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10 Biggest Questions: How far along are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?

Trying to answer the top 10 questions about the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into their title defense.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Heading into the season, I'll be covering my "10 Biggest Questions" regarding the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs. So far, we've asked...

In this post, we'll turn our attention to the Chiefs' young pass rushers: Felix Anudike-Uzomah and George Karlaftis.

How far along are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?

Last season, the Chiefs' pass rush was excellent. The Chiefs were second in sacks with 55, fifth in sack percentage, first in total pressures and had the fifth-highest pressure rate in the NFL. Defensive tackle Chris Jones had the best season of his career, finishing with the most total pressures he has had in a season with 77 in his career and tying his 2018 career high for sacks with 15.5. On the verge of getting his third contract, Jones put together an NFL Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season.

However, it wasn't just Jones having a monster season. The Chiefs did an excellent job filling their roster with complementary rushers, particularly at the defensive end position. After a rough 2021 season, the Chiefs brought back Frank Clark, who had his healthiest and most consistent season in his Chiefs' tenure. Carlos Dunlap was signed in July but was productive on third downs all season. Mike Danna and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders had career years, and rookie first-round pick George Karlaftis had one of the better seasons we've seen from a rookie defensive end this past decade.

Hiring defensive line coach Joe Cullen was massive for the unit. Coaching can be difficult to quantify, but I don't believe it's a coincidence Danna and Saunders had their best seasons under Cullen. Veterans like Clark saw their play improve significantly, and Jones had his peak season under Cullen's tutelage. Even getting Karlaftis to produce as well as he did as a rookie is a huge testament to Cullen's coaching.

However, the Chiefs have experienced a lot of turnover in the defensive line room this offseason. Clark, Saunders and Dunlap (as of now) have all left, replaced by defensive lineman Charles Omenihu and a pair of rookies with defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and defensive tackle Keondre Coburn. The Chiefs lost a ton of production from last year's team but brought in a lot of talent to supplement Jones as a pass rusher.

Coburn doesn't necessarily factor into this equation since he's going to mainly be Derrick Nnadi's backup at nose tackle. Omenihu was a great signing, providing the Chiefs with an inside-out presence they haven't had since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been in Kansas City. Danna was surprisingly good as an interior pass rusher in 2022, but Omenihu's combination of length, power and quickness make him a superior interior pass rusher to Danna. Omenihu immediately raises the floor of this pass rush and helps unlock Jones to rush from anywhere on the defensive line. The Chiefs can go matchup hunting much more this season — something they haven't had in a long time.

However, while I think Omenihu is a great floor-raiser, he's not a good enough pass rusher to lift the ceiling of this pass rush to where it was last year. Danna fits that same mold as well. Both are quality pass rushers who can win from a variety of alignments, but neither are good enough pass rushers to complement Jones and alleviate pressure off of him. For the Chiefs to reach their pass rush ceiling, it will come down to the development of Karlaftis in Year 2 and how quickly Anudike-Uzomah can hit the ground running as a rookie.

Karlaftis in Year 2

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

I thought Karlaftis had an incredibly strong rookie season. I've been going back and reviewing his film from last year, and there was clear growth in the back half of the season. Karlaftis could blend more counters in addition to his bullrush and even flashed some ability to win around the corner. Considering Karlaftis was asked to play high-leverage snaps on a Super Bowl contender as a rookie, he hit every mark the Chiefs needed.

The concern about Karlaftis since he was drafted was his ceiling. I was extremely high on Karlaftis coming into that draft, but even I'd admit I wonder what heights he can reach as a player. I do believe there's plenty of growth in his game. As he learns to blend inside counters and pull moves into his game, the already strong foundation of his burst and power will pop more.

Still, can Karlaftis blend enough speed and flexibility in his game to round out his profile as a pass rusher? Or, will he be stuck as a quality defensive end, but one who can't succeed against any matchup he faces?

Felix in Year 1

2023 NFL Draft - Rounds 2-3 Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

With Anudike-Uzomah, there's a fair amount of pressure on him to produce quickly. The Chiefs decided to let Clark — their best speed rusher — walk to open up that role for Anudike-Uzomah. I was incredibly high on Anudike-Uzomah coming out due to his balance, flexibility and potential to add weight to his frame, but the Chiefs are going to need his speed and burst to show right away.

I'm not super worried about Anudike-Uzomah being able to accelerate his learning curve since he was so productive at a young age in college and is being coached by Cullen, but how good can he be immediately? Asking him to be as good as Clark immediately is tricky, but what percentage of Clark's productivity can he provide? Will he be able to get some pass-rush wins on third downs as a rookie?

It won't be easy to replicate the Chiefs' pass rush performance last season, but they still need this group to perform at a high level to win a Super Bowl. Omenihu and Danna are terrific veterans that can help the team in many ways, but they aren't going to carry the Chiefs' pass rush outside of Jones.

For the Chiefs to get close to where they were last year, Karlaftis and Anudike-Uzomah will need to be positive pass rushers consistently. However far along the development curve they are will determine the success of Kansas City's pass rush, and I'm fascinated to track how well they play.

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