Now that the season is over with a Super Bowl win, I’m going to do exactly what the Chiefs are doing currently. As they finish up the end-of-season meetings with their players, over the next few weeks I’m going to evaluate each position of the defense and break down where it needs help, where each player needs to improve, and who should be back for next year.
In this scenario, I’m Steve Spagnuolo (and his assistant coaches) giving my recommendation for personnel decisions and who should stay or go. To start, let’s look at the defensive tackles.
Defensive Tackles for this year: Chris Jones, Mike Pennel, Derrick Nnadi, Khalen Saunders, and Xavier Williams.
Stats: 15 of 19 games, 9 sacks, 20 QB hits, 59 pressures, 36 tackles (23 solo), 8 TFLs, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered. Ran at 31 times, gave up 110 yards (3.5 yards per carry).
Chris Jones was fantastic in 2019. While his statistical output may not have been what it was in 2018 due to some injuries, he was still a major force as a pass rusher. As a run defender, he continuously got better as the year went on. While he can’t consistently anchor and hold a gap, his first step and ability to quickly read a gap allowed him to make many splash plays in the backfield.
As a pass rusher that first step is still there, but he relied a little more on power this season. That speed rush is still there, but Jones opted for more of a bullrush strategy this season. His hands are still fantastic, giving him a full arsenal as a pass rusher, making him unpredictable to opposing guards. Jones’s swim move is still nigh unstoppable.
Jones did have to play a little defensive end in the middle of the season, and he struggled a bit there. His play recognition and overall output as a pass rusher from there wasn’t as good. While he can do it in emergency situations, he should mainly play 3-technique, especially on passing downs.
In terms of improvement, there’s not much for Jones. His body type doesn’t really allow him to get much better against the run. His pass rush skills are nearly perfected anyways. His main imperative is keeping his body healthy for a full season. Besides that maybe work a little on some skills to play more defensive end if he wants to, but there’s not much ceiling left for him, unlike other guys on this list.
While we did pay Frank Clark a lot of money, there’s no excuse to not bring Jones back. He’s way too disruptive as a pass rusher to let him walk. It made sense with Dee Ford, but the way this team is built, we need a second pass rusher besides Clark. You won’t get a better one than Jones. Franchise him, then work out a long-term deal.
Status for next year: Keep Jones as 3 technique, Sign to Long-Term Deal
Stats for 2019: 9 of 11 games (signed in week 8), 1 sack, 2 QB hits, 5 pressures, 24 tackles (13 solo), 2 TFLs. Ran at 19 times, gave up 50 yards (2.6 YPC).
Mike Pennel was a mid-season addition, and his impact on the run defense was massive. Mainly playing in the base defense, in the games he’s played, the base defense is only giving up 3 yards per carry. That’s exceptional. While other factors have helped this, his ability to anchor a gap and close holes with very impressive strength has made a massive impact on what was previously a very poor run defense.
As a pass rusher, Pennel doesn’t really provide much outside of a bull rush, which is fine. We mainly need him to stop the run, so if he never improves as a pass rusher, I really won’t care. If we re-sign Jones and bring back these defensive ends, we’ll have enough of a pass rush to work around Pennel.
For improvement, there’s not much, because he’s really good at his role already. If he wants to work on his pass rush, all the better, but it doesn’t really matter. Pennel mainly just needs to stay healthy and come into camp in great shape.
Brett Veach found a really good value in the middle of the season, which is rare. Pennel’s drastically changed the outlook of the run defense in his time in Kansas City. He should be rewarded for that.
Status: Keep Pennel as backup 1 technique, sign to 1 year deal
Stats for 2019: 19 of 19 games , 1 sack, 1 QB hits, 18 pressures, 55 tackles (22 solo), 4 TFLs. Ran at 56 times, gave up 232 yards (4.1 YPC).
Derrick Nnadi had an up-and-down 2019. After playing really poorly the first 5 weeks of the season, giving up an average of 6.1 YPC when run at. In the next 14 games he played much better, only giving up 3.3 yards per carry when run at.
His lateral agility and strength were on full display often this year. Against When you run at Nnadi in an ISO look, he can anchor a gap and fill it. If you run zone at him, he displays impressive lateral agility to get wide and take away the inside A gap.
As a pass rusher, he provides more upside than Pennel. He has a quick first step, a few solid pass rush moves (Rip, Swim), but he isn’t someone who can consistently win one-on-ones.
For things to get better at, he should continue to refine his pass rush skills. He has potential to be a solid rusher from the 1 technique spot, but he really has to work on his skills there. Another offseason with Brendan Daly could help, and after that, stay healthy and don’t lose any of that strength.
Nnadi’s been a bright spot in what became a very dark spot for Brett Veach in 2018. He should continue to be on this roster.
Status: Keep him, split snaps with Mike Pennel
Stats for 2019: 15 of 19 games , 1 sack, 2 QB hits, 6 pressures, 25 tackles (15 solo), 0 TFLs. Ran at 29 times, gave up 103 yards (3.6 YPC).
When I went into this season, I didn’t really expect much from Saunders. I expected him to have a redshirt year, mainly to adjust his body to the NFL. Honestly though, I was pleasantly surprised to see him make some plays on the inside.
As a run defender, Saunders sometimes struggles to sit and anchor a gap, but his recovery speed is remarkably quick. He sometimes loses at initial contact, but he’s able to recover quickly. His quick first step and lateral movement allow him to defend zone blocks well.
As a pass rusher, Saunders didn’t show much all year. He doesn’t really have any moves to turn to. If he got pressure, it was with effort, and continuing to fight. He’s really raw as a pass rusher at this point, as expected.
For Saunders, he has to get stronger. If he wants to consistently be in the defensive line rotation, he has to be able to bullrush and stop the run as well. He can’t rely on recovery all the time in Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. You have to be able to sit and anchor in a gap, especially against heavy personnel. As a pass rusher, he needs to refine his skills and learn more moves to help himself as a rusher.
Overall, I was surprised by how Saunders played in 2019. He plays with a lot of effort and he sometimes made plays in the run game. He’s going to have to continue to improve though. With another year in an NFL weight room, I expect Saunders to take a step forward next year.
Status: Keep him as Backup 2i/3 technique
Stats for 2019: 7 of 19 games , 0 sack, 0 QB hits, 1 pressures, 10 tackles (8 solo), 0 TFLs. Ran at 4 times, gave up 18 yards (4.5 YPC).
Williams was out for most of the year with an ankle injury, and with Saunders showing progress he didn’t get to play much, leading to not getting many snaps.
As a run defender, Williams just doesn’t have the strength to anchor a gap, and against zone, he doesn’t have very good lateral agility. As a pass rusher, he provides zero upside and lacks a refined pass rush game. He doesn’t really help you out anywhere, except to be a body.
His contract is up after this year, and frankly, with many other needs on this roster, it makes zero sense to bring Williams back. Khalen Saunders has already surpassed what he brings. I’m glad Williams got his ring and I wish him nothing but luck for his future.
Outlook for Defensive Tackles Next Year: 1 Techniques = Nnadi, Pennel, 3/2i Techniques = Jones, Saunders (2i)