In the NFL, one of the deepest position groups on an average roster is the defensive line unit. That was the case for the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. With a group of 14 players needed to be cut down to 10, there were predictions on how the Chiefs would manage that position — but few of them included undrafted, rookie defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton making the initial 53-man roster.
Yet Wharton did make the team — and eight weeks into his first season, he is a legitimate contributor to one of the NFL’s best defenses. He has the second-most run stops out of Chiefs interior defensive linemen, he has one sack, and he has seemingly made a big play in each of the last four games — including his forced fumble against the Denver Broncos in Week 7.
When asked about the significant plays he’s made in recent weeks, Wharton humbly shifted praise over to his coach — but also recognized the advantage of playing a similar position to the one he played in college.
“(Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) puts you in positions where you make plays,” Wharton explained in his Wednesday press conference. “That’s just been me playing off technique.
“Coming from S&T (Missouri University of Science and Technology), I played in a 3-4 scheme but we kind of played it in a different way... Where I’m playing at is kind of similar to what I did in college, just now I’m playing on a guard and I’m not worried about the edge. I think it let me use my size and strength in there to get under the bigger guys and let me make plays that way.”
Wharton is just the fourth-ever Missouri S&T alum to play in a regular-season NFL game — and the first since 1987. He understands that his road wasn’t the typical path to professional football, but he never wavered from his NFL aspirations.
“It’s not the way to go, but it was always the plan, it was always a childhood dream,” Wharton recalled. “Being there, I knew I had to work harder. Not saying anything bad about my coaching, but I just knew a different level of coaching was out there. I took a few steps of going out and training myself... I just pushed myself through the offseason, reaching out to different trainers, and making sure I was going to be able to compete not only at my level, but if I did get talent in front of me that was higher, I could compete with them as well.”
He’s proven that work ethic true so far. He is absolutely competing with the highest talent level of football there is — enough to earn impressive recognition from PFF.
#Chiefs DI Tershawn Wharton is currently the second-highest graded rookie defensive lineman in the NFL, only trailing #2 overall pick Chase Young.— PFF KC Chiefs (@PFF_Chiefs) November 2, 2020
• 1st - Young: 82.0
• 2nd - Wharton: 71.9
• 3rd - Doug Costin: 64.4
: Robert Hanashiro, USA Today#ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/HH6uyqLvFk
It’s easy for a rookie in his position to feel like he doesn’t belong immediately. That wasn’t the case for Wharton, who interpreted his signing with the Chiefs as confirmation.
“When you get picked up, you feel like you belong automatically,” Wharton remarked. “You’re playing with champions. Competing every day, the more and more I made a few plays in training camp, I realized, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ It raised the confidence. When Kelechi (Osemele) was here, working with him a lot, seeing him every day, that really helped out a lot. He’s aggressive. When I was able to start winning, having a few reps on him, able to see film, it made me just arrive a little bit.”
The challenge of competing with a former All-Pro offensive lineman like Osemele obviously helped Wharton, but so did learning from the veterans on his own side of the ball.
“I’m in the room with a bunch of guys that have had success in the league, not only success, but they’re well-known,” Wharton admired. “Just being in there with Chris (Jones), Frank (Clark), Mike Pennel, (Derrick) Nnadi, all of those guys with experience, they’ve taken me under their wing. They pull me to the side when something is going on and they tell me how to fix it. I always just drive on that. Knowing that they ask me and pull me to the side, they know that you have potential. They just make sure that I’m on top of myself and hold me to a higher standard in the locker room.”
As impressive as Wharton has been, he’s still been adjusting on the fly to the speed of professional football. After feeling some jitters on opening night, Wharton expressed that the game was slowing down for him in Week 8 against the New York Jets — the game where Wharton earned his first-career sack.
So far this season, Wharton is third in snaps for the Chiefs’ defensive tackle position. While that is mainly because of the two-game suspension of defensive tackle Mike Pennel and the elbow injury to second-year defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, he’s played well enough to retain that prominent role in the rotation.
No one would have guessed that the undrafted Wharton would be a bigger contributor than Pennel or Saunders before the season. It’s a testament to his hard work, but also a hat tip to general manager Brett Veach for finding a true diamond in the rough.