We previewed the Linebackers and Secondary… We look at the interior of the defensive line.
Over the past season, the Kansas City Chiefs under defensive line coach Joe Cullen developed some impressive talent along the defensive front. With star players such as Chris Jones leading defenders up front. Their success at this position has led to the nickname “Sack Nation.” But this trend will be tested this season. The Chiefs expected to return four starters to the team for this season, but talented defensive tackle Khalen Saunders signed with the New Orleans Saints. Explosive defensive line hybrid Tershawn Wharton returns, and drafted a nose tackle in Keondre Coburn. The players below, I preview the interior of the 2023 Chiefs.
Chiefs 2023 Interior Lineman
Defensive tackle Chris Jones is akin to watching defensive end teaching tape, but it comes from an interior defensive lineman. From his quickness off his snap, his hand usage, his power, his ability to put together a plan as a pass rusher, his mastery in the lower body, how he runs the arc like an EDGE defender, to his ability to explode through double-teams and on looks and stunts, Jones is a true master of his craft. His 2022 season was a thing of beauty, as he tallied 15.5 sacks and earned 3rd place in the Defensive Player of the Year nomination behind Nick Bosa and Micah Parsons.
It often takes a village to block Jones. Though at times, seemingly not even a metropolis can get the job done. Whether it’s straight-up double-teams, well-timed trap blocks, or using running backs and tight ends to clutter pass-rush lanes, keeping the Chiefs off-kilter is a critical step in diffusing Chris Jones and the Chiefs’ defense. I expect Jones could have either a dip in sack production because he’s the main guy that teams will game plan around but his presence as the force in the middle opens up more opportunities for his fellow guys on the line like edge rushers George Karlaftis, newly draft Felix Anudike-Uzomah, and newly signed Charles Omenihu.
Sometimes, the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story. In Derrick Nnadi’s case, it actually does, for the most part. The sixth-year pro out of Florida State was never much of a threat to get after the passer in 2022, managing just a single sack and 7 QB pressures, despite appearing in all 20 games for the Chiefs.
Despite being somewhat undersized for the position at just 6’1”, 317 pounds, Nnadi was much more effective against the run than rushing the passer. He had 13 solo tackles and used his smaller frame to his advantage by beating slower linemen to their spots and affecting ball carriers’ running lanes before they got started. Steve Spagnuolo likes defensive tackles to have a little more size than Nnadi currently has, but the style of play in terms of a powerful, 1-gap pusher with pass rush skills is the preferred style for defensive tackles.
Coburn was a rotational defensive tackle for Texas, fitting the mold of the typical 0-tech defender. He has solid hands and arm extension, can anchor versus a double team block, and has the ability to shack and shed in a two-gap defense. He doesn’t get a lot of push in his pass rush but shows good awareness to get his hands up in the passing lanes.
Coburn could be the direct replacement for Nnadi, and in a lot of ways, they are incredibly similar. Both can two gap if asked to, and their best fit is a 1- technique but with Jones playing the 3-tech. I expect Coburn at some point to start over Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton. You build your team to defend your World Title and defeat your division rivals. Josh Jacobs and the Raiders’ or any AFC West offensive line are not going anywhere and it is imperative for the Chiefs to be able to stop the run. Coburn is a dominant run defender, so he will oblige in running situations next to Chris Jones.
The fourth-year pro from Missouri S&T has a chance to carve out additional work along the defensive line after starting only two games across his first three seasons in the league, particularly considering the abundance of turnover expected outside of George Karlaftis and Chris Jones. The one-year “prove it” deal signals little in the way of risk for the Chiefs (they can cut him at any time) but keeps a player familiar with the system.
Wharton is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Week 5 of the 2022 season. Once healthy, Wharton’s likely to play a depth or rotational role on the interior of Kansas City’s defensive line. Wharton finds success as a pass rusher with his high-end athleticism. He is able to explode off the line of scrimmage and bend in ways most defensive tackles can’t just like Aaron Donald.
Shelton was a prototypical 2-down nose tackle with very good play strength and gap integrity as a run-defender. Shelton spent all of 2022 on the Chiefs’ practice squad and will have a shot at making the 53-man roster this offseason. The former first-round draft pick has split time between four teams over the last five seasons and appeared in just one game last season.
In 2023, he comes in the season with the chance to not only teach the young players but to prove his worth. Shelton is regarded as a run stuffer, a player who takes on double teams in an effort to allow linebackers like Nick Bolton space to make plays.
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