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Dontari Poe film review: What does he do and what’s he worth?

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We’ve entered the offseason. Which means that we’re officially at the point where people value draft picks more than proven players, and (even more insanely) even value cap space more than proven players. It makes us all crazy, this time of year. I blame our love of shiny new things, but that perhaps is a thought for another day.

The two big questions on everyone’s mind (besides that whole non-rumor rumor about Tony something-or-other. Which, by the way, I put almost no stock in) are as follows:

  1. Will the Chiefs keep Eric Berry, and what is he worth paying?
  2. Will the Chiefs keep Dontari Poe, and what is HE worth paying?

There’s probably a third question on everyone’s mind (when will MNchiefsfan bring back Mrs. MNchiefsfan for hot takes, for example), but today we’re focusing on the second of the “big two.” Dontari Poe.

Poe has been with the Chiefs for five years now, and we’ve come full circle on him. He went from a draft pick that most people (don’t lie to me) generally didn’t approve of, to a rookie that people were unsure of (though some, like THIS WRITER WHO IS PATTING HIMSELF ON THE BACK UNTIL IT BRUISES, saw he could play), to a guy many fans began to consider a dominant force, to a guy many fans have now turned on and believe to be a big part of the Chiefs run defense problems. How is it they say... life comes at you fast.

I found it quite fascinating what happened to peoples’ perception of Poe this season. Over the last few years I’ve been regularly called out for saying that Poe is slightly overrated by Chiefs fans. This year, I’ve found myself generally in the reverse situation, defending Poe detractors who believe he’s a liability. As always, I couldn’t let the question lie as to what Poe’s on-field production looked like, so to the film we went.

I re-watched six games on all-22 (which has a great Madden cam view for OL/DL play). I tracked Poe’s individual wins, losses, and neutral plays against the pass and the run, as well as effective double teams and sacks/hits/pressures. The goal is to see how Poe did, regardless of the result of the play. For an explanation of what a win/loss/neutral play is, read here (though the terms are fairly self-explanatory).

An effective double team is one forced by Poe beating his initial blocker or one he “commands” (actually occupies and keeps blockers off other defenders without giving much ground). Not all double teams are effective, or in some games even most of them. Here’s an example of an effective double team.

It’s a thin line between an effective double team vs. an ineffective double team, but it’s wildly important, particularly against the run. Managing to command that extra blocker (whose job is to just hit the DL then go immediately to the LB) for even a half-second can be the difference between a stuff or a 5 yard gain (at minimum).

I looked at the first Chargers game, as well as the Jets, first Raiders, Falcons, Titans and Steelers (playoff) games. This allowed us to get a good cross-section of games from throughout the season, as well as with/without Derrick Johnson (and before/after the emergence of Chris Jones). Here are the numbers

So there are a few things we should really talk about regarding those numbers, then we’ll talk about Poe’s tape.

The first thing I want to remind everyone is a general rule of defensive line play: they are going to lose a lot more often than offensive linemen (or have neutral plays) and win less frequently. That’s the nature of the game. If that weren’t the case, offenses would average 10 points per game. There are a lot of advantages for offensive linemen, chief among them being they know exactly who they’re blocking (or where) and defensive players do not. It’s similar to the problem corners have not knowing what route a WR is going to run. It makes it inherently more difficult when you have to react rather than act. So don’t freak out about those numbers, they’re not horrific.

That said... there are a lot more losses, especially as a pass rusher, than I am comfortable with to call a player elite, or even close. It would be one thing if Poe balanced it out with a dozen wins a game (with multiple pressures, etc), but that’s not something we see a lot of from Poe as a rusher. The second thing that gives me a bit of pause is the fact that Poe’s win numbers from game to game aren’t that consistent. For example, Poe had six wins rushing the passer against Atlanta (he played a very solid game against them), but only one against the Steelers and Raiders. Looking at his run defense wins you see a bit more consistency, but still some variation (again, against the Steelers and Raiders, both of whom gave him some trouble).

The same story exists with effective double teams. The main argument I see from people who believe Poe is an integral part to the Chiefs defense is that he takes on all the double teams so others don’t have to. While that idea is true in a sense (Poe does indeed see a lot more double teams than other defensive linemen, though Jones started seeing more as the year went along), how effective Poe was against those double teams varied by game. Against the Chargers in the Jets he had multiple great snaps against double teams. In multiple other games, I saw too many snaps like this one.

For all of Poe’s vast size, I wouldn’t call him an overpowering player. He does possess an exceptional club move when rushing the passer (though he doesn’t use it as much as I’d like), but when you see him go up against double teams or even individual blockers you don’t get the sense that he’s brutishly strong, even at his size (as compared to what you see from Chris Jones against individual OL).

Now, let’s be clear, that doesn’t mean Poe is WEAK at the point of attack. I’m hear to tell you that people saying Poe was to blame for run defense woes are ... pretty far off in my estimation. While he had some games where he struggled, Poe was far from the biggest issue with the run defense. He wasn’t blameless, but way too often once DJ went down Poe would do his job only to have the inside linebackers fail to get to the hole on time to stuff the run. Combine that with a surrounding cast of Jones and “who are those guys?” and you’re asking for trouble.

My primary issue with Poe is that, in my opinion, he didn’t do enough to raise the level of a struggling run defense to warrant being called a great run defender. He’s solid at it. Decent. But inconsistent at times and not immovable at the point of attack, particularly against good offensive lines. For every couple of plays like this...

... I felt like there were plays where Poe was part of the problem rather than the solution. Again, he wasn’t the MAIN problem, and he was one of the better run defenders on the defense (he was much more consistent than any of the other DL, though Jones gave him a run for his money down the stretch). But he wasn’t great, and he wasn’t some kind of major enabler through effectively taking on a dozen double teams a game. That’s a myth.

As a pass rusher, Poe frustrates me at times. You’ll see a play like this:

and after watching that, you’ll wonder why Poe doesn’t have a dozen sacks a year. The problem is that it’s just in flashes. Poe has several moves that work very well (swim and club, specifically, as well as a push/pull at times), and then a bunch of snaps in between where he doesn’t seem to get much traction at all, regardless of whether he’s being blocked by one guy or two.

Is Poe a BAD pass rusher? No, he’s not. And he’ll give you a couple (usually) of plays a game where he gets quick pressure like that from the interior, which is wildly valuable. And some of the contributions Poe made to the pass rush are going to go completely unnoticed by fans or recorded by any sort of statistic (well, except my made up effective double teams statistic). Plays like this carry weight, even if you don’t really notice it during the game.

So much like with the run game, the idea that Poe is a bad player is definitely not accurate. However, I’d call this a weaker aspect of his game, or at least a less consistent one. I really am mystified as to why a guy with Poe’s exceptional athleticism for his size doesn’t get more pass rush (it felt like he did in years past) than he does, but it’s just not something you see much of in multiple games.

One thing that’s interesting is that Poe’s bull rush is ineffective the vast majority of the time. It’s incredible, because he’s a big guy with legs like tree trunks and what seems to be a powerful upper body when he’s clubbing people. However, when he goes into a bull rush it very, very rarely finds any success, generally ending with a stonewall by the offensive lineman.

My overall impression watching Poe’s film is that he’s a slightly worse pass rusher than I thought he was going in and a slightly better run defender. However, the fact that he can passably (at times) rush the passer while being (generally) decent against the run adds to his value. Many defensive linemen are one or the other (see: Jackson, Tyson) and become a liability in any other scenario. Poe can be on the field for any type of down, and that’s a big deal.

I would also say that Poe brings specific value for the Chiefs because the roster currently (as far as I can tell) lacks a player who can line up over the center or one of the guards and take on double teams without getting rolled consistently. The Chiefs tried it with Nunez-Roches and it was ... well, bad. Jaye Howard has never been as strong at the point of attack as Poe, and that remained the case in 2016 prior to his injury. Allen Bailey is a very strong man, but he’s too long and light to play that kind of game consistently. Same with Jones, whose talents would be wasted eating blockers. The only player I saw do it (in very limited snaps) who I’m intrigued by is Kendall Reyes, who is a free agent.

That need MUST factor in when considering what Poe is worth, unless the Chiefs plan on bringing in a more traditional run-stuffing nose tackle and sticking with using Jones/Howard/Bailey/RNR rotations on pass rushing downs (which may well make sense).

So what IS Poe worth. Well, if I were going to distill it into a maximum of dollars per year I’d be OK with the Chiefs spending on Poe, I would be very leery (based on the games I reviewed) of going over $8 million bucks a year. And quite frankly, that’s more spendy than I’d like to be. Poe is a useful player who is a decent run defender (with flashes of great), a passable pass rusher (with rarer, but still existing, flashes of great), and a guy who will do the thankless dirty work inside and GENERALLY do it well. But he’s not dominant. And he’s not a star. In fact, during this paragraph I think I just talked myself into only being OK with $7 million a year at most.

Poe is a good player. But in my opinion he’s not a foundational guy you build your defense around. I hope the Chiefs keep him, but very much believe they’d be able to replace him passably if he walked. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of contract he receives (in KC or elsewhere), particularly when you factor in concerns about his back. I’m rooting for him to remain, though. The defense is better with him there, and, I mean, bloated Tebow you guys.