There hasn’t been a lot to celebrate recently for the Chiefs. As they’ve staggered their way to a 6-6 record and dealt with some, uh, extracurricular stuff that’s dominated the news this week, more and more fans are starting to look towards next season. This is true despite the fact that the Chiefs still currently control their own fate with regards to the division lead and the playoffs.
The burnout fans are experiencing in 2017 was really evident when I asked Twitter whether they’d rather see a review of Tanoh Kpassagnon or Alex Smith first. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of Kpass. That tells me that fans have had enough of arguing about Alex, and they’re more invested in the future than they are in the present.
Of course, the reason I asked is I really wanted to review Tanoh’s snaps rather than Alex’s, so maybe I’m in the same boat.
If you’ve never read one of my film reviews on edge players (where Tanoh played on both the left and right side, which is pretty awesome considering he’s listed at 6’7”, 289 pounds), I review every snap on all-22 multiple times, charting wins/losses against the pass and the run (“PRW” stands for “pass rush win,” and I think you can fill in the rest), neutral snaps, pressures/hits/sacks, effective double teams, and stuffs.
I watched Tanoh’s most recent 2 games, against the Bills and the Jets. It’s worth noting that Tanoh saw his snaps jump to more than double what they’ve ever been against the Jets (28), after seeing 13 snaps with the Bills. Part if this is a function of Tamba Hali and Dee Ford being out, certainly, but if you’ll recall earlier this season when both were out, the Chiefs simply had Frank Zombo play virtually all of the edge snaps opposite Justin Houston. That at least appears to indicate the coaching staff now trusts the rookie, where before they didn’t.
Let’s look at the numbers, then talk film.
(Note: I tracked 37 snaps. Tanoh is listed as haven taken 41 defensive snaps at Pro Football Reference. So somewhere along the line I managed to miss a few. It was late, guys. Also, remember this is VERY SMALL sample size, meaning we can get a look at traits, but there’s no real way of projecting based on what we currently have to watch)
So for the sake of talking numbers, I think it makes sense to compare Tanoh to someone we’re familiar with. I thought about comparing him to Dee Ford’s rookie year, but that didn’t make sense because it’s not even close. Tanoh is much, much better than Ford was at this point (we’ll get to that in a bit). So instead, I figured I would compare Tanoh to Tamba Hali’s 2016 output, as it’s widely acknowledged that Hali was a contributor last year but was no longer special.
In Hali’s film last year, he had a win percentage of 17.1% and a loss percentage of 26.9%. So in a limited sample size (I cannot emphasize strongly enough that you must keep sample size in mind), Tanoh won more and loss less than Hali did last season. Now, Hali was definitely not what he used to be, but he was still a competent player.
The fact that a rookie who was so raw to start the year that he couldn’t see playing time even in desperate circumstances was able to outstrip an accomplished veteran, even at the end of the road, is really encouraging. So let’s talk about what traits Tanoh flashed, and what he needs to work on. We’ll start with the good, because that’s more fun.
First, Tanoh demonstrates some genuinely functional talent as an edge rusher.
Kpass is rushing from the right edge here. Is that... is that— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
(lowers to a whisper) is that "bend" that I'm seeing around the edge???? pic.twitter.com/MNJyqizE0d
We talk about “bend” all the time when we reference pass rushers, especially Dee Ford (because he completely lacked it until last year, and then was still quite limited in that regard). Bend is the ability to get underneath offensive linemen and turn the corner at the top of their rush to get to where the QB is setting up in the pocket. Most Chiefs fans have an idea of what that means because of Derrick Thomas, who had some of the greatest bend of all time. As much as I hate to say it, Von Miller is similarly elite in that regard.
Being flexible enough and having enough balance to bend around the edge is more important than any other edge rusher trait. It doesn’t matter if you have the best first step on the planet if you can’t bend around the edge, as tackles will just push your upright self wide every single time (again, see most of Dee Ford’s career for an example). Let’s look at another angle of the same play.
Here's another angle. That's a 6'7", 290 pound man cornering. Oh crap, I'm gonna fall for another one, aren't I? Hey, @LedyardNFLDraft or @VeteranScout, tell me that's crap and I'm seeing things before I get hurt again. pic.twitter.com/cqQwyamZCs— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
After Tanoh and the LT collide, watch him “drop his pads” (get them low as he bends around the the tackle) to get underneath the hands of the tackle. That’s the key here. Because he does this, he’s able to take the shortest route to the quarterback rather than looping around (or simply getting pushed wide).
I tried to convince a pair of analysts I really respect (Jon Ledyard and Brandon Thorn, who you really should follow on Twitter) to convince me I was seeing things, because I’ve been hurt before. They did not help me with that.
Drops his pads nicely to get under those hands— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 8, 2017
I didn’t watch him at Villanova but really impressive for a guy his size.— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) December 8, 2017
Again, that’s not helping me NOT get excited about Tanoh’s future as an edge player.
This wasn’t a one-time thing, either. Tanoh showed similar bend to what you see in the above gifs several times as a rusher, which is part of how he achieved his “wins.” He also showed the ability to get low by dipping low rather than bending around the edge, which is another level of things I was definitely not expecting from a guy his size.
Again, I feel like I'm seeing things, because this looks like Kpass (left edge) legitimately dipping around the edge. Much like the "bend" snap earlier, it's hard to believe a guy his size is able to dip, get low and corner like this. Instant throw ruins it. pic.twitter.com/nCzy16Y0Ka— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
Look at the way Tanoh again gets low (this time by bending down rather than going horizontal with his whole body) to get underneath the hands of the tackle. Much like the first play we watched, a very fast throw makes it impossible for Tanoh to get a hit or a sack on the quarterback, or even a pressure. But that doesn’t change the fact that he beat the RT like he stole something and left him spinning and grasping for air.
Tanoh demonstrates a pretty good burst at the line of scrimmage. It’s not special, but it’s not bad either. When you combine that with his very long, very strong arms he’s a handful to deal with. Mix in the ability to bend/dip around the edge and you’ve got a guy who is able to win despite a clear rawness to his handfighting and overall technique.
How raw is Tanoh? So raw that you can see him reminding himself to switch feet when he goes from the left edge to the right edge. It’s hilarious. He’ll be lined up with the wrong foot forward, and you can see him almost say “oh, crap” to himself and switch feet prior to the snap. That said, if you compare how he looks on the field rushing from a 2 point stance now as opposed to the preseason, there’s a massive difference in apparent comfort level. He’s come a long, long ways in a pretty short amount of time.
With regards to run defense, one reason people (including me) are excited about Tanoh is the fact that we’ve seen what having a liability on run defense on the edge opposite Houston can do to a defensive gameplan. Tanoh’s size and length gives him a natural advantage against the run. If we’re going by listed weight (always inaccurate to an extent, though we don’t know which way), Tanoh outweighs Zombo by 34 pounds and Ford by 37 pounds. That’s close to the difference between a tight end and an offensive lineman. And it shows up on film at times.
Chiefs fans will like this: Kpass sets the edge, doesn't give ground (actually rocks LT a bit), and is in position to make the stop. Forces a hold by the LT (which got called, thankfully). pic.twitter.com/UcIsZmzs8v— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
Tanoh did an overall nice job setting the edge in the snaps that he took. He’s got natural strength (he really is oddly large) and long arms to give him leverage. He’s able to rock opposing tackles when he gets his hands/hips/feet right, and he generally does a good job sticking to his job and not getting sucked into the muck. He forced several holds when teams ran to his edge, as well as several plays where RB’s were forced to go so wide to get around him that the rest of the defense ran them down for a stuff (there should be an “assist” stat for that kind of thing... maybe next time).
So that’s all good news, and makes him sound like an absolute star in the making. However, it’s not all roses for Tanoh. There were several snaps where he got absolutely stonewalled as a rusher. To be fair, that happens to literally every pass rusher, so I’m not too worried about it, especially as you see Tanoh working on his ability to disengage from blockers when they get their hands on him early (I’m hoping he’s learning from Houston, a similarly freakish-strength guy whose hand usage is impeccable).
The big things that Tanoh needs to work on are all based on his inexperience at this level of football.
Gonna need to improve that recognition speed pic.twitter.com/XN0gWj0vrQ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
There were a few snaps where Tanoh clearly didn’t track the ball very quickly, and it resulted in him looking very not-fluid in space. I don’t think that’s an athleticism issue, as he certainly looked fluid on other snaps. I think that’s more a “I’m not sure what’s happening so it’s affecting my movement” issue.
To be fair to Tanoh, in the snap above he has to worry about Tyrod Taylor, one of the fastest QB’s in the NFL, going on a bootleg. I get that. However, it still takes him way too long to recognize that the handoff occurred and transition into chasing down the line. And again, there were a few snaps like this, where Tanoh was clearly trying to process the dizzying speed of the NFL.
Tanoh also is going to have to learn to get off blocks when trying to alter direction, as well as the fact that in the NFL anyone can plant you, even tight ends.
Kpass is going to need to learn to keep guys from using his momentum against him. In the NFL, even TE's can plant you if you're not careful. He DID spring right up and helped chase down Taylor, to his credit. pic.twitter.com/OLbf1IHtn3— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
Tanoh gets caught with his momentum working against him. In the NFL (really at any level of football, but it gets exposed every time at this level), you can’t let a blocker feel you moving away while he’s still got his hands on you. Tanoh needs to set his feet and either chuck the blocker or stand him up before he’s able to safely change direction. Otherwise, the result will be what you see here. There were a few snaps Tanoh had his momentum used against him. Again, that happens to everyone, but he’ll need to work on securing his feet.
Tanoh also had a play where he gave up the edge selling out against a pulling TE.
Kpass is put in a tough spot here due to failures up front for KC, but he's gotta keep that edge integrity and not end up on a knee. STILL almost made the play with those 20 foot arms. pic.twitter.com/pisz51FBqj— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 8, 2017
I believe Tanoh was attempting to squeeze the TE inside, where the run was initially headed. When you look at the block, it’s definitely more of a “seal” block, which further tells me the RB was supposed to go inside. However, when you completely sell out your body like that to try and squeeze blockers inside, you’re begging the RB to just cut outside and get a big gain, which is exactly what happens here. Rookie mistake, it’ll happen, but worth noting.
Over all, I was surprised at Tanoh’s level of competence. In the preseason, he looked like a fish out of water early, though his smoothness and comfort level (against 3rd string players, mostly) grew as things went along. I didn’t think, based on what we saw in preseason, that he’d be ready to see the field at all this year, let alone take 25+ snaps in a game. I thought it would be a disaster if he did.
Instead, Tanoh was able to hold his own out there, and he absolutely flashed the physical skills to be a really interesting guy on the edge. Again, this is all an incredibly small sample size, and you can’t project a guy to keep improving at an astronomical rate like Tanoh has so far (well, you can, but you’re begging to be hurt). But watching Tanoh bend/dip around tackles, or set the edge strong and force runners inside, makes it really tough to not feel like he’s got a bright future. And one that might arrive sooner than we thought.