As the Kansas City Chiefs spend this Wild Card weekend with their feet up, watching, some players deserve credit.
Sure, Patrick Mahomes will be MVP, and Chris Jones should receive some defensive player of the year votes, but there are five guys who will not be given any awards who deserve recognition for helping the Chiefs clinch the AFC’s top seed.
What makes a player “unsung?”
These are players who most fan bases aren’t familiar with — and may not receive as much attention from the opposition. These players came into the season with little to no expectations and came up big for the Chiefs in crucial moments.
5. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders
Early in training camp, many thought Saunders might be a candidate to be cut. After the Chiefs brought back Derrick Nnadi and signed Danny Shelton, his chances of having an impact looked slim at best.
In response, Saunders turned in his finest season as a Chief in 2022.
Saunders is a major part of why the Chiefs' pass rush and run defense took a big step forward in 2022. With 3.5 sacks and three tackles for a loss, Saunders has been a great role player for this defense. Both are career highs. Now Saunders is just looking for that elusive offensive touchdown.
.@chiefs #KhalenSaunders dotting the I-Formation. Chiefs have no fear trying new ideas. Part of reason why they are the #1 offense in the NFL #BsldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/5BxZLntcn3— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) January 9, 2023
4. Tight end Noah Gray
In 2021, Noah Gray was buried amongst several more experienced tight ends. Between All-Pro Travis Kelce, blocking expert Blake Bell and converted wide receiver Jody Fortson, it was hard for the former Duke Blue Devil to find a role in the offense. Gray’s size limited him as a blocker, and his lack of athleticism limited him as a receiver.
However, an injury to Blake Bell in the 2022 preseason opened the door for Gray. He took a big step forward as a blocker and became a much more reliable rec well. With 299 receiving yards (a career high) and a career-high in snaps played, Gray stepped up in a big way, especially in some critical moments for the Chiefs.
We don’t talk about this Noah Gray play enough.. pic.twitter.com/zXL5u8lCZt— Price Carter (@priceacarter) January 10, 2023
3. Defensive end Mike Danna
One of the major concerns for all Chiefs fans was the pass rush headed into 2022. Part of the concern was that the roster was mostly the same at the position other than the addition of rookie George Karlaftis and veteran Carlos Dunlap. But the Chiefs' defensive line has taken a big step forward, with 24 more sacks this season. Players such as Mike Danna are part of the reason for this step forward.
Danna set a career-high with 5.0 sacks in just 13 games played. Additionally, he has two forced fumbles as well. The growth of players like Danna and Saunders has allowed Chris Jones to convert pressures into sacks.
The entire defensive line was finishing sacks much better in 2022.
It was a great game for @DLSFootball_MI grad Mike Danna. 2 sacks, 3 tackles, and a forced fumble against the Raiders. pic.twitter.com/lqqphRu767— Alexander Johnson (@AJohnsonSports) January 8, 2023
2. Wide receiver Justin Watson
Not many people were excited when the Chiefs added the former Buccaneers wide receiver this offseason. It seemed to be a low-key signing centered around special teams or maybe just another body for training camp. But the Mahomes-to-Watson connection started in OTAs and never stopped. While Watson does draw occasional criticism, most of that is due to his usage rather than his actual play. Watson has come up big for this offense several times.
Watson has quietly eclipsed 300 yards on the season and fit into the role once held by Demarcus Robinson. In fact, he has outproduced Robinson’s production from 2021. Even though he’s the fifth or sixth passing option on the offense, he has still brought an added element of speed to the offense.
15 throwing bombs to Justin Watson pic.twitter.com/xs5dlhicbA— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) January 7, 2023
1. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap
The Chiefs always seem to add an established veteran to the roster during training camp. Dunlap felt like another chapter in the Chiefs' defense trying to get their pass rush fixed. His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet at you, but his impact on the line all season long has been significant. With 4.0 sacks and six tackles for loss, his biggest contribution to the defense might be his eight passes defensed.
The Chiefs' defensive line has turned into one of the best in the league at batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. With 21 total passes deflected, the Chiefs have seen an increase of 12 from the 2021 season. Dunlap has been an expert at this his whole career, and it seems to have carried on to the rest of the line, too.
Dunlap has fit the run well and helped improve the defensive line as a whole.
Nobody blocks Carlos Dunlap on the jet sweep and he makes them pay. #JacobsEyeInTheSky #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/1KUn6GcKFO— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) December 6, 2022
Which ‘unsung hero’ will have the best postseason?
This poll is closed
DT Khalen Saunders
TE Noah Gray
DT Mike Danna
WR Justin Watson
DE Carlos Dunlap