The popularity of social media among professional athletes allows fans more access to players’ feelings and emotions about their careers than ever before. That statement was never truer than late Tuesday night, when one Kansas City Chiefs player posted a tweet that caught the attention of all Chiefs fans.
Kansas City’s star defensive tackle, Chris Jones, tweeted this response to a video about his negotiation for a long-term contract. He references New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell — who sat out an entire year as a Pittsburgh Steeler with the option to play under the franchise tag available.
We’ll all be discussing how holding out affects both sides of this contract negotiation for the next few weeks — but for this piece, I’m going to imagine the 2020 season is played without Jones taking the field. I looked at four aspects of the team that will be directly impacted by Jones’ absence:
In 2019, Jones accounted for 20% of the team’s total sacks. He has 24.5 sacks in the last two seasons — which makes up 46% of the sacks by players that are still currently on the roster. Despite missing three regular-season games, Jones led the Chiefs with 58 pressures in 2019. All other interior defensive linemen had 31 pressures combined.
To sum it all up: Chris Jones has an irreplaceable impact on the Chiefs’ ability to rush the passer.
His absence will force defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to get more creative with manufacturing pressure from the interior. Jones’ ability to penetrate from the 3-tech position will not be replicated by his direct substitute — but Spagnuolo could have a few ways to counter that.
If you’ve been following the Summer of Spags, you’ve seen Craig Stout lay out uncommon ideas to manufacture pressure. With the absence of Jones, these strategies become even more important to utilize: Amoeba fronts can eliminate the need to have an interior defensive lineman on the field. A well-executed coffeehouse blitz by rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. will attack the pocket from the inside without pressure from a defensive tackle. Miami pressure gives the defensive front an automatic numbers advantage over the five-man protection of an offense’s empty formation.
Basically, Spagnuolo will have to pull out all the stops to get pressure on the quarterback at a good rate. The Chiefs were 11th in the NFL in sacks last season; if you remove Jones’ sacks, they would have finished 23rd in the league. A fully-healthy Frank Clark will help the cause — but it will take creativity from the defensive staff to make up for Jones’ potential production.
While Jones is a great pass rusher, it’s not a secret that he struggles to consistently defend the run well. His tall frame can be a disadvantage in the trenches — and he has a tendency to try and make a play by shooting another gap that isn’t his assigned run fit.
Defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel are known for their run-stuffing and gap-holding. With Jones not on the field, it would make sense to start them next to each other on the interior of the defensive line for early-down situations. The 3-tech position is usually occupied by an explosive, penetrating defender (like Jones) for passing plays, but both Nnadi and Pennel could play the spot in scenarios where a run is likely.
Offenses have understood Jones’ rush defense tendencies during his career. Teams will run at him to tire him out and get him out of position. With that target no longer on the field, teams may try to avoid running against a more stout, disciplined front and take their chances throwing — knowing that Nnadi and Pennel’s pass rush is nowhere near as effective as what Jones can do.
Playing time for others
The one silver lining of a potential holdout by Jones is the amount of opportunity it will give his immediate backup: second-year defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. Unlike Nnadi and Pennel, Saunders actually fits the play-style of a 3-tech player. He is very explosive and athletic — but can still use his stout physique to stop the run.
He may not play as much as Jones has in the past — but he should be counted on for passing downs. With Spagnuolo’s creativity, they could slide Saunders down over the center at 1-tech and put an EDGE player — like Tanoh Kpassagnon — at 3-tech. This maximizes each position’s ability to get to the quarterback. Saunders does move really well — but his 320-pound frame still gives him the strength to stand his ground against multiple interior offensive linemen.
It’s not easy for a Western Illinois prospect to come into his first NFL season and excel in rushing the passer. You can bet there will be giant strides made in Saunders’ games from last year to this year. With more playing time to go with it, he could earn consideration for an early contract extension — which would help the team avoid another Jones-like contract situation down the road.
Every Chiefs fan knows how vocal Jones is both on and off the field. He is constantly optimistic, always smiling and doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body. This can be mistaken for team leadership — but I wanted to make one point very clear: there will be no leadership lost with the absence of Jones.
Jones is more of a hype-man than a true leader. The defensive unit can rely on Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu for veteran leadership. The team as a whole has too many leaders to count. The morale of the locker room could take a noticeable hit — but the focus for a second-straight Super Bowl championship will still be there. There are too many alpha-males in that locker room to get distracted by anything else.