During NFL Draft season, you hear a lot about what type of player Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo prefers at the defensive end position. Tall and heavy with long arms are the general guidelines — but sometimes a player is just flat out good at the sport, without having those physical traits.
In the 2020 draft, the Chiefs used a fifth-round pick on Michigan defensive lineman Mike Danna — who was 6’2, 257 pounds with shorter arms than the typical defensive end that Spagnuolo has used.
Yet, Danna excelled in his role as a rookie. From game one — where he played 49% of the defense’s snaps — he became a key rotational piece for the defensive line. A hamstring injury took away a three-game chunk of his season, but he returned to play even better down the stretch of 2020.
He outperformed the expectations of a typical first-year player, and he feels good about his potential moving forward.
“The sky is the limit this year,” Danna told reporters after practice on Friday. “Last year I was a rookie, this year I’m going into year two — and confidence is through the roof. I’m giving it my all every single game like its my last game. Never take anything for granted, just going 100% and getting better each day.”
Danna continued to share the differences between how he felt as a rookie and how he feels now.
“This year, going into it is so much more comfortable,” Danna admitted. “Going into year two is a whole bunch of confidence boosting, you’re understanding the playbook, understanding the organization, the people around it. You get more comfortable with it, you open up more, and you get to mingle a little more with everyone around.”
Another factor in Danna’s comfort is the level of preparation he had during this offseason. He takes his training very seriously, and focused in on the little things.
“Working with my defensive line coaches back in Michigan; a lot of those guys got me right, hats off to them,” Danna acknowledged. “They put their time into me, and it is showing out here. Just working on the fundamentals and perfecting it. Like I said, there’s always room for improvement — so I never try to act like I perfected it until it’s correct. You have to practice the perfect way in order to perform a certain way.”
As he was pressed on details, Danna went over a few points of emphasis for himself to improve.
“On pass rush, working more on half a man and not a whole man,” Danna explained. “Working half a man makes your job a whole lot easier, that’s half the battle. Applying that out here and doing it in pass-rushing one-on-ones or in team periods. Getting more comfortable being on that edge, plus going to defensive tackle and playing pass rush... it’s just working on those things and becoming comfortable.”
In college, Danna was utilized as a pass-rusher off the edge and from the interior. After not seeing much of that varied alignment in his rookie year, it sounds like that will be more in the plans in 2021.
“It was kind of like how versatile I was back at the University of Michigan,” Danna shared of that versatility. “Doing it out here and it feels pretty good. It’s a comfortable area for me, so I like doing it — it’s great.”
Defensive line coach Brendan Daly was part of the reason Danna was drafted, and he deserves a lot of credit for getting Danna to a point of legitimate contribution as a fifth-round rookie with barely any in-person offseason activities.
“He’s a great coach,” Danna emphasized. “He works a lot on our fundamentals and techniques and perfecting it so we can apply it when we get on the field. Hats off to him, he’s done a great job of getting me right since I was a rookie. He is doing a hell of a job, he does a great job with our individual work, film room study, he teaches you how to understand offenses, what to read, backfield sets, etc.”
Daly will have another late-round rookie defensive end to work with this year — one that actually does fit the typical criteria for a defensive end in Spagnuolo’s system. Rookie edge rusher Joshua Kaindoh has caught the eye of Danna in training camp.
“The sky is the limit for [Kaindoh],” Danna expressed. “He’s a great kid, has a great head on his shoulder. He understands the game of football and where he’s supposed to be — understanding his job. He’s getting a great understanding of the playbook, so like I said: the sky is the limit for him. We’re going to keep pushing him and seeing what he can do.”
The youth of the defensive line is very important. We know the established veterans at the top — but if the rotational depth behind them can still create run stops and pressures, it makes life easier for everyone on defense and harder on the opposing offensive line.
Danna is one of those young pieces — and he’s confident he can bring even more to the table this year than he did last season.