Mid-Season Progress Check: Which Young Guys Have Developed?

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We’re on to the bye week. The Chiefs are sitting at a very comfortable 8-1, and have a comfortable lead in the AFC West. We’re still in very good contention for the 1 seed and a bye, which is massive this season. Everything so far has gone according to plan for the Chiefs, who dedicated a lot of their offseason to trying to bring back the Super Bowl core, even at the expense of seeing some younger guys get more snaps. While that trade off would be justified if the Chiefs win another Super Bowl, there are sacrifices you have to make in order to bring back a lot of quality, yet older, veterans. The main issue with doing what the Chiefs did is that is hurts your younger players a lot more, when they are ready to receive more snaps and more opportunities.

Offensively, there honestly aren’t many players who are having snaps inhibited by other players. Most guys get plentiful opportunities there. The real issue for the Chiefs was going to be defensively, where they had a bunch of young players sitting in the wings, who were ready for bigger roles.

With injuries this season, some guys have got to show their ability on the field more than we expected, and a lot of dudes have flashed. How have some of our young defensive personnel developed, and what can we expect for 2021 and beyond? Come read!

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Tershawn Wharton

Biggest Strength: Explosion/Strength Combination

Steve Spagnuolo mentioned it in his presser before the Panthers game, but when the Chiefs were going through training camp this summer, the strength coaches told him about how Wharton was one of the strongest players on the team immediately, even as a rookie. Then, during the actual reps during the summer, he and Daly marveled at Wharton’s explosion on the interior. While Wharton gained a lot of mass to play DT, he kept a lot of his explosion from when he played DE in college, which was huge in assisting him. Wharton could’ve got fat to play DT, but he kept lean for someone that large, and that explosion and power is hard to defend.

Biggest Weakness: Lack of Mass

Wharton, while being super strong for his size, is still super light for a DT. After only being 255 lbs in college, he did gain a ton of weight, getting up to 280 lbs. Wharton deserves a ton of credit for gaining that weight to play DT, but he’s still super light for the interior. That leaves him limited as a nose tackle, or even a base 3 technique. He’ll never be a 3 down DT, simply because he’s movable to combo and down blocks, simply because he just doesn’t have the mass to play against heavier personnel.

Player Outlook: I mentioned it in the Broncos review, I think Wharton’s ceiling is a rotational pass rushing defensive tackle. While he’s made it somewhat work considering his lack of length and mass, he’s still not an awesome run defender. He sets a good anchor and has good vision for a defensive tackle, but he’s still really small for his position, he gets moved off the ball with combo blocks, and his lack of great length hurts him in leverage battles. He’s never going to be a nose tackle, let alone a base 3 technique vs the run.

That being said, I see a ceiling as a pass rusher. He’ll never be Chris Jones, but I think he can fill the role that Tanoh Kpassagnon has as the 3rd down 1 tech in pass rush downs. In fact, I think Wharton could be better in that role than Tanoh. His quickness is actually probably better suited for the interior than Tanoh, and I think he plays with better technique than him as well. While he doesn’t have the length that Tanoh has, I think he’s better everywhere else physically. I think the Chiefs can make it work with Wharton as that 2nd pass rushing DT, which was a huge need coming into this season and beyond.

Wharton has been an awesome find for the Chiefs. Getting him out of Missouri Science and Technology and making him a defensive tackle was already a success, but making him a quality NFL DT is huge. While he’ll never be a high-quality defensive tackle, he has enough of a floor to be on this roster for a long time.

Khalen Saunders

Biggest Strength: Locating The Football

Saunders, while not setting the best anchor or playing with the best strength, does have a defining trait as a run defender; locating the football. People don’t give enough credit to how hard it really is to play DT in the NFL, particularly as a run defender. You have to be able to read blocks, read the feet of a RB, rotate your hips into proper leverage, locate the ball, while still holding up against your block. That’s super hard to do all at once, and takes a lot of experience to really accomplish all of that. That’s why you see a lot of DTs really peak around age 28-30, simply because that’s the apex of their vision, strength, and agility.

Saunders has already developed one of these traits, which is his ability to locate the ball. His vision is already pretty solid, and when combined with decent lateral agility, he’s able to quickly recover to the ball and fill the backside gaps. While his strength and anchor really needs to improve, the ability to already play with good vision gives you a good indication to what his future will look like.

Biggest Weakness: Gap Control/Anchor

Saunders, while being well over 300 lbs, is barely 6’0, which hurts his ability to anchor. The lack of length and long arms makes Saunders an easy target for down blocks, and he just doesn’t have the size profile to anchor and hold gaps very well. He routinely gets blown off the ball, which leaves massive holes. He can’t play nose tackle with his lack of anchor.

Player Outlook: Saunders is one of the most intriguing players on this roster for me. There were big expectations that he would develop into the next Chris Jones, and complement him as a pass rusher. Unfortunately, we’re nearly halfway through Saunders’s rookie contract, and there have basically been zero flashes that he’s going to become that player. We all knew Saunders would take multiple years to develop, but he was a healthy scratch vs the Jets and Panthers. That’s not a good sign for Saunders at all.

Saunders isn’t a nose tackle. He’s a rotational 3 tech at his very best. I think Saunders has the mass and quickness to become a quality run defender, but his anchor and lower body strength just aren’t there yet. He’s shown little to no juice as a pass rusher, getting surpassed by Wharton as a pass rusher really. In fact, Wharton’s made a bigger impact all-around than Saunders has. He’s just a better player right now.

I’m not saying that Saunders is going to get cut soon. He’ll be on this team the rest of the year. But this staff has shown they’re willing to cut costs with draft picks (Breeland Speaks) if they don’t show signs of clear development. Saunders needs to impress with any opportunity he gets here, or else his roster spot isn’t safe in 2021 in the slightest.

Mike Danna

Biggest Strength: Incredible Football IQ

If you’ve read my stuff this season, you know how much I appreciate Mike Danna. His football IQ is off the charts for a rookie. Brendan Daly has spoken very highly about the asset Danna is in the film room and on the field, and he has earned the trust of the coaching staff. For a 5th round pick, that’s a testament to Danna’s character. Credit the rookie for being able to immediately step in and fill a role for this team.

Biggest Weakness: Lack of High-Tier Athleticism

The issue with Danna is that he just isn’t a superb athlete. He’s not a Breeland Speaks, but as an athlete, he’s just average. He doesn’t really play with a super explosive first step, and his agility is only okay. He’s not a super long DE, only being 6’2 and having 32 5/8″ arms. The lack of great athleticism pushed him down the board really far, and severely limits his ceiling. He’s likely never going to be a consistent pass rusher, and never really flash. That’s fine for your 4th/5th DEs, but he likely will never be too much more than that.

Player Outlook: Early in the season, I was super high on Danna. And I still really like the player. Still, the last two weeks of film didn’t really help my optimistic outlook of him. Yes, he was dealing with a hamstring injury in the middle of the season, but he’s looked so much slower and stiffer as an athlete these past two games. Teams are really attacking him off the edges with motion and sweeps, and he just doesn’t the athleticism to really kick out and deal with those. He’s also never going to be a good pass rusher off the edge, simply because he doesn’t have the speed to threaten the corner.

That being said, I still really like Danna. He’s a super smart DE, and will be able to fill some of that base DE role for the Chiefs going forward. He does need to improve his base as an edge defender, but his ability to play multiple techniques and flash versatility makes him a player that the Chiefs should keep for a while. Still, don’t expect Danna to have a super high ceiling going forward.

Willie Gay

(I actually wrote about Willie Gay this past week, so if you want to take a minute to read that, it would be appreciated. I didn’t go too in depth on the outlook for Gay going forward, so here’s my thoughts about him).

Player Outlook: The player who the Chiefs fans want to see take on a big role for this team the most. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the highest on Willie Gay, pre-draft. While I acknowledge the athletic profile is other-worldly, I was really worried about his play processing and character going into the league. I had a feeling Gay would need 2-3 years to really develop into at least a competent NFL player, let alone a high-quality player. While I walked back a bit on those takes this summer, I still feel it’s going to be a fair while before we see anywhere near apex Willie Gay.

I think going into 2021, his next step of progression is taking over the BUCK (nickel LB) reps from Damien Wilson permanently. I’m not really ready for Gay to call the fronts for the dime defense. I understand that Ben Niemann is bad on the field, but Spagnuolo won’t put someone he doesn’t trust to get the defense lined up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though; Wilson plays around 60-65% of snaps, and if Gay can take over all those snaps and play it well, that’s massive for 2021. He can become a very solid starter there.

I still think it’s going to be another 2-3 years to see Gay reach anywhere near his peak. His 4th year is likely going to be his best year. He was never really ready to take over a full-time LB role, and I have a feeling that it’ll take longer than we all want it to. For now, let’s see Gay take over Damien Wilson’s reps fully, and play 60-65% of snaps. Let’s see better processing and coverage play, and then I’ll feel great going into 2022. But as of now, he’s not ready to be the MIKE. It’s essential that this team brings back Hitchens going into 2021. After that, hopefully Gay can maybe play some MIKE, or we draft someone to call the fronts.

L’Jarius Sneed

Biggest Strength: Ballskills

Between this and his speed, Sneed has a lot of positive traits. In his college tape though, the thing I was most impressed by was his ability to make plays on the football. He’s had positive indicators that he’s going to carry that over into the NFL. He tracks the ball over his shoulder well, and with safety experience in college, he’s able to read route combinations and ROBOT off from his zone to mirror the eyes of the QB for potential interceptions. Sneed should be a guy that routinely is near the lead in PBUs and INTs if he stays healthy.

Biggest Weakness: Footwork in Press

At this moment, Sneed’s biggest weakness is his footwork in press. It got better as the first 3 weeks went on, but the game and the nuances of playing CB haven’t caught up to him yet. He should get this cleaned up with coaching and time, but there will be some WRs that take advantage of this tendency down the line.

Player Outlook: There hasn’t been a player Chiefs fans are more bullish on than L’Jarius Sneed. And that hope is completely justified. When he’s played, he’s been awesome. He should have 3 picks on the year, with one barely being dropped when he hurt his collarbone. His speed and ball skills are top tier for a cornerback. Yes, there are technique issues right now, but Sam Madison and Dave Merritt are awesome coaches. They’ll get that cleaned up, given time.

For Sneed, the only thing stopping him from becoming a very good cornerback in the future is how much he’s willing to get coached up and work on his game. That won’t be an issue in Kansas City. Tyrann Mathieu and Steve Spagnuolo won’t let him be complacent. He’s going to improve, simply because the staff will hold him accountable to do that.

He likely won’t be a Pro Bowler in 2021, but he’s got the potential to be that in the future. He’s that good. If everything goes well, the Chiefs got themselves a very high quality cornerback for a long time, on a cheap deal. There’s been a lot of lower-level talent and rotation since Marcus Peters left, and Sneed gives them stability on one side, finally.

Rashad Fenton

Biggest Strength: Positional Versatility

Fenton’s been a bit of a Swiss army knife for Spagnuolo since being drafted, and while I don’t think he’s particularly strong in the slot (he gets a ton of safety brackets and help), he’s certainly been trusted to play there. The Chiefs like dropping Fenton as a deep-half safety in some of their Cover 2 looks, and he’s looked fine there. When he’s been asked to play some boundary cornerback, the results have been mixed, but he’s certainly not looked terrible there. For a 5th/6th DB, you’ve got to be able to fill multiple roles on this defense, and Fenton does exactly that.

Biggest Weakness: Not Dynamic Athletically

Fenton’s biggest problem is just that he’s not very dynamic athletically. He’s on the shorter side of most boundary CBs, and slower than most slot CBs. Fenton’s a physical player, but he receives a ton of safety help over the top, regardless of where he’s playing. He doesn’t have the speed to match slot WRs, nor the size to contest X WRs at the catch point. He’s never really going to grow much as a player, based simply off of not having a strong athletic profile.

Player Outlook: I doubt Rashad Fenton gets too much better. That’s not me being super negative, but Fenton lacks the athletic profile to really develop into a starting level cornerback. He’s an awesome depth cornerback, and someone who can provide some inside-out versatility for the Chiefs. When an injury happens to someone, Fenton is a very good guy to step in and fill the role. Regardless of your opinion on Fenton, that’s ultra valuable.

I would prefer Fenton’s slot role gets replaced by someone else in 2021. It’s not out of disrespect, but I just don’t think he’s really a great fit to play a lot of slot reps. The Chiefs give him a lot of dedicated help with brackets from the slot, and if the Chiefs could have someone who could be trusted more with man to man coverage, it would allow Spagnuolo to do some more creative things with his safeties.

But look, Fenton was a good pick. I didn’t really think Fenton would succeed in the NFL, simply because I doubted he had the athletic profile to really succeed in the league. And so far, he’s proven me wrong. He’s a quality depth piece in the rotation. As long as the Chiefs don’t ask him to do much else, he’s going to have a role on this team for the immediate future.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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11/19/2020 4:21 pm

What, no write-up for our rookie punter, Tommy Townsend?

11/19/2020 1:36 pm

I could see Danna fitting right into Okafor’s role and being real good there for a long time.

Fenton and Baker seem pretty similar to me as far as the roles they could play. IF, of course, Baker pans out. And Baker obviously seems to have a higher ceiling all-around.

We could do worse than having two different CBs who are pretty decent at everything and really good at one or two things.

11/19/2020 1:23 pm

I think you’re selling Wharton’s future short. He’s only 22, he’s got at least another six years where he can easily keep getting stronger and bigger. Most people can keep adding good strength and mass well into their 30s.

Reply to  Nate Christensen
11/19/2020 1:42 pm

Well he’s obviously a physical freak, but he’d be REALLY freakish if he didn’t keep getting heavier and stronger after age 22. You start to lose quickness not long after that, but pretty much every human male just naturally keeps getting stronger well past age 30, as long as you just exercise right and don’t over-train and don’t have a major injury.

Reply to  Berserker
11/19/2020 1:44 pm

But of course as freakish as he is, and like you point out how much muscle mass he’s gained in the past year, probably the big concern right now is whether he gets popped for PEDs.

11/19/2020 11:56 am

The interesting thing is that none of our rookies are actually bad. Some of them aren’t good yet, but they aren’t just flatout bad like rookies can be. Good drafting and coaching.

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