For all of the heat that the Kansas City Chiefs defense has received from the fans and media this season, here and there, we have seen some plays that give us hope it can turn things around — and Chiefs defensive end Mike Danna has created a few of these bright spots.
With fellow edge rushers Frank Clark (hamstring) and Chris Jones (wrist) both battling injuries, the Chiefs have been in desperate need of pass-rush production — and to find it, they have turned to their second-year defensive end.
So far this season, Danna has three sacks — including two against the Eagles on Sunday.
Great effort and persistence by Danna. Fights through the initial block and then catches the LT off guard and cuts upfield for the sack. https://t.co/YqBf9rU3ak— Rocky Magaña (@RockyMagana) October 8, 2021
A 2020 fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Danna has shown flashes of the player who was one of the nation’s top pass rushers in 2018. Despite only playing 31% of the defensive snaps for the Chiefs last season, Danna was able to accumulate nine QB pressures — including three sacks. So it doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that if his usage had increased, he could easily have had seven sacks for the year.
That would put him right around where starting defensive ends Chris Jones and Frank Clark were in 2020. But last season, Pro Football Focus gave Danna a pass-rush grade of just 53.2 — while Jones had a grade of 93.1.
So it’s probably too early to say Danna is as good as Jones — at least not yet.
But if you ask Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo about the player he’d compare to Danna, one name comes to his mind.
“I worked with Elvis Dumervil when I was with the Baltimore Ravens,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Thursday, “and Elvis was built pretty much the same way.”
Over 11 seasons with the Ravens, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, Dumervil compiled 105.5 sacks. Undersized for his position at 5 feet 11 and 250 pounds, he is the only player under six feet who has ever recorded at least 100 sacks.
A fax fiasco let the world witness Elvis Dumervil in a Ravens uniform— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) July 3, 2021
He put on quite the show in Baltimore pic.twitter.com/FjvpC7HqPK
While Danna is not quite as short as Dumervil, he is on the smaller side among NFL defensive ends: 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds — and with 32.5-inch arms.
Traditionally, Spagnuolo has valued size and length in his edge rushers. While with the New York Giants, he coached Michael Strahan, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. And Spagnuolo is well aware that Danna doesn’t fit that kind of physical profile.
“We all know the prototypical D-end is the six-four, six-five, long arms, right?” he noted on Thursday. “And that’s not Mike.”
However, there is precedent for smaller edge rushers to have success in Spagnuolo’s system: Oliver Vernon was basically the same size as Danna when he played for Spagnuolo in New York. The coach attributed part of Danna’s success as an undersized player to utilizing his lower center of gravity to get underneath the blocks of opposing linemen.
“Sometimes,” Spagnuolo said, “those guys with the leverage underneath and the long-arm rushes that Mike has (and that Elvis revolutionized, in my opinion) — I think Mike’s been able to take things a little step further in doing some of that stuff.”
But Spagnuolo also said that the main thing bringing Danna success is his effort on each snap.
“Mike’s one of my favorite guys,” he noted, “because it’s chin to the hairline, [he’s] really smart... We’ve always said this about the pass rush: it’s 20% technique [and] 80% want — [and] Mike always has the 80% want.”
Of course, just four games into his sophomore season (and about 100 sacks behind Dumervil), it’s still too early to make any judgments about the kind of player Danna will eventually become; only time will tell if he will live up to his coordinator’s comparison. But with the injury issues the Chiefs have faced among their EDGE players this season, he just might get the chance to prove himself.
Even if Jones and Clark both end up playing this Sunday night against the Buffalo Bills, Spagnuolo said he still sees Danna getting plenty of work as part of the defensive end rotation.
“It’s all hands on deck,” he said, “just in terms of keeping guys fresh. I think we would still try to do that — try to keep it pretty balanced.”