Coming into the 2020 season, there were high expectations for the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive line. Led by star pass rushers Chris Jones and Frank Clark, the unit also boasted quality players like defensive ends Tanoh Kpassagnon, Alex Okafor, and Taco Charlton — plus stout defensive tackles like Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel.
The unit was considered one of the deepest on the entire team, so it was hard to imagine two rookies making a big impact — especially without offseason practices and reduced training camp work.
Yet that’s exactly what rookie defensive linemen Michael Danna and Tershawn (Turk) Wharton have done.
The two are now among the most important players on the defensive front. Behind Jones and Clark, Danna is in third place with 2.5 sacks this year. Wharton is right behind him with two. While Clark leads the team in tackles for loss, Wharton and Danna are tied for second with four each.
Before they became key players on a championship contender, both had goals coming into their first NFL season. Danna’s began with bonding with his new colleagues.
“Going into this rookie season, I had big expectations,” Danna told reporters on Wednesday. “The biggest expectation I had was gaining my teammates’ trust and respect. That was the biggest thing I wanted to do — because once you do that, guys can trust you to be on the field, trust you to do your job. I wanted to gain the trust and respect of the coaches because of the same thing... Holding myself accountable is a big thing for me, and understanding that when I came here, I wanted to gain everyone’s respect and trust so I can make this job easier for myself — and easier for everybody else — by having them trust me to be out there doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Wharton — who signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent following the 2020 draft — was just focused on getting to the initial 53-man roster.
“Coming here, I just really wanted to make the team,” he explained on Wednesday. “Once I did that — just see where they wanted me and how could I play — I feel like I did some of what I wanted to do, [but] not all the way accomplished yet. That’s how that worked out for me.”
Wharton’s transition to the NFL was probably more difficult than Danna’s. Wharton played college football at Missouri S&T — a Division II program that had never produced an NFL player.
“At S&T, I was the guy they were going to come after,” Wharton recalled. “Now being on a team with pros, I’m not really the guy they’re going to come after all of the time. That helped. At S&T my senior and junior year, I was a leader on the team. Right now, it’s just kind of back to square one where you’re coming in as a freshman at any school. I’m just trying to play with others.”
Danna was a fifth-round selection out of the University of Michigan. Before that, he played at Central Michigan University, the only school that offered him a scholarship — perhaps because he didn’t play organized football until his high school years.
Now a professional, Danna doesn’t take his position for granted.
“It’s a really special feeling,” Danna admitted. “Not everyone in the world gets to do this, and it’s really a blessing. Being able to go against those big-name guys and those big-name teams is truly a dream come true. Understanding that those teams — and those guys — are out for blood and are out to serve you a loss. I come in each Sunday with the same energy whether it’s Tom Brady, Drew Brees or whatever big-name guy or whatever team it is. I give those guys all of the same respect and prepare for whoever I’m going against.”
Not only are both players impressing with their on-field efforts, but Chiefs coaches have also expressed praise for their maturity as rookies. Last week, defensive line coach Brendan Daly spoke about how he can trust Wharton with communication responsibilities — and Wharton expressed gratitude for his increased role.
“Being able to get that role as a rookie, that’s something to stay humble about,” Wharton acknowledged. “I appreciate it, and I see that my coach trusts me.”
As for Danna, he takes practice and the lead up to a game seriously — and the depth of his explanation shows how he should be considered beyond his years.
“It’s just preparation throughout the week, studying my opponent; understanding his tendencies and understanding how I can defeat those tendencies,” he said. “Working throughout the week and just trusting yourself. Preparation is a big part of what happens on game day — and the results.”
It’s clear that the Chiefs have found gems in these two rookies — neither of whom were expected to do much in 2020. But now, they’re probably the team’s two best pass-rushing options alongside Clark and Jones on the four-man defensive front.
Credit to Coach Daly for coaching these first-year players into legitimate contributors.