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Chiefs’ Rakeem Nunez-Roches vs the 49ers: Whoa

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Player development. It’s a term we hear thrown around every year in the NFL. Fans are always talking about how if Player X takes a step forward (or “develops a little more”) he’ll be a contributor, or a good player, or even a star. It’s the reason we look for positive traits in players: we’re hoping that they will, with time and experience, start to flash those positive traits more often.

Of course, the reality is that while some players improve a great deal year-to-year, many players we are hoping develop into consistent starters or better plateau at a level well below what we’d like to see. That’s the nature of the business. The NFL is tough, and very few have that next level to become good or great players.

So when a player DOES seem to address his weaknesses and take a giant step forward (think LDT last year), it’s worth noting. With that in mind, let’s talk about Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who looked like the best defensive lineman on the field for either team last Friday.

That play alone raised quite a few eyebrows and made quite a few people sit up and take notice of RNR (or “Nacho” as he’s affectionately called by his teammates). And really, it should. That’s an awesome play.

Nacho keeps his feet in the face of what appears to be some kind of attempted cut block (basically the OL just wants to keep him away from the play long enough for the runner to get to the line of scrimmage), locates the ball, then LEAPS over the offensive lineman to help make the stop. It’s a fantastic display of explosiveness by Nacho, which is all the more impressive given that he’s apparently gained 25 pounds since last season (we’ll come back to that soon).

But if you look outside of that play, Nacho was fantastic against the Niners. They were struggling to block him the entire time he was on the field.

I reviewed some of Nacho’s film last season (which you can find here), and walked away calling him a player with some useful skills but some severe limitations as well. Most significantly, he lacked any pass rush whatsoever and wasn’t strong at the point of attack (when he wasn’t able to shoot gaps he got plowed over by individual OL and especially double teams). Against the Niners? It was like watching an upgraded version of the same player.

Let’s start with the numbers (the way I grade defensive linemen can be found here, if somehow you’ve never read one of these before), then talk about how Nacho’s film looked. Believe me, this is going to be fun.

Two things that were different from my grading of Nacho last year (despite the fact that every time I grade one of these I think I’m becoming a more harsh critic) is that Nacho both raised his win percentage and significantly lowered his loss percentage. However, those numbers don’t do justice to the improvement I saw, which is the problem with borderline neutral plays (that could very nearly be a win or a loss). By my eye, Nacho’s losses were significantly better than 2016 (if that makes sense) and his wins were more dominant consistently.

Another change I’d note is that Nacho wasn’t stonewalled nearly as often as a pass rusher. While I’m still not sure he looks like a guy who will be consistently in the backfield like Chris Jones, he looked almost completely inept in that area last season. That’s a big deal.

The biggest change to Nacho’s game is that he appears to be significantly bigger and stronger.

Last season, Nacho had to be playing a very specific role against the run in order to have success: one of a gap-shooting penetrating lineman. If he was asked to hold his ground at the point of attack (or move down the line without getting washed out of the play), there were problems.

Not so in the play above (or in multiple other plays against the Niners). You see Nacho get a great jump at the snap (which is basically every snap for him) and get underneath the center, driving him backwards. Just as importantly for his development from last year, he doesn’t let the center recover and holds his ground as he moves down the line and keeps his eyes on the backfield. When the runner arrives, he sheds the center and helps Ramik Wilson make the stop.

It’s a simple play, but one that Nacho wasn’t executing with any consistency last season. And it was far from the only time he demonstrated his newfound brute strength coupled with the same explosion he had last year.

Over and over, Nacho was forcing the Niners’ center into the backfield. He was just too powerful for the center to hold back. It was really fun to watch, snap after snap, as Nacho would explode into the center and rock him a full yard into the backfield. It’s tough to work as a runner when not only does the middle of the line not get push, but you have to avoid a defender while you try and pick a running lane.

Another aspect of Nacho’s game that I believe to have improved is that he’s gotten a bit better (if Friday’s game is any indication) at locating the ball as he breaks into the backfield. That would be good, as there were some plays left on the table last year when runners would just go around Nacho’s penetration.

But back to the increased strength, it seemed to be translating into the pass rush as well, as Nacho was consistently stonewalled last season. The few times he got a shot against the Niners, he showed the ability to generate some power moving towards the QB, rather than just as a run defender.

I slowed this play down because it’s easy to miss what Nacho does here. First, he slaps away the hands of the LG as he attempts a quick double team before helping the LT. Then, he uses his (apparently newfound) strength to start working the center backwards.

While he’s not able to generate pressure on the QB (due mostly to a quick throw, partly because of the mass of bodies in the way), look at the way Nacho is starting to fold up the center when the ball is thrown. While the center may be getting tripped somehow (maybe on Allen Bailey’s leg at the very, very end), the fact is Nacho is folding him over backwards with his bull rush before he could possibly contact anyone. I don’t think I saw that from Nacho last year.

Of course, gaining weight and strength would be counterproductive if it removed Nacho’s best asset: explosion at the snap. Fortunately...

... that doesn’t appear to be a problem.

Snap after snap after snap, Nacho was getting a fantastic jump off the line. He was constantly engaging well before the other defenders, and it allowed him an instant advantage OL who often weren’t set when he reached them.

He was so fast off the line he was keeping up with Dee Ford (who was SCREAMING off the right side a few times), who is... a tad smaller.

Nacho is just quick, man. There’s nothing else to say there. He explodes off the line so consistently. Here, he’s so fast off the line that he actually gets in Ford’s way helping close down any escape lanes for the runner.

Now, let’s be clear, Nacho wasn’t perfect. He was walled off on a few rushing plays and had a couple of pass rushes where he didn’t go anywhere. That said, he appeared (keep in mind a small sample size here) to be significantly better than he was last year. SIGNIFICANTLY. And it’s worth noting that his best play was actually in the first quarter against starters, so I don’t believe this was a quality of competition issue.

Keep an eye on Nacho moving forward. Because if he plays like he did Friday, he’s going to force his way into significant snaps this season, despite the talent on the line around him. As I’ve said quite a bit since that first preseason game... it’ll be fun to watch.