Heading into the season, I’m continuing my “10 Biggest Questions” regarding the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs. So far, they’ve been:
- What is the Chiefs’ contingency plan at offensive tackle?
- Will Deneric Prince or Clyde Edwards-Helaire crack the running back rotation?
- How far along are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?
This time, we’ll turn our attention to Kansas City’s defensive tackles.
While it isn’t a glamorous position, it’s almost impossible to build a modern defense without good ones. As long as Chris Jones is on the roster, the Chiefs won’t have a bad group — but if he is unavailable, Kansas City will have trouble fielding a good defense.
Do the Chiefs need to add another defensive tackle?
Last season, this was one of the Chiefs’ only significant roster weaknesses. This wasn’t due to Jones, who turned in the best season of his career statistically — and also on film. Khalen Saunders also had his best season, which he parlayed into a three-year, $12.3 million contract with the New Orleans Saints.
At the top of the position group, Kansas City was strong.
Collectively, however, the Chiefs’ defensive tackles weren’t great. For the fourth consecutive year, starting nose tackle Derrick Nnadi saw his snaps decrease as his play continued to decline. Over the years, his point-of-attack strength (and anchor) have eroded — and now he has a slower first step, too.
Nnadi still has stretches of effective play. But when Kansas City’s run defense has had rough patches, Nnadi’s inability to hold up at the point-of-attack meant blockers could easily get to linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay — neither of whom excel at beating blocks.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs didn’t get a lot of contributions from their other defensive tackles. Tershawn Wharton tore his ACL in September. Signed in December, Brandon Williams was a capable (if unspectacular) nose tackle down the stretch. Neither Danny Shelton or Taylor Stallworth were able to step in and provide capable snaps.
Even worse, the Chiefs have arguably become thinner at the position. Saunders and Williams have departed — and Kansas City did little to fill their spots. While Nnadi and Wharton were both re-signed to one-year contracts, only Nnadi has participated in this season’s offseason activities. The only significant addition Chiefs have made to the interior of the defensive line was using a sixth-round pick to get Texas nose tackle Keondre Coburn — a stout player with an athletic profile similar to Saunders’.
Otherwise, Kansas City Chiefs have almost nothing at defensive tackle. Shelton, Matt Dickerson, Phil Hoskins, Chris Williams and Daniel Wise are all on the 90-man roster — but to this point, none of them have been able to stick on an NFL roster. All will get opportunities in training camp — but right now, the Chiefs can’t count on any of them to step in and play high-leverage snaps this season.
I expect Kansas City to keep four defensive tackles on its active roster: Jones, Nnadi, Wharton and Coburn. Since the Chiefs have sometimes kept five interior linemen, it’s possible that if one of the other five break out, they could make the team. I’m not optimistic, however, that any of them could stand out enough to justify a roster spot — especially since Kansas City might have to keep an extra defensive end like Malik Herring or B.J. Thompson.
While I think the Chiefs would be fine with those four at defensive tackle, I’m more worried about this position than most others. By himself, Jones pushes the defensive interior at least to an average level — but the other three players worry me. Wharton’s coming off an ACL injury; usually, it takes two years before athletes are back to their prior form. Nnadi has been declining and Coburn is an undersized rookie. While I like Coburn’s game, it’s hard to make an immediate impact on an NFL defensive interior. Expecting him to play well on a lot of rookie snaps seems unreasonable.
I’m mostly worried about depth — especially if Jones goes down. To this point, he’s been remarkably healthy for his position, missing just eight games over seven seasons. And he was an Iron Man last season, playing a whopping 80% of available snaps. Before 2022, he had averaged 65%.
But Jones has just turned 29, which could lead to a greater chance of injury. If he misses time, the Chiefs might bring Shelton up from the practice squad. Wharton, Coburn, Nnadi and Shelton would arguably form the league’s worst group of defensive tackles. Without Jones, it would be almost impossible for Kansas City to stop the run or get pressure on passing plays. The team can’t afford for him to miss time.
Even with all these concerns, the Chiefs haven’t felt the need to add another defensive tackle. Are the Chiefs comfortable enough with the room as constructed going into the season? With training camp rapidly approaching, does Kansas City need to make a July addition? Could Shelby Harris, Linval Joseph or Ndamukong Suh be this year’s Carlos Dunlap?
I think the Chiefs need another veteran player for the group. We’ll see what happens.