Much of the focus this offseason has been on the biggest concern for the Chiefs: the pass rush while Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are out. It’s the one weakness that could really derail the season and expose the young secondary. A strong pass rush makes QBs uncomfortable and forces them to get the ball out more quickly. Without a good pass rush, defensive backs have to cover for too long and QBs can sit back and pick the defense apart.
The team drafted Dee Ford for this exact purpose. They saw what happened when injuries took away their elite edge rush the last few years and wanted to make sure they got another guy to develop behind Hali and Houston. Expectations were high on the first round pick, and it was clear that Ford has the elite first step and overall speed to be a disruptive force on the edge. He's flashed that ability — in the San Diego game where he had three sacks and the game-saving pass defended.
The problem is that in these flashes have been too few and far between, and it's difficult to see the consistent improvement you’d want to see from the former first round pick. The Kansas City Star took a look at the mounting pressure on Dee Ford to produce here and there are a LOT of red flags in the quotes and analysis.
When the Chiefs drafted Dadi Nicolas out of Virginia Tech in the sixth round this year, nobody really thought much about it. What should we expect from a sixth round pick on an undersized pass rusher that appeared to be a project? Once he hit the field this preseason, writers and fans alike started to get excited.
After review, Ford and Nicolas are similar players. Both have a great burst off of the snap. Both display the ability to speed rush and get into the backfield. Neither currently has the strength or technique to set the edge with any regularity the way that Houston and Hali have done.
The more you watch, the more the differences appear. It’s been said that Nicolas plays with his hair on fire, and that’s the first thing you notice on tape. He flies around the field and seems to be around the ball and in the backfield on a regular basis. Compare this to Ford who appears to be thinking more and trying to play under control. Nicolas has or is developing an array of pass rush moves. He employs a swim, rip, club, jab step and inside rush moves with regularity. Ford still relies upon his speed rush too much.
In college, Dadi Nicolas was a very curious case of misuse by his college coaching staff. Nicolas - who is a little smaller than you'd want for a linebacker - was used as an interior defensive lineman by Virginia Tech. He displayed the motor and quickness that make him a good prospect for the Chiefs, but was routinely getting beat up by offensive linemen. He managed 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in his senior year, after 8.5 / 18 as a junior. This was clearly a primary reason that he was still available for Kansas City at pick No. 203.
It was interesting to watch him vs Ohio State in 2014 and 2015 (notes included below) to see the difference. In 2014, he had five impact plays (two sacks, three TFL) and lined up all over the formation, including standing up as an outside linebacker. In 2015, lined up mostly on the inside, Nicolas had no impact plays and two total tackles.
Back on the edge with the Chiefs, Nicolas has been a quick study and a pleasant surprise. His natural quickness and motor are evident as you'd expect. I'm not sure we expected him to be this far ahead of the curve when it comes to hand usage, pass rush technique, shedding blockers and secondary rush moves.
Nicolas seemed to get better as the preseason went along, and ended up with a productive stat line (below). It is important to note, however, that he spent most of his time playing against second and third string offensive linemen, so we still need to see it against top competition.
Going forward, Ford and Nicolas should be good competition for each other and good benchmarks for fans. We have been patiently waiting for Dee Ford's development, but with Nicolas on board, there's another young pass rushing option that can set (and change) expectations for the position.
We do think there's a role for both, and we expect that Ford will be given every opportunity to start (during Houston's absence) or at least rotate (when Hali and Houston are both playing). However, in just a few short weeks, Nicolas has gone from a guy we expected to be competing for a practice squad spot to someone who we’re comparing to a Chiefs high draft pick.
Everything could change once the regular season begins. Perhaps Ford takes additional steps forward, or Nicolas struggles when he’s facing first team talent. The progress we've seen from Nicolas is at least encouraging, and potentially exciting for everyone not named Dee Ford. Watch to see if Dadi Nicolas forces the coaches’ hand by the end of the season by continuing to produce when given the opportunity.
Notes from the Chiefs preseason games
- Several examples of quickness in pursuit across the formation to run down a ball carrier in the backfield
- High energy, high motor type player
- Uses his hands and arms to get off of blocks and make tackles in the run game
- Easily blocked when he tries to go with inside or bull rush
- Can get too far upfield, out of control, and steered out of the play
- On one play, he used multiple pass rush moves (swim, rip, club) and got a QB pressure
- Saw only one or two plays where he jogged (took a play off) when the play went away from him
- Looks fluid enough in coverage when he does drop back
- Uses the speed rush and gets hands in the QB's face / passing lanes when he doesn't get home
- Had a great tackle for loss where he slipped through the entire defensive formation to get to the RB
- Once an offensive lineman gets hands on him, he's often done.
- Lacks the strength and bulk to set the edge
- Just look at the GIF Seth tweeted of Nicolas’s sack vs Green Bay. He sets the right tackle up with a jab step to the inside then quickly changed directions and dipped his shoulder below the block to finish the play. As Seth notes, the flexibility to bend and get around the corner is what separates great pass rushers from quick players who get blocked.
See how Nicolas can bend and get low to move around the tackle more quickly? CRUCIAL trait 4 a pass rusher. pic.twitter.com/363YNHt3vq— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 2, 2016
Some notes from college film
2014 vs Ohio State
- Notice him lining up across the formation, both standing up on the edge and inside at a three technique
- Shows ability to run across the formation to chase down a play
- Gets knocked around when lined up inside (understandably)
- Shows tremendous effort and motor
- Gets into the backfield on nearly every play
- Able to get skinny to split blockers
- Shows very active, but not heavy hands
- Tremendous burst off the snap
- Can get engulfed by a bigger o-linemen
- Displays good length
- Uses a swim an rip move effectively, but his spin move wasn't very effective
- Credited with two sacks, three tackles, each of which was for a loss
2015 vs Ohio State
- Gets driven off the ball and pancaked when playing inside
- Not strong enough as a d-lineman
- Chases down the QB, nearly gets a sack, then gets there on the next play and two plays later
- Gets banged up just before halftime, but starts the 2nd half
- Had one shot at the QB in the backfield where he hit him too high, and couldn’t finish
- Uses his quickness to avoid blocks at times
- Doesn’t typically quit on a play, even when he’s overmatched, keeps fighting
- Noticed a couple of plays where he lacked awareness
- Credited with two total tackles, no TFL, no sacks