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Tanoh Kpassagnon film review: Chiefs’ Future Edge?

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Reviewing Tanoh Kpassagnon has been a bit of a challenge this year. His sample size of snaps early on was borderline insignificant (not that that’s ever stopped me before), and where he’s at as a player is somewhat difficult to figure out.

The reason he’s tough to figure out is that most everything he does is in flashes, fueled by his considerable physical talent. It’s tough to decide whether or not a player who “flashes” is going to develop until those flashes become more consistent. It’s often, quite frankly, guesswork (hence why projections on a player like that are hit and miss).

However, on Sunday we got a nice opportunity to get a full game’s worth of snaps for Tanoh. That gave me a chance to get a slightly better feel for who he is as a player.

The question everyone asks me when I start to write about Tanoh is “are you comfortable with letting Dee Ford go and counting on Tanoh on the edge next year?” My answer right now is a very, very cautious yes, but only if the Chiefs address the positional depth to make sure they’ve got a passable guy in the rotation to help if Tanoh doesn’t continue to develop.

I know, that’s not exactly screaming praise, but there really is a lot to like about Tanoh. People saw that Sunday as he collected 1.5 sacks, some pressures, and a few nice plays against the run. Most of what there is to like involves his physical attributes. He’s big, strong, has length, and is able to move passably in space (though he’s definitely not the athlete, say, Justin Houston is. He’s more of a Tamba Hali).

One thing that’s important to note with Tanoh is where he started out this season. I’ve written about him several times. In preseason he was quite raw and didn’t dominate against 2nd and 3rd stringers. Early in the season he couldn’t get on the field, even when Ford and Hali were both hurt. Midway through the season he started seeing a few snaps. Those snaps have gradually increased, and Tanoh even started to show up occasionally as a pass rusher.

Now, with a full game to watch, Tanoh has developed into a guy who (while still quite limited) can make some impact plays when given a chance.

When I watch edge players, I track wins and losses against the pass and the run, as well as neutral plays. I also track pressures/hits/sacks and effective double teams. The important thing to remember about defensive players is that they are NOT going to win on the majority of their snaps, even the great ones (except the occasional incredible game by an elite player). Even the best edge rushers in the league only collect a sack on 2-3% of the times they rush off the edge.

The point is to see if a player is able to limit his losses as much as possible while winning as much as possible (I know, #analysis). Neutral plays aren’t necessarily a bad thing on defense, as it at least means you weren’t the one giving the offense a vulnerability to exploit.

The baseline I use for a contributor on the edge is my review of Hali’s 2016 season. The reason for that is while Hali was clearly still helpful when he saw the field, he wasn’t a great rusher anymore. He was a contributor, but not a star. So for me, if a guy is going to be starting, I’d like for him to perform at a similar level, as that makes him a “plus” player (not everyone is going to be a star, right?)

With that in mind, let’s examine Tanoh’s numbers against Denver.

So, for frame of reference, Hali had a 17.1% win percentage and a 26.9% loss percentage. In other words, in this game, Tanoh had a higher win percentage and a lower loss percentage than Hali did in 2016 (the year his play dropped off but was still enough to contributor). So that’s not a bad start.

Interestingly enough, if you compare this game to the last time I reviewed Tanoh (the Bills and Jets games, which can be found here), the numbers are pretty similar. The main difference, of course, is that Tanoh got home a couple of times in addition to collection 3 pressures.

What I like about that is that in a game where he saw more snaps, Tanoh’s efficacy didn’t go down much (though his loss percentage was slightly higher, it was within the range of what you’d expect such things to vary given the sample size). I also like that, even though Tanoh took literally every snap, he didn’t get weaker as the game went along and have it affect his performance. In fact, he got stronger as the game went along (we’ll talk about that shortly).

There’s some good to Tanoh to talk about, but there’s also a lot of work that needs to be done before he can hit his ceiling (if that’s indeed what happens. The number of “high potential” players who don’t develop is, well, high). Let’s talk about the negatives first, then close with the positives.

In run defense, Tanoh shows potential but lacks polish. He seems to be a bit slow with recognition at times, which affects his ability to be aggressive and fire off into his opposing blocker. Additionally, his hand placement and balance are way too inconsistent right now. This results in him getting caught completely out of position at times.

When you get caught lunging in the NFL, whether as an offensive lineman or a run defender, it’s a death sentence. Even tight ends will take advantage of you and chuck you to the ground or out of the play in that situation. Tanoh needs to work on his ability to punch and engage without selling out his balance, a delicate thing that will hopefully come with time.

Additionally, Tanoh isn’t always as strong at the point of attack and setting the edge as he should be at his size. Now, to be clear, he’s already ahead of Ford in this department, but that (all due respect to Ford) isn’t saying much. There are some snaps where he’ll do just fine and you can see that size and length working for him (which we’ll talk about when discussing positives), but with his natural gifts he should be much more consistent.

Again, I think the issue is one of polishing and technique. Tanoh seems to still be thinking out there at times, and it results in being just a half second slow with his hands or push. A half second is everything at this level, and it results in him getting washed out of plays. He also fails with his hand placement at times, which makes life easy on opposing blockers. These are all things that CAN improve with time, but until they do he’ll remain an inconsistent run defender. He also needs work recognizing plays going away from him and running them down (the one thing Ford is great at in run defense).

As a rusher, Tanoh’s biggest negative is lack of polish. He really doesn’t have any moves besides “beat the tackle around the edge and bend to the QB” or “bull rush and move the OT back or win with strength and throw him aside.” That’s it.

Now, to be fair, if you only have two things you can do, that’s a GREAT combo to have. But there are a few too many snaps where Tanoh goes absolutely nowhere against individual blockers. That happens to every edge rusher at times, but he needs to cut down on the number.

Another thing to keep an eye on from Tanoh is his overall athleticism. He looks a bit labored out there, which is to be expected considering his background, but I’m not sure how much more polished he can get in space. To be fair, Tamba never stopped looking that way, but I do think it limits his usage by the team (though Bob Sutton dropped him in coverage on at least 6-7 snaps, and he wasn’t that bad to be honest, so who knows).

All right, the positives. As a run defender, when Tanoh gets his stuff right he’s generally able to contribute.

His size, length, and arm strength allow him to hold his ground and shed blockers pretty much every time he gets his technique down (being physically gifted comes with advantages, as some guys lose even when they do everything right).

One thing Tanoh is beginning to do better, from what I can tell, is gauge when to shed a blocker and doing so in a way that doesn’t give them a chance to pancake him as he moves away (a real problem for him the last time I reviewed him). I didn’t see him get rocked that way once against Denver, which is encouraging, as it shows he’s learned you can’t just move away from your blockers... you have to get rid of them.

And sometimes (hopefully with more frequency as time goes on), Tanoh is able to use his superior size and strength to just propel TE’s away from him.

Again, these are raw materials, but ones that look better than the last time I watched him. So HOPEFULLY he continues to develop in his recognition, hand placement, and footwork as he engages blockers. Doing so will allow him to go from hot and cold to consistently solid against the run.

As a rusher, Tanoh continues to show he’s a guy who can contribute now in that area. And for me, it’s not really the sacks that make me feel that way. One of those sacks was an impressive feat of strength against a guard, which is great. The other was simply a situation where he was unblocked and shot like a cannon into the quarterback (along with a defensive lineman).

The snaps that have me excited are ones like this.

You can’t coach bend around the edge. You can’t teach it. You can only pray that a guy will show the inherent ability to get himself low and around the corner in the most efficient way possibly, dropping below the hands of the opposing tackle, either crushing the pocket or forcing a hold.

If you can get bend around the edge, “moves” don’t matter as much to at least become an adequate pass rusher. And I’d say that’s where Tanoh is right now. He doesn’t move the needle QUITE consistently enough for me, but because of his natural bend and (when he’s got his timing down) explosion off the snap, he’s able to win a lot more than a guy with zero pass rush moves should.

As I said earlier, the nice thing about Tanoh is that even though he’s totally undeveloped, he’s got the natural tools to edge rush AND bull rush decently. What’s nice about that is those two rushes are symbiotic. A tackle worried about getting beat around the edge becomes naturally more vulnerable to the bull rush, as it’s tough to steel yourself for contact when trying to get depth.

On some snaps, Tanoh is able to walk tackles back to the quarterback extremely quickly and apply pressure.

This was late in the game, after Tanoh had used quite a few speed rushers around the outside. He’s got the length and strength to bull the tackle back and get into Lynch’s face, forcing an off-platform throw (I hear some teams’ QB’s struggle with those). It ends badly for the defense because a secondary player falls down, but the throw itself was lofted and very defensible had that not happened, in large part because of Tanoh’s pressure (and presence of mind to get his hands up at the last second).

So... what’s Tanoh’s future look like?

(checks crystal ball)

Dang thing isn’t working.

So the correct answer is “I don’t know.” Player projection is incredibly foggy, and the longer I do this the more hesitant I am to say what a player will or won’t be. So here’s what I’ll go with: Tanoh currently IS a player you can put out there and get some production out of as an edge defender, either on the left or right side. He’s not a great or even “good” starter right now, but he’s not bad and has enough plays where he makes the quarterback uncomfortable that having him out there won’t hurt your defense.

Again, that’s enough (given the progress he’s made this year) to make me pretty comfortable with him being “the guy” next season opposite Houston. However, I do want to see the Chiefs invest in the edge, because development isn’t always something that continues. In his case, if it does his ceiling is considerably higher than “guy who won’t hurt you.” But for now, even that is more than I expected from him at this point, so I’ll live with it.

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