle spot-on passing downs opposite of Chris Jones could be a wide-open rotation. Nnadi, Wharton, Saunders, Shelton, and Stallworth can all play that spot. Part of the appeal of Wharton is he has the athleticism and the ability to play both outside and inside, which can create intriguing matchup potential.
To put it a bit more simply, the Chiefs are deep with defensive line talent:
LDE: Mike Danna/George Karlaftis/Malik Herring/Azur Kamara (practice squad)
NT: Derrick Nnadi/Khalen Saunders/Danny Shelton (practice squad)
DT: Chris Jones/Tershawn Wharton/Taylor Stallworth (practice squad)
RDE: Frank Clark/Carlos Dunlap/Joshua Kaindoh
Yeah. There are so many possibilities here for the team up front to play around with and create mismatches against certain teams and get sacks. No longer pressure nation! Sack Nation is back!
George Karlaftis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYopxPgySTk
Chris Jones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-nv3UrHjIo
Frank Clark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYKPhB2t3xA
Carlos Dunlap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDJaObTUMqw
Tershawn Wharton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMHz5zcHnJY
Khalen Saunders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwcOlioM-po