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Defensive position battles to watch during Chiefs training camp

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We talk a lot about the competition for starting positions, but the position battles behind those could end up being important

NFL: JUN 07 Chiefs OTA Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs training camp starts this week!

There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered. In case you missed them, be sure to check out the five defensive questions for training camp that Arrowhead Pride lead film analyst Kent Swanson broke down last week.

There will be battles for starting spots that everyone will be watching, but there will also be less-visible competitions that will be important, too — and they are fun to follow. Some of the victors in these head-to-head contests could become key components of the defense down the stretch of the upcoming 16-game 19-game season.

Dorian O’Daniel and Darron Lee

Competing for the role of coverage linebacker in nickel formations.

Minnesota Vikings v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

This is the one with which I am personally most intrigued — and is potentially the most impactful on the defense.

I hope you have been reading the excellent breakdown of new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s strategies and tendencies in our Summer of Spags series by Arrowhead Pride film analysts Craig Stout and Matt Lane. If you have, you know in that in Spagnuolo’s scheme, the coverage linebacker brought on the field in nickel packages is important in countering offensive passing formations.

The nickel linebacker will most likely be playing alongside WILL linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who will move to MIKE in the nickel formation as base MIKE linebacker Reggie Ragland goes to the bench. In 2018, NFL defenses had their nickel or dime personnel on the field for over 70% of their snaps — which essentially makes this role a starting position.

Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel was a third-round selection in the 2018 draft. He immediately contributed on special teams in his rookie year, but also saw increased defensive snaps in the second half of the year after now-departed nickel linebacker Terrance Smith was injured.

He played the majority of nickel linebacker snaps in the last ten games of the regular season. He showed inconsistency, but had also some flashes. According to Pro Football Focus, he earned an 83.3 or higher defense grade in two of those ten games, but also had a pair of days grading out at 40.6 or lower. He did show the speed and range necessary to cover a receiver coming out of the backfield.

PFF’s premium stats show that in his first game with increased defensive snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals, O’Daniel allowed only one yard on three targets. But he also had his bad days — like the two contests where he allowed a combined 12 yards per reception on nine total catches. His up-and-down season ended with an ankle injury that forced him to miss both postseason contests, but he should be 100% for training camp.

Newly-acquired linebacker Darron Lee did not live up to his first-round selection with the New York Jets, but he’s joining the Chiefs with some momentum in his career progression. As a 6-foot-1, 232-pound prospect in the 2016 draft, Lee had a 40-yard dash in the 95th percentile and a broad jump in the 98th percentile of all linebackers in the NFL combine’s database.

He shows this athleticism on the field with an ability to line up multiple places in the defensive formation. He’s shown glimpses of good coverage skills and awareness. Here he feels the tight end’s route and sinks to the appropriate depth in order to make a play — while also keeping an eye on the underneath route and taking advantage of an underthrown ball.

He accumulated two interceptions and another pass breakup in this Week 1 game against the Detroit Lions — in which he earned a 94.1 coverage grade from PFF. He would end the 2018 regular season with the third-highest PFF coverage grade out of all linebackers with at least 800 snaps, and didn’t commit a penalty all year.

It was a big improvement from the year before. In 2017, he was graded among the 20 worst linebackers in coverage — while also committing seven penalties. His 2018 season ended after the NFL handed him a four-game suspension for violating its substance abuse policy. He’ll look to bounce back with a new team and a fresh start.

Prediction:

I believe Lee will be the linebacker to come off the bench in nickel personnel. He has played two more seasons than O’Daniel has, and will hopefully regain some of the pre-draft hype he earned from a trustworthy source:

Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon

Competing to be the fourth-string defensive end

Kansas City Chiefs v Cleveland Browns

The starting defensive ends appear to be Frank Clark and Alex Okafor. Fourth-year defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah will probably be the first backup off the bench when it’s time to rotate. The fourth-string role will be a contest between second-year end Breeland Speaks and third-year end Tanoh Kpassagnon — while undrafted free agent rookie Tim Ward could also be in the mix.

Speaks proved last year that he had the upper hand on Kpassagnon when it came to getting on the field. He was the first one off the bench when former Chiefs’ linebacker Justin Houston got hurt — but also ended up on the field for 20+ snaps in both playoff games after Houston returned. Kpassagnon didn’t have a double digit snap count in any of the last ten games of the Chiefs’ season, and wasn’t even active for the AFC Championship.

Under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and his 3-4 base scheme, they both played out of position as outside linebackers. They are now strictly 4-3 defensive ends — a position they both played in college.

They are both giant humans in different ways. Speaks has a very thick frame at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds. After looking slow at times last season, it was assumed that he would lose weight this offseason to help his quickness off the snap. He didn’t look much thinner in OTAs — which made me wonder if he might find playing time as a 3-tech defensive tackle.

Kpassagnon has incredible length but a slimmer frame at 6-foot-7 and 289 pounds. His size is comparable to former Spagnuolo pass rushers like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. I don’t think he would hold up as well being moved into the interior, so his opportunities will most likely come from the edge.

Prediction:

Speaks was Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s first-ever draft pick, and that may be what gives him the edge over Kpassagnon — a John Dorsey selection. Speaks did produce 15 hurries and two sacks in 280 pass rushing snaps last season — and with his size, he can be versatile along the defensive front. But if Kpassagnon’s training camp performance is notable enough, his physical build will have Spagnuolo tempted to make it work. If not, he may be a candidate to be cut before the regular season begins.

Other defensive position battles

Denver Broncos versus the Kansas City Chiefs Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Fourth cornerback

The fourth cornerback spot doesn’t have much clarity heading into training camp. Former AAF all-league player Keith Reaser is in his second stint with the Chiefs, and will be competing with sixth-round rookie Rashad Fenton, second-year sixth-rounder Tremon Smith and undrafted free agent rookie Mark Fields. I don’t have much confidence that Smith will stick — he was mostly a kick returner last season and that role has effectively been filled by wide receiver Mecole Hardman. It’s hard to have an opinion on the other three candidates, so we’ll just see how it all plays out this preseason.

Defensive tackle

Defensive tackle Xavier Williams may be competing for a roster spot. Second-year defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi emerged last year as a bigger contributor than Williams. Then the organization used a third-round pick on defensive lineman Khalen Saunders. The Chiefs could save $1.8 million in cap space this season by cutting him, so he needs to perform well enough to justify that price.

Safety

Safety Dan Sorensen is in a similar position as Williams. He has been surrounded with younger competition like rookie Juan Thornhill, second-year player Armani Watts and fourth-year safety Jordan Lucas. Thornhill sounds like the starter to go along with big-time free agent signing Tyrann Mathieu. Spagnuolo does not use three safeties as much as Sutton has in previous years, so immediate depth isn’t as vital. If Watts and Lucas show more ability than Sorensen, he may be a surprise release to free up a roster spot at another position — and some salary cap, too. Releasing Sorenson would save the Chiefs $3.8 million against the cap.

On Tuesday, I’ll examine some offensive position battles to watch.