Everyone surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs can’t stop talking about the pass rush. Defensive tackle Chris Jones’ holdout makes it a topic of discussion, and defensive lineman Charles Omenihu’s six-game suspension complicates the situation further.
It puts much pressure on the other guys to perform, and arguably none more than rookie first-round selection Felix Anudike-Uzomah. The defensive end from Kansas State was drafted for his pass-rush potential but had to recover from minor thumb surgery before he could start working at full go.
That may have caused a slow start to training camp, but his performance in the preseason opener proved he is a full go. He led all defensive ends in snaps, earning three pressures as a pass rusher and a tackle; one of the pressures resulted in a quarterback hit.
Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen has been as up and close as anyone to Anuidke-Uzomah since he was drafted and recognizes the steps he has taken since then. He shared his thoughts on the rookie after Wednesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“He’s really progressing every day,” Cullen remarked to reporters. “Felix was one of the younger guys in the draft at 21. He had 34 snaps the other night, he had some really good pressure, a couple hits on the quarterback, he is playing the run better.”
“He’s just going like that,” Cullen said as he mimicked an ascending arrow. “Every day.”
Felix Anudike-Uzomah (#97) flashed some of his pass rushing ability in the Chiefs first preseason game. But even more encouragingly, he flashed some solid plays in the run game as well. pic.twitter.com/uFZS72RGlX— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) August 14, 2023
Veteran coaches like Cullen and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can be hard on rookies, wanting the fresh-faced player to prove themselves further than the draft capital used on them. Last year, they had no choice but to trust a plethora of first-year players — and it turned out okay.
They won’t have a choice along the defensive front this year either, with the aforementioned suspension of Omenihu. Cullen is gearing up for Anudike-Uzomah to be an active part of their success.
“I think we have to get him ready to play, and I think he’s really going to help us,” Cullen declared. “I think he’ll be in the rotation. He’s a good pass rusher, but he can also play the run well, so he’ll work his way into the rotation.”
Of course, this was always going to be the case. Cullen reiterated that the staff had prior knowledge of Omenihu’s inevitable suspension. They’ve formed a plan for the team, which also included balancing the preparation of Omenihu, a first-year player in the scheme.
“You have to give him the work here, and he has to stay in great shape,” Cullen explained. “But then you have to start getting ready for our first opponent: Detroit.”
What the staff may not have planned for is the prolonged absence of Chris Jones.
His holdout has seemingly surprised everybody in the organization, but Cullen is doing everything he can to smoothen the process — knowing the kind of talent he has in the wings.
“Chris, in my opinion, was as good as [anyone], if not the best defensive player in the league last year,” Cullen pointed out. “I do stay in touch with Chris, Chris is working hard, and we’ll welcome him with open arms when he gets back here.”
“I talk to him about him staying in shape. Eventually, this thing will be done, and he’ll be back here practicing and leading us.”
Without Jones in the room of defensive tackles, other players have gotten opportunities to step up — and that includes veteran nose tackle Danny Shelton. He may not be a feasible substitute for Jones’ role, but he has stood out to Cullen in the trenches nonetheless.
“He’s in better shape,” Cullen noted about Shelton. “Danny is slighter, he’s moving quicker, and it showed in the game. He had a couple tackles, a sack. Danny hasn’t missed a rep at all in the preseason, so that has helped him out.”
With many moving parts along the defensive line, fans can trust Cullen will get the most out of his room. Last year was his first with the team, and he had a part in Jones’ career season — but he also may have helped defensive tackle Khalen Saunders get paid this offseason or boosted George Karlaftis to the 6.5 sacks he accumulated as a rookie.
Now Anudike-Uzomah is thrown into the mix of players who Cullen’s coaching could elevate, and that’s exciting — because he has more potential than anyone else in the group except Jones. The rookie just needs to continue progressing every day.