The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t make their fans wait long to sign a defensive end in free agency.
Thursday evening, Alex Okafor joined the Chiefs on a three year deal worth up to $24 million. After losing both Dee Ford in a trade and Justin Houston in a cap-saving release, the Chiefs were in dire need of a player on the edge of Steve Spagnuolo’s four-man fronts.
Okafor shows comfort with his hand in the dirt or standing up, and was an every-down player for the New Orleans Saints in 2017 before an Achilles tear ended his season prematurely.
The Saints signed him to a two-year deal before the 2018 season, but then triggered a sack bonus in his contract that made him a free agent this offseason. With Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport on their roster, the Saints decided not to attempt to sign him, and the Chiefs swooped in to pick him up.
At first glance, Okafor fits what Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly have traditionally looked for in their defensive ends. He’s tall, has a long wingspan, weighs over 260 pounds, and has a solid base. But what is it that he does well, and how does he fit in the Chiefs new scheme?
I watched games from the past two years to get an idea of what attributes Okafor brings to the table, where he fits in the scheme, and how Spagnuolo and Daly may implement him in 2019.
Okafor exhibits violent hands, which helps him to shed blockers and get to the gap. With the extra tackle in the game and Okafor lined up as a 5-tech, he's able to get into the chest of the tackle. Strong hands clear the block and he finds the RB for the stop. pic.twitter.com/Lplbdzvm7q— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 15, 2019
Okafor plays with powerful and active hands, and it leaps off the screen immediately. He regularly gets to the offensive lineman’s chest and exhibits the ability to knock him off balance — despite not having a particularly quick first step.
On the above play, the Carolina Panthers are lined up tackle-eligible and with two tight ends — effectively 13 personnel. Okafor is lined up as a five-technique on the play side of the formation. His initial punch knocks the left tackle off balance, creating the separation to find the running back and identify the direction of the play. He flashes quick hands and good extension to keep separation, and continues to clear the block as he strings the play along for a stop.
Even without a strong anchor, Okafor was able to boss the tackle with the power in his punch. His ability to stay light on his feet, move laterally to track the back through the run, yet still create separation to shed the block with his upper body is something that the Chiefs will absolutely need on the edge in 2019.
Okafor showcases a little bit of lateral agility, a positive for the types of run fits and pressure packages Spags/Daly will put in place. He ID's the handoff, good lateral shuffle, dips and anchors underneath the wham block, and makes the stop. pic.twitter.com/DLhGTpwCGf— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 15, 2019
Okafor may not have explosive straight-line speed, but he exhibits good lateral agility to couple with his high football IQ. Last year we saw wham blocks work with a little too much frequency against defensive linemen and the Chiefs 3-4 outside linebackers. Okafor doesn’t get caught by them nearly as often.
Left unblocked on this play, Okafor reads his keys and identifies the handoff while maintaining proper contain. With the other edge set, Okafor tracks laterally and dips under the block while planting his outside foot and ripping through the blocker with power. He meets the back in the hole and makes a stop.
Lateral agility is going to be key for the Chiefs defensive linemen in 2019. Spagnuolo and Dal yregularly utilize stunts and twists to get advantageous matchups in their run fits and in their pressure packages. Okafor fits well in this regard.
Okafor's sacks are largely hustle based -- not a bad thing -- but he definitely exhibited more explosion pre-Achilles tear in 2017. Here he gets up the arc quickly, passes the LT's hands, and gets around the corner for the strip sack in the endzone. pic.twitter.com/oW3tMTEw0o— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 15, 2019
Okafor is not an explosive pass rusher. Coming off of year of watching a healthy Dee Ford for the Chiefs, fans might initially be a little turned off by his speed — especially if you’re watching 2018 games. Prior to the Achilles injury late in 2017, Okafor showcased just enough speed to threaten the edge on a regular basis.
In this play, from a four-point stance, Okafor gets good timing on the snap and gets up the arc quickly with long strides. A chop-rip combo clears the tackle’s hands and allows him to dip underneath the tackle’s shoulder. There’s not much ankle flexion and he has to take an extra gather step, but he grabs the tackle’s inside hand and uses his momentum against him, throwing him up the arc as he turns toward the quarterback. He gets good burst and drive on the hit, forcing a fumble and a touchdown recovery on the play.
If Okafor is back to this level of explosiveness in 2019, his technique and power will make him a good enough pass rusher around the edge for Spagnuolo — especially with the unpredictability of the pressure plan from snap to snap.
Okafor isn't a speed rusher, and he knows it. Where he *can* find success is with his high football IQ. Recognizing the TE's release out into the flat, he doesn't try to get upfield, instead taking away the throwing lane with his long arms. Good play ID leads to a PBU. pic.twitter.com/V9fHp2w6z6— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 15, 2019
Okafor having a slower get-off isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you factor in the speed at which he’s able to identify the play and adjust his rush plan. Rather than getting too far upfield or out of the play, Okafor regularly shows an ability to impact the play in other ways.
Here, Okafor sees the tight end releasing out into the flat off the snap. Realizing Joe Flacco is looking to dump it early — likely due to good film work — Okafor sinks into the throwing lane and gets his hands up. Flacco double clutches and has to get rid of it anyway, resulting in Okafor batting the pass down.
Okafor in a nutshell -- Not a great get off, but quick play ID on the flare. Uses his length and power to create separation from the tackle, get his long arms in the throwing lane to break up the pass. Length and strength is the name of the game. pic.twitter.com/kO2l6AQauX— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 15, 2019
In a nutshell, this is what Okafor brings to this front: length, power, and football IQ. He gets his head up off the snap and sees the running back leaking out into the flats. He pulls up his rush and sinks into the throwing lane. Using his length and power to disengage and create separation, he times his leap and gets his hands up to swat the ball away.
Okafor has the ability to impact the passing game through pressures and sacks — typically with high motor efforts or bull rushes — but he makes a difference through his ability to shut down throwing lanes as well. With Spagnuolo dialing up pressure from the second level, the awareness and ability to sink into throwing lanes and force incompletions or hesitation will be a boon for this front.
While he’s not the type of pass rusher we’ve grown accustomed to in Kansas City over the past several years, Okafor has the blend of power, length, and intelligence on the field that Spagnuolo and Daly desire. Complex blitzes, looping stunts, wide edges that need to be set, and length to shut down throwing lanes fit with the type of NFL defenses that have had recent success.
The Chiefs will still need to add another defensive end — likely one high in the draft. But going into 2019, Okafor gives the team some much-needed flexibility opposite Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon that will allow them take a player with a higher upside — even if they can’t immediately contribute as an every-down player.