This offseason, most Kansas City Chiefs fans properly identified the position that needed the most attention: defensive end. The additions of rookie George Karlaftis and veteran Carlos Dunlap were seen as necessary — while the potential rejuvenation of Frank Clark has created some optimism that he could have a bounce-back season in 2022.
While many Kansas City fans will recognize Mike Danna’s name, they might not put him among the team’s top edge rushers. Now entering his third season, Danna has tallied nearly 1,000 career snaps and 5.5 sacks. In both of his seasons, he has been a key rotational piece; among the team’s defensive ends, he finished with the third-most snaps.
While fans may focus on the trio of Clark, Karlaftis and Dunlap, Danna has been working to help them improve the squad’s pass rush in 2022.
“We’re all trying to have a career year," Danna acknowledged to reporters following Monday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. "It’s about getting better every day, working on our craft and doing what we have to do to make our pass rush better — and have that chemistry so we can be rolling.”
While Danna considers himself a team player, his individual success positively impacts the team. So he does want to meet the goals he has set for himself this season: a career year with five or six sacks — and being a “dominant force” on the defense.
“I think everybody is expecting to have a career year,” he noted, “because of how much work we put in through the spring [and] through this summer camp. So everybody has high expectations — and this is the time we get better. Stack those days so we can have those career years.”
At the moment, Danna is in an interesting spot. Even though he has taken first-team snaps in training camp, the projected starters are Clark and Karlaftis. Dunlap is a situational player who can substitute at either edge position at any time — but will primarily be used in pass defense.
So for Danna, the path to playing time will not be as clear as it was during his first two seasons. Playing against the run on early downs, he has proven capable of setting the edge — but his pass-rushing ability is likely overshadowed by others.
That’s why he and the coaching staff have been working on expanding his role.
“We were doing that in the spring," recalled Danna. "We got a little taste of that where I was doing a little 2i, 3-tech, 5-tech, 6-tech, dropping back... I’m just trying to do the best I can wherever the coach plugs me, understand the playbook, understand what the dude next to me is doing — just in case he goes down — and I have to move there so I have a good understanding... I just want to be used the best [way] I can.”
#Chiefs starting D working on a pass-rush package out of Nickel where Danna comes in as the 2nd interior rusher alongside Jones— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 30, 2022
As I took in Saturday's practice, I noticed the starting defense working on packages that involved Danna as an interior rusher — which allowed Karlaftis and Clark to rush off the edge while defensive tackle Chris Jones was on the inside with Danna.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has always had a pass-rushing strategy that involved using defensive ends as interior rushers — which he calls the "NASCAR package." It is used on passing downs like third-and-long. If Danna can be effective rushing from the inside, it opens an opportunity to get three edge defenders on the field at the same time.
This is only a worthwhile plan if there are more than two defensive ends worth having on the field. Clark underperformed last season — but in Clark, Danna also sees the revitalization that Pete Sweeney noted in these pages on Saturday.
“He’s locked in,” declared Danna. “This is probably the most locked-in I’ve ever seen him. He’s getting everybody integrated, communicating so the whole defensive line is working together. I think that’s the biggest thing: having chemistry on the line so we can have success. Pushing guys and stuff? I think he’s doing a great job of doing that; he’s being a leader. We look up to him. He’s a great football player.”
Danna is also a fan of the group’s youngest player. Karlaftis has already made a positive impression on him.
“He’s a great kid,” said Danna — who is himself just three years older than the new rookie. “I got a lot of respect, a lot of love for the rook. He came in, he understood the playbook, he’s a true student of the game. I see he wants to learn. He works hard [and] he has a lot of heart and effort. I like playing with him, man — he brings the ‘young dog’ out of me.
“It’s just great playing with all those guys. I’m excited to get Dunlap in the room, learn from him. [With] all the additions, we’re looking forward to what we can do together.”
An effective defensive line tends to be about the group’s depth more than it is about the individuals at the top. While stakeholders look for improvement among the top players, it's nearly as important that when they’re on the field, reserves like Danna are capable of making big plays.
His effort and strengths as a run defender were already apparent — but with further progression as a pass rusher, Danna could represent an X-factor in how well the Kansas City defensive line will perform in 2021.