Immediately following the NFL Draft, every team begins signing players who went undrafted. These players often struggle to simply be “camp bodies,” so it’s a win if they can stick on a team’s practice squad. It’s likely years before these players develop enough to make it onto a team’s active roster — let alone make an impact on the field.
But once in a while, an undrafted rookie defies the odds against them.
One of those players is Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Tershawn Wharton, signed out of Missouri Science & Technology in Rolla, Missouri last spring.
Wharton — just 6-feet-1 and 280 pounds — is on the small side. Without great length — and displaying good-but-not-elite production against a lower level of competition at Rolla — no team took him in the 2020 NFL Draft. But Wharton has demonstrated that once you are signed to an NFL team, none of that really matters any more.
Even without a full offseason program, Wharton was able to achieve the near impossible, earning a spot in the Chiefs’ defensive line rotation for the first game of the season. Injuries to other players (and Mike Pennel’s suspension) gave him opportunities for playing time — but it’s what he’s done with that playing time that has been most impressive.
In their Week 9 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, Wharton eclipsed 60% of the defensive snaps for the second time this season. Over the last three weeks, he’s clearly demonstrated that he’s become a mainstay of the defensive line.
So let’s dive into Wharton’s film, and see what the Chiefs like so much about this undrafted free agent from Missouri S&T.
Tershawn Wharton | DT
Given the Chiefs’ high-scoring offense, it makes sense for them to field the most dynamic pass rushers — and that likely plays a role in Wharton’s snap count.
Tershawn Wharton has shown great development and is starting to make waves as an interior pass rusher— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 10, 2020
Club-Rip move set up with the outside stutter step
- Club falls a bit short but removes the OG's arm
- Wharton's lateral agility & body control allow him to sift between blocks pic.twitter.com/XNoIOR4bs1
Outside of Chris Jones, Wharton is easily the most dynamic and quick interior rusher on the team — and that includes the defensive ends who often kick inside. Wharton’s lateral agility immediately jumps off the screen; he’s able to threaten with one shoulder and quickly work across the blocker’s face to the other.
One area in which Wharton has shown improvement from college is his hand usage while rushing the passer. His preferred pass rush move is a club-rip setup from a hard outside lateral step. The power in his club — and his quickness to reset the gap — make it a useful move.
Because of his lack of length, Wharton will need to continue to develop his hands to sustain this success. With shorter arms and less mass — but superior quickness — he must keep his chest clean as often as possible. As long as he is able to do so, his quickness and explosive ability is going to be a problem for offensive linemen.
Even on this particular play, his club connects with the blocker’s arms rather than shoulder, while his rip is late to get under the cleared arm. It’s a quality rep for Wharton where he gets quick pressure — but if he’s a little more technical with his hands, he could be a step faster to the quarterback and affect the pass even more.
If Wharton can continue to developing his hands, perfecting his moves, he's gonna be a problem inside— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 10, 2020
The quickness combined w/ his body control give him an uncanny ability to slip through interior gaps instantly.
*Don't mind the slip, he just ran 30+ yards chasing a WR screen pic.twitter.com/fmDRkpOaMY
Along with his agility, Wharton has fantastic explosion off the line of scrimmage — whether working straight forward or laterally.
On this play, Wharton is going for the same club-rip move — but it’s so fast that the offensive guard isn’t even be in position to get hit. The slip at the end is a result of chasing the previous play 30-plus yards. But otherwise, he displays fantastic body control — something he does consistently.
There are still areas where Wharton could improve — starting with his pass-rush plan. Right now, his pass rush consists of shooting a gap and using his club-rip move while crossing the blocker’s face. He will need to be able to do more. His lack of height and length limits some of his options, but he should still be able to incorporate a speed-to-power bull rush relatively easily.
Adding a bull rush could lead to instant success. It would pair perfectly with how he currently sets up blockers with his quickness — and would ultimately lead to a higher success rate.
The Club-Rip makes another appearance, would love to see some speed to power off the outside stutter step moving forward.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 10, 2020
His compact frame and lower body expl could lend to a high end counter to his quickness pic.twitter.com/NgiskiOIDy
On this play, while Wharton’s quickness and club move get the offensive guard off balance and to the ground, his power and body control are easy to see; he works through the contact with ease.
As it stands right now, Wharton is either winning directly off the snap or getting tied up and washed out of the pass rush; his developing hand technique — and lack of length — make it hard for him to disengage once a blocker has latched on. That may always be the case for him — but if he can add that speed-to-power element to his game, it would go a long way ti improve his diversity as a pass rusher.
With his lack of size and length, Wharton will always be at his best in sub-package situations or as a rotational interior pass rusher. For this reason, Wharton sees the vast majority of his snaps as a backup to Chris Jones and a sub-package rusher; he gets minimal reps against the run.
Wharton's size is always going to have some disadvantages vs the run.Lack of elite mass & length make it hard to hold the PoA consistently; he'll need to continue to develop his hands to disengage— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 10, 2020
Despite the disadvantage, good job fitting hands & trying to reduce the gap pic.twitter.com/2OrBmLFG9B
Wharton’s lack of size and strength at the point of attack do make him a liability in the run game. He struggles to stand up against powerful blockers and anchor against drive blocks at the line of scrimmage; he has only a small area of effect around him. He does have quality leverage and power in his lower half — and the desire to be a complete player — but even when he does everything right, it’s not always effective. It requires perfect hand placement (and a slow-developing play) for Wharton to work his leverage so he can defeat a lot of blocks near the line of scrimmage.
Two areas Wharton does win as a run defender are chasing from the back side of a wide zone run and working to erase blocking angles. There are reps in which Wharton’s quickness and elusiveness allows him to slip under (or across) blocks and impact the play before he can be overpowered. He still has to perfect his hand technique and become more consistent with it — but the potential is there.
Best reps from Wharton vs the run are as a backside 3T vs outside zone. The initial lateral explosion makes him difficult to reach. Add that to a great center of gravity and power, he's hard to pin if you get hands on him.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 10, 2020
He IDs the OG well too, disrupting the climb if possible pic.twitter.com/0RKNOBTKcr
When working on the back side of zone runs — especially wide zone runs — Wharton is incredibly difficult for a back side offensive tackle to reach. Here he does a good job, quickly identifying the run and working down the line of scrimmage. He often works to disrupt an offensive guard if they try to climb up to the second level — and then gets laterally as quickly as possible.
Even with his lack of length, he does a good job placing his hands on the front shoulder of a reaching offensive tackle, keeping them at bay with better leverage. As a run defender, that’s a specific strength — but with as many NFL teams that currently specialize in wide zone, it’s helpful.
The bottom line
Wharton started this season as just another undrafted free agent, but he’s quickly risen up the ranks to become one of the team’s key rotational players. There are physical limitations that will always hinder his upside — or his ability to be a completely dominant defensive tackle — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of positive upside. Wharton has a unique set of traits that make him a mismatch for all but the most athletic NFL offensive linemen.
If Wharton can continue to develop his hand technique and improve his pass rushing arsenal, he’ll continue to be a significant contributor for the Chiefs in another run at a Super Bowl victory. But more importantly, if he can continue the development he’s shown in this shortened offseason, he’ll become a key piece in the Chiefs’ defense for the long haul.