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The Chiefs’ defensive line could be better than we think in 2021

New rankings based on the votes of NFL insiders paint a somewhat surprising picture.

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

As we wait for training camps to open at the end of July, Rankings Season continues. One of Tuesday’s entries was from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, who published a ranking of the NFL’s top interior defensive linemen — one that was based on the views of league executives, coaches and players to whom he has spoken. Like other rankings that have preceded it, Fowler had Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones listed second — right behind Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.

2. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

Highest ranking: 2
Lowest ranking: 5
Last year’s ranking: 2

Jones keeps his No. 2 ranking thanks to another imposing season. His 20.4% pass-rush win rate is tied for second among defensive tackles, and though his 7.5 sacks were his lowest total since 2017, the Chiefs were pleased with his overall growth.

“He has gotten better in a number of areas,” said an AFC coordinator. “If he’s one-on-one in a pass-rush situation, rarely does he lose that matchup. Tremendously better as a run-stopping player.”

Jones won 25% of his single-teamed pass rushes, third-best among tackles. And the Chiefs will work to get him free this year as more of an edge rusher. Jones held up against double-teams, too, with a 17.5% pass-rush win rate when taking on two blockers.

Not everyone is a fan, though.

“Used to be really high on him, but there are some inconsistencies in his game,” said an AFC scout. “He’s productive, but he’ll give up stuff, too.”

DeForest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts, Cam Heyward of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles rounded out the top five.


Takeaways

This isn’t a surprise, right? Jones has routinely been ranked behind Donald and ahead of Buckner. So either league insiders are being influenced by previously published rankings — or those rankings have been right on the money.

But what I found most interesting about this top 10 list is one of the players who isn’t on it: new Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed, whom Kansas City signed from the Seattle Seahawks last season. Fowler noted that Reed was among the interior defensive linemen who also received votes for the top 10.

Jarran Reed, Kansas City Chiefs: “The Chiefs got an absolute steal picking him up this offseason.” — AFC scout

That’s intriguing because on Monday — when Fowler released his NFL insiders ranking for the top 10 edge rushers — another Chiefs defender was just outside that group.

Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs: “He’s still a problem. Natural pass-rusher but he can do a little bit of everything. He’s got to bring it more consistently.” — NFC defensive coach

This tells us that outside of Kansas City — where Clark’s big contract doesn't receive as much attention as it does among Chiefs fans who believe he is overpaid — he is still seen as an effective defensive end. Among the very best? No. But he is still someone for whom opposing offenses must account.

And now we know that other teams see Reed the same way: not among the very best players at his position, but someone to whom they must pay attention.

In 2021, these three players — without even considering the additional contributions of players like Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton, Taco Charlton, Michael Danna and others — should add up to a pretty effective defensive line.

To put it another way: just one other team — the Pittsburgh Steelers — put three players among the 35 defensive linemen mentioned in these two articles.