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The Kahlil McKenzie project: what the Chiefs are hoping for

NFL: Combine
Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie speaks to the media during the 2018 NFL Combine at the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

For a few minutes Saturday afternoon, everyone believed the Kansas City Chiefs had gone all defense on the 2018 NFL Draft.

After making five defensive picks through the first five rounds of the draft, the Chiefs, with no sixth-round pick, traded their two seventh-rounders to move into the sixth at No. 198 overall.

And with that pick, they selected defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie.

Or so we thought.

Area scout Pat Sperduto, speaking to the media at the Chiefs practice facility after the selection, revealed otherwise.

“We were at his Pro Day and we worked him out as a guard,” Sperduto said. “We took a look and he did some really nice things. They had three other offensive linemen working out and he looked better than the other three of them that were there. It was pretty impressive. It stood out and when we brought it up, we tinkered with it back and forth and sure enough, Brett (Veach) and coach (Andy) Reid and the staff, they decided it was a good fit—let’s try it, let’s go for it.”

Sperduto, Veach and the rest of the Chiefs personnel staff could not turn down the opportunity to acquire McKenzie, given his sheer size. McKenzie is listed at 6 feet 3, 314 pounds.

“When you see this guy off the hoof, I don’t know if you guys have had the chance to, you will notice him the first day you get a chance to come out to the rookie minicamp,” Veach told the media via conference call Monday. “You will not have to ask which one is Kahlil.”

This isn’t the first time in recent history that the Chiefs have opted to take on an offensive lineman project. Just four years ago in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Chiefs selected Laurent Duvernay-Tardif with nearly the same exact pick as McKenzie—Duvernay-Tardif was No. 200, two picks later—with the idea that perhaps he could turn into something.

The projects aren’t exactly the same, as Duvernay-Tardif did play offensive line throughout college, whereas McKenzie did not. However, given the rule differences of Canadian football, the Mckenzie project is comparable (In Canadian football, the distance between the line of scrimmage and the defensive team is a full yard as opposed to 11 inches).

Duvernay-Tardif’s case will be important for both McKenzie and the coaching staff to remember as they take on what should be at least a yearlong transition. Duvernay-Tardif is a staple on the line for the Chiefs now, but it wasn’t always that way.

“When we drafted Tardif, that first week of rookie minicamp and the first week of the OTAs, it was ugly,” Veach said. “I remember watching tape and saying to the other guys, ‘Oof, I don’t know if this will work out.’ And the preseason it was a little bit ugly, and then it got better and better and then by the fourth preseason game, it was pretty good. And then he ended up being inactive most the year.

“It wasn’t pretty, but these guys kind of showed two years ago what they did with Tardif that it takes some time, but if you have the desire and you have the ability, with the right coaching, it can be done. So I really think just going back to what our staff did with Tardif is a great example of that.”

Veach highlighted Reid, offensive line coach Andy Heck and assistant offensive line coach Corey Matthaei as those who will be tasked with transitioning McKenzie over the next year.

Veach would not commit to a timetable, but one would believe the Chiefs would like McKenzie to be ready to contribute for a starting position by the beginning of 2019’s training camp in St. Joseph.

If McKenzie can successfully make the transition, he will do so as one of the more fun stories in the National Football League. McKenzie is Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie’s son, if you couldn’t already tell from the photo of his draft party tweeted out on Saturday afternoon.

“My dad’s happy for me,” Kahlil said via conference call. “The rest of the family, they’re happy as well. It’s just going to make for a lot more family rivalries. We’re a competitive family at nature, so we compete at everything we do. This just adds one more ripple into that. I’m excited to get to Kansas City and just help these Chiefs, one, whoop up on the Raiders, and whoop up on the rest of the NFL.”

Veach said he phoned Reggie, who played in the NFL from 1985 to 1992 as a linebacker, after drafting his son.

“I did call him after we drafted Kahlil and was kind of poking fun at him saying I hope you guys know that your son is going to be lining up against you guys and taking it to you for four quarters,” Veach said. “[Reggie] was just extremely happy that [Kahlil] was in Kansas City. I think as a father you want to know that your son’s in good hands and certainly with coach Reid and coach Heck, he’ll be in good hands here, we’re going to take care of him.

“I know coach Reid spoke to Kahlil over the weekend and I know coach Heck had a lot of good dialogue. I know the kid’s fired up. But again, I know we certainly have a great rivalry there with those guys, but on our end from my standpoint having been around his dad for a long time, the guy’s a great guy and I certainly have a ton of respect for him.”

When it comes to Kahlil, all the positive signs are there—the measureables, the family pedigree, the proof that it can be done.

Now it’s just a matter of getting to work.

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