Derrick Nnadi: A Budding Star?

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Derrick Nnadi’s season was very interesting. The first five weeks of the season, Nnadi was rough. And by rough, I mean bad. I remember in week 5, I seriously contemplated saying we need to trade for a defensive tackle and bench Nnadi. He was absolutely getting mauled by everybody and brought no presence to the middle. Teams were just gashing us right up the middle, going for 8-10 yard chunks continuously. While part of that is also due to poor linebacker play, the defensive tackles were doing them no favors.

Then around week 6-7, Nnadi suddenly flipped a switch. Every time I went back and watched his film, I came away more and more impressed. He was blowing my mind with some of the stuff he did against the run. Now that we’re in the offseason, I decided to sit down and just watch Nnadi, to see what I saw out of him from last year. And I came away super impressed. Why? Come read about it!

Lateral Agility

The most impressive part of Nnadi’s game for me is his lateral agility. While his strength and leverage are as good as Mike Pennel, what separates Nnadi from Pennel is his ability to move laterally. Teams ran a lot of outside zone type of looks against Kansas City, trying to take advantage of defensive ends who couldn’t set a great edge and slow linebackers who couldn’t overlap on the zone looks or be a strong force player. Having a defensive tackle like him changes all of that, though. His ability to reset the line of scrimmage by getting wide makes a huge impact on running backs. Brendan Daly asked his defensive tackles to play an inside shade on the inside zone look, and get wide to reset the line of scrimmage. He does that better than anybody in the defensive tackle rotation and routinely stopped teams from running outside too much. Considering that most of the rest of the defense struggled there, Nnadi helped save a lot of big plays with that agility.

Explosion

Something I remember last year when I went through Nnadi’s tape was his explosiveness off the ball. His first step is on a high-level for a defensive tackle and Nnadi does a great job of winning at the contact point. For defensive tackles, if you have a strong base in your lower half and you can win the first step battle, you’ll be a very good run defender. Nnadi has both, which makes him super valuable. In a lot of Power/Dive looks, the key part of stopping that is a strong anchor and driving the offensive lineman back. Nnadi can do that, while also playing with a lower base.

Even in some inside zone looks, Nnadi was elite at getting off the ball. He would key the inside zone run, work an inside shade on the ball and work the inside half of the guard’s chest. He was so quick he could beat the double/Combo block before it came. Plus add an uncanny ability to locate the ball, and Nnadi was also a beast with his explosiveness. He’s not only strong but also a superb athlete.

Locating the Ball

When I’m reading evaluations on defensive tackles, something I think most people forget is the ability to locate the ball. This sounds easy, but I’m telling you, when I’m grading defensive tackles for the draft, this is one of the key things I’m looking for. Too many defensive tackles play head up on offensive lineman, just staring into them. They’ll let ball carriers just slip right past them, with defensive tackles lungeing for a tackle. The defensive tackles for the Chiefs last year were really good at this, but none may be as good as Nnadi is at it.

He’s able to keep his eyes on the ball well, playing a half-man technique to track the ball. Since his base is so strong and he’s agile enough to flip leverage, he can play that type of technique. Kansas City didn’t ask much two-gap out of him last year, but he’s a natural two-gapper. Nnadi had 48 tackles in 2019, a lot of that due to his ability to track and rally to the ball. For a defensive tackle as strong and athletic as Nnadi, that rounds out his game well.

Anchoring

The biggest part about being a defensive tackle is the strength and mass you possess. Having the explosiveness/lateral agility can take you to another level there, but if you’re super strong and have a lot of mass, you’ll last in the NFL. Look at Mike Pennel for example. Pennel isn’t a great athlete, or even good. He’s not super agile and doesn’t have the best first step. Still, he’s incredibly strong and large, plus is unmovable in the run game. That’ll get you on NFL rosters. Nnadi possesses that ability too, and arguably has as much as strength as Pennel.

Nnadi plays with fantastic leverage and a super low base. He can sink his hips, drop the pad level and not be moved. Nnadi’s a huge beast with a ton of mass. If you’ve ever been to training camp, you see how large he truly is. He’s shorter for sure, but his weight and strength makes up for it. His ability to play with a lower pad level for his height and have the strength to force running backs to reset their feet are on another level. It’s almost to the point where running at Nnadi doesn’t make sense. He’ll get wide if you try to stretch him out, while having the strength to anchor his gap. That combination is rare in the league.

Pass Rush Reps

The number one flaw of Nnadi is definitely his pass rush game. He’s a negative in basically any situation possible. While I think he has the athleticism to at least somewhat work as a pass rusher, there’s not a lot of refinement there. In 2018, you saw some progression with his hands, but in 2019, it seemed to have some regression there. Nnadi mainly relied on trying to win with a bullrush and no real plan. I think part of that was due to how much teams were trying to run play action and RPOs against Kansas City last year, but even in his true pass rushing snaps he wasn’t good.

Nnadi doesn’t really effectively rush with any plan and mainly just contains his rush lane. He’ll sometimes try to flash and work his hands into a longer bullrush, but it usually takes too long. He’s a shorter defensive tackle, without elite arm length. He’ll always have issues rushing the passer. I wish I saw more of a rip move out of Nnadi, and some stabs with one arm and chop with the other. Overall, Nnadi will never be a really good pass rusher, and that’s okay. If he can even be below average, that’s plenty good enough from a defensive tackle.

Conclusion

Out of all the players on our roster, I think none are as under-appreciated as Derrick Nnadi. You always hear about the stars of the defense (Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu) and the young guys with potential (Charvarius Ward, Juan Thornhill), but nobody gives any recognition to Nnadi. He deserves to be in their category, for what he does in the run defense. At this point, I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the top run stuffing defensive lineman in the NFL.

Why is he under-appreciated? Well, unfortunately, his position is losing some value in the NFL. He’s only a 1.5 down player, and those guys are slowly losing value. Still, in those 1.5 downs, Nnadi absolutely dominates everyone he faces. He, along with Frank Clark, carried the run defense last year. Once Nnadi and Clark got healthy, teams had way less success running the football against Kansas City. In fact, they became a pretty solid run defense after that.

People always talk about guys we couldn’t have won the Super Bowl without. From the defensive side, it’s usually agreed upon that we wouldn’t have gone on the postseason run without Jones, Clark, Mathieu, Daniel Sorensen, and Kendall Fuller. Still, someone is left out, and really should be in the top 2-3 category for the defense. That’s Derrick Nnadi. His impact on stopping Derrick Henry and Raheem Mostert should be appreciated more. His postseason was dominant.

In year 3, we should continue seeing the same from Nnadi. He will never do much as a pass rusher, but that’s okay. He’s so good as a run defender so you don’t need that from him. I hope he stays healthy for all 19 games next year because if he does, he’ll get a good extension from Kansas City. Nnadi is one of my favorite Chiefs, so I hope we can keep him around long-term.

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Big Chief
Big Chief
06/25/2020 8:22 am

Was he doing worse the first half of last year than he did his rookie year?
How much improved over his rookie season did he play when he did do better?
I remember Nnadi making some splash plays as a rookie, sort of the way Jones did his first year, but then he disappeared again. I certainly noticed him in the second half of the season as you pointed out.

chiefwoundedknee
chiefwoundedknee
06/24/2020 8:07 pm

Excellent write up. I really like your video presentations. Keep it up.
I’ve always been a “he’s ok”, but much of that is predicated on the abysmal run defense his first year, and first part of last year. What changed that made him suddenly get better? Was it really himself that improved, or the others around him?

zulu trader
zulu trader
06/24/2020 9:26 am

I’m with you, Nate.

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