As we excitedly wait for Kansas City Chiefs training camp to open in late July, it’s a good time to recall the 2020 team’s performance in specific areas of the game and determine if it is set to improve or regress in 2021.
The Chiefs have a top-heavy defensive line unit — especially after the signing of defensive tackle Jarran Reed. Behind the starting four, there are two linemen that are young, unproven and talented in their own ways: Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton. Both are important depth players at a position that requires it as much as any. I detailed exactly how they’ll fit into the plans in 2021 by studying their play in 2020.
Before digging deeper into their impact, I’ll lay the foundation with how statistically productive these players were in 2020. These are regular season statistics.
- Danna had the fourth-most sacks on the team last season with 2.5 — a half-sack shy of Alex Okafor in third place. He totaled 25 tackles, four tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. He played 31.1% of the snaps on defense.
- Wharton was tied for the fifth-most sacks on the team with two. He also racked up 27 tackles, four tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. He played 48.2% of the defensive snaps.
- PFF’s pass-rush win rate is the “percentage of ‘wins’ vs blocking on non-penalty pass rush snaps.” Danna had a rate of 10% — two tenths shy of Frank Clark’s season percentage. Wharton’s win percentage was 8.6%, which led all interior defensive linemen besides Chris Jones.
As a fifth-round selection, you couldn’t have asked for any more than what Danna contributed to the team during his rookie season. From Week 1, the Chiefs trusted him to play half of the defensive snaps as one of their edge defenders. An early-season injury cost him a month of action, but he came back and continued to be a significant rotational player.
At 6 foot 2 and 260 pounds, the 23-year-old isn’t as big as the other players we’ve seen the Chiefs utilize as defensive ends under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. That said, he is a strong, stout run defender who constantly made plays throughout the year.
One of the most underrated important players on the #Chiefs is Mike Danna— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 13, 2021
Not your typical Spags Edge, but he earned PT last yr by being a stout run defender. Impressive strength in controlling then disengaging blocks. Athletic enough to make plays in the flat pic.twitter.com/njPNUJIZMK
As a shorter player, Danna understands how to utilize his leverage better than most of the big offensive tackles he faces. Along with his powerful hands, it allows him to control engagement with blockers, find the ball carrier and disengage for the tackle.
He also moves very well in open space. Last year, he made a few plays in the flat — chasing down an outside run or beating perimeter blocks and actually cutting off the play.
Had a few flashes as a pass-rusher, but generally wasn't relied on to get after the QB.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 13, 2021
Like his run defense, his pass-rush features powerful hands. Collapses pocket w/ inside move v. Tunsil on 2nd play. pic.twitter.com/fnXiEaeQOr
Danna’s highlights mostly came in running plays, but he did make occasionally have an impact as a pass rusher. His powerful hands translate to the art of slapping away a blocker’s arms — and his above-average burst in short areas make him hard to avoid.
In 2021, Danna should be the first defensive end off the bench on early-downs — in relief for either Frank Clark or Chris Jones. On third down or passing situations, Taco Charlton — or possibly rookie Joshua Kaindoh — might be trusted more to get pressure off the edge and disrupt the quarterback.
After unexpectedly making the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2020, Wharton quickly became an impactful rotational piece for the defensive line — especially after second-year lineman Khalen Saunders was injured in the season opener.
As the season went along, it became clear that Wharton should primarily be used in pass-rushing situations. He wasn’t able to plug gaps as effectively as you’d like against the run on the inside, but the coaching staff utilized his burst and ability to bend around the edge of a block.
We all know how impressive Turk Wharton was last yr, constantly penetrating the pocket as an interior pass-rusher— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 13, 2021
He loved the jab step, and had a lot of success with it. His hard jab step really got Gs off balance, and the counter back the other way resulted in pressures pic.twitter.com/LW6OgSWIjp
On third downs later in the season, the interior duo was mainly Jones and Wharton. The attention that centers paid to Jones — combined with the tackles having their hands full on the edge — resulted in one-on-one opportunities for Wharton against guards. He took advantage of those open spaces with a very effective jab step.
He’ll take a hard step towards one shoulder of the guard, getting him to bring his feet that direction — and then explode off that jab to slip back around his other shoulder. It’s hard for an offensive lineman to quickly shift all of that weight back the other way, leaving them off balance and unable to slide back in front of Wharton.
In 2021, Wharton will be valuable depth behind Reed and Derrick Nnadi. If Jones plays on the interior on passing downs, Wharton looks like the odd man out — but when he is on the field, he’ll absolutely be put in situations to succeed. For the Chiefs, it’s a huge advantage to have such a talented pass rusher so low in the rotation; he’ll take advantage of all the attention the other players receive.