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Chiefs training camp notebook: defensive versatility a key for KC in 2021

Steve Spagnuolo is cooking up a defense with many different looks up in St. Joseph.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp

Stemming from the team’s 31-9 blowout loss to the Tampa Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, the Kansas City Chiefs’ primary storyline of the offseason has been about improving in the trenches.

The starting offensive line has been completely revamped. But while that has gone on, the starting defensive line has been refined in its own right — with the addition of Jarran Reed along the interior and what that has meant for the position possibilities of Chris Jones.

A starting defensive line from left to right of Jones, Reed, Derrick Nnadi and Frank Clark projects as a force to be reckoned with, but the conversation should not stop there.

Since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took over in 2019, the Chiefs have kept 10 defensive linemen at the 53-man cutdown, meaning we should not forget about a second-year player like Turk Wharton, who took measures in the offseason to come back stronger after a surprise rookie campaign that saw him steal reps from a former third-rounder.

“Knowing what was coming after my rookie year, just having fun to help yourself get better — I did a lot of things as far as yoga, Pilates, just working my hands a little bit more because that’s where I feel I lacked in the game,” said Wharton “Last year, I really came in just ready to go — using my motor. I haven’t lost my motor, but that’s where it really was last year.”

Wharton confirmed he tapped into yoga and Pilates at the advice of Chris Jones, who admitted he did the same earlier this camp.

Jones is only 27 years old; that’s still four years older than the 23-year-old Wharton.

“Being in the locker room with him, talking to him, definitely somebody that I look up to,” said Wharton of Jones. “Being a sponge to what he was telling me. So a lot of it came from him and then other guys around the locker room and social media. Looking at people on media, what they’re doing.”

Wharton believes it makes him a more flexible and coordinated player along the defensive line.

“I feel like it opens you up,” said Wharton. “You can go science and all that — I went to (Missouri) S&T, so they say yoga is the thing that coordinates you the most, so I feel like with coordination it helped a lot and Pilates, that’s how I Swiss Army knife. Injury prevention.

Wharton said he was happy with his 2020 efforts but described himself as a bit of a wild player. His intention was coming to St. Joseph a more forward than lateral player.


Weeks before training camp, it felt as though the final piece of the team’s defensive line puzzle was a veteran EDGE defender, and they turned to a familiar face; Alex Okafor, who for a period was an unrestricted free agent but eventually opted to return for his third year in Kansas City.

“When you’re on the open market, anything’s possible whether you’re with a team or whether you’re going to a team,” admitted Okafor. “I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was going to do, but one thing I did know — I knew that this was number one on the list for me, and we made it work.”

Okafor has registered 9.0 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures during his two years in Kansas City — and after an offseason in which he took a step back from intense training, he arrived in St. Joseph refreshed.

“To be honest, I had a lot going on in my personal life the past couple of years, so for me, this offseason was relaxing, getting my mind right more than anything,” said Okafor. “Once it was time to come back, I was excited about the opportunity. I got myself in shape and here I am.”

Okafor did not have to partake in an offseason program as a free agent, giving him four or five months to travel to such places as Dubai and the Maldives. He also became engaged in mid-June.

Using the offseason to reset has made him a better football player in his mind.

“Football is stressful,” said Okafor. “It’s a whole lot of fun, but it’s stressful just like any other career. And I’m going into my ninth year, so that’s a whole lot of stress. I set back, cleared my mind, kicked it with family and just found a sense of peace over this offseason.”

A 2019 starter on the Super Bowl team before an injury, Okafor stands to be a depth EDGE player for the Chiefs in 2021. Spagnuolo has the defensive linemen — and not just Jones — lining up all over the line, a key when it comes to opposing quarterback confusion.

“I think we’re going to give teams a whole bunch of looks,” said Okafor. “The fact that we have guys playing multiple roles, not even up front but across the board in the LBs and the DBs. I think it’s going to be beneficial for us this year. If you can keep the offense off their toes and not allow them to know what’s coming, it gives us the advantage, and I think we have that going for us.”

Observations

  • The weather in St. Joseph Tuesday morning was clear to start practice — the first padded practice of training camp. The temperature was in the high-60s when practice began at 9:15 a.m. and didn’t seem to break the mid-70s.
  • Hello, seven-man sled.
  • The most-talked-about story of the day up at camp was Tyreek Hill’s absence. More on that here. Hill being out of the mix led to greater opportunity for the team’s younger pass-catchers.
  • Chiefs fifth-year wide receiver Marcus Kemp had the best day, catching two touchdowns from Patrick Mahomes during the team’s live periods — first when the team simulated an end-of-the-game seven-minute period while down two scores and then a two-minute period. “He’s smart,” said head coach Andy Reid after practice. “He knows how to play the game. He’s a talented kid.”
  • Needing to score as quickly as possible, Mahomes and the Chiefs’ top offense did — in a five-minute, 1:21 drive. The media argued about Chad Henne’s result, which some of us, including me, thought ended in a fourth-down goal-line catch by wide receiver Gehrig Dieter for a touchdown. The others had it as incomplete with Dieter’s foot being out of bounds.
  • I think it’s worth noting how much time backup running back Darrel Williams has been getting with the first team. The Chiefs have been trying to get a 1-2 punch at the running back position going for a while now. I’d estimate it’s been around a 35-40% share of Williams with the first team.
  • “I don’t look at it as frustration,” Williams said when asked about the team signing LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell these previous two seasons. “I’m a competitor, so I just look at it as they’re just bringing in more competition. I went to LSU. Every year, we bring in five stars, four-stars, so it was normal to me. I just come in, I compete, do what I have to do. Just keep moving.”
  • On Tuesday, the Chiefs did not have defensive backs Charvarius Ward (eye) or Juan Thornhill (groin) available, which meant another look at dime safety for undrafted rookie Devon Key. Key actually began the Chiefs’ first live period of the day next to Tyrann Mathieu, which caught my eye. When it came to cornerbacks and the position without Ward, I figured that in nickel looks, the Chiefs would go with L’Jarius Sneed inside with Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker on the outside. But it was Hughes and Rashad Fenton on the outside, with Baker working with the second team. Hughes began practice a little grabby but settled in. I was impressed with how solid Fenton looked in a suddenly big spot.
  • Wide receiver Mecole Hardman made a particularly good catch that called for a full-body extension in one-on-ones against Sneed. Hardman appears to have his punt returner job back. Antonio Callaway and Darrius Shepherd also got looks on Tuesday.
  • Rookie linebacker Nick Bolton recorded his second interception in as many days. Tuesday’s pick came in seven-on-seven work. And here it is:
  • Defensive backs Deandre Baker and Dicaprio Bootle recorded interceptions in second-team work.
  • With pads being on, the Chiefs participated in their first offensive line-versus-defensive line drills of training camp, which came with some winners and losers. Winners (in order): Tershawn Wharton, Mike Danna, the first-team offensive line interior of Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Austin Edwards Losers (in order): Orlando Brown Jr. (who Jones tossed and Danna beat), Andrew Wylie, Taco Charlton.
  • AP reader Eddie High rounded up some good video of one-on-ones.
  • In the above drill, Lucas Niang had better reps against Alex Okafor than Jones. “As a rookie, he is very impressive,” said Okafor of Niang. “Obviously, he’s big, strong, physical, but more than anything, you don’t see him mess up too often. He’s patient, and you don’t see that too often as a tackle. I think offensive linemen, especially tackle, has one of the hardest learning curves as a rookie, and you just don’t see that from him. At least not yet.”

Press conferences (Spotify)

If you can’t see the embed below, click here for Apple iTunes.

Injury report

  • Returned to practice: Linebacker Anthony Hitchens (hamstring)
  • Did not practice (COVID-19 list): Running back Darwin Thompson
  • Did not practice (injury): Defensive end Malik Herring (ACL), tight end Nick Keizer (back spasms), right guard Kyle Long (tibia), offensive lineman Mike Remmers (back spasms), safety Juan Thornhill (groin), cornerback Charvarius Ward (eye irritation), wide receiver Chad Williams (groin)
  • Did not participate in team drills (injury): linebacker Ben Niemann (hamstring), safety Armani Watts (foot)
  • Injured Tuesday: wide receiver Tyreek Hill (knee)

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Tuesday’s tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

Quote of the day

Defensive tackle Wharton on the team’s first padded practice: “I love putting on the pads. You’re just able to get more physical, so I mean, it was good to get physical, and then just conditioning as well. I like to think I’m good, in shape, but when you put the pads on, it will wake you up a little bit.

“I think the pads were talking today; the pads were talking today.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs resume camp with their seventh full-team practice Wednesday at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Afterward, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and several players will speak to the media.