In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I'll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs' season every week. Last week, I wrote about Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney's leash in the offense.
This week, we're talking about two second-year Chiefs' defenders who are having excellent starts to their season: Leo Chenal and George Karlaftis.
Can George Karlaftis and Leo Chenal emerge as elite players?
Coming into the 2023 season, I wrote that I believed that the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs had the most defensive talent they've had in the Steve Spanguolo era as defensive coordinator. I still had plenty of questions on how the unit would perform, but just judging by the depth chart, this was the most athletic, young, and versatile defense the Chiefs have had in years.
A significant reason for that talent boom was the results of an incredibly strong 2022 draft class. With an excess of picks from the Tyreek Hill trade, the Chiefs went into the draft with a concentrated effort to fix their defense. With their 10 draft picks, eight went to their defense. Four of their first five picks addressed defensive needs, including both first-round selections.
Most of that defensive talent made impacts immediately, particularly in the secondary. Cornerback Trent McDuffie had his season interrupted by a hamstring injury, but when he returned, the Chiefs played like a top-10 defense for the rest of the season. Safety Bryan Cook had an incredible postseason, and Day Three picks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson held down the #3 cornerback spot all season. By the end of the season, the Chiefs had built an impressive young secondary that they could build their defense around.
The defensive rookies weren't all in the secondary, however. The Chiefs drafted defensive end George Karlaftis in the first round, giving them a young defensive end that they could build around moving forward. Karlaftis had some up-and-down moments in the first half of the season but closed the season with impressive performances.
The Chiefs also drafted linebacker Leo Chenal, who was brought in to add physicality and blitzing ability to the defense. The Chiefs had previously lacked blitzers with experience beating offensive linemen one-on-one, but Chenal's tape at Wisconsin was littered with that. Adding him would bring a new element to the defense they hadn't had before.
Going into Year 2, the ceiling on this defense was contingent on those young players developing. Through two weeks, they've answered those questions with flying colors. The Chiefs have only given up two touchdowns all season while playing two top-10 offenses from last season and only having star defensive tackle Chris Jones for one of those games.
There are many reasons this defensive surge is occurring; I wouldn't be able to cover them all in one post. McDuffie has picked up from his rookie season, emerging as one of the best defensive backs in the league. The linebackers are all playing at a high level and being deployed in smart ways. Derrick Nnadi is having his best season in years. Jones put up one of the best pass rush performances I've ever seen vs. the Jaguars. Even with all these reasons, I could list a dozen more on why the Chiefs' defense is playing so well to start this year.
However, watching the defensive film, two players blew me away: Chenal and Karlaftis. Both are playing at incredibly high levels currently, emerging as cornerstone pieces on this defense potentially.
To start with Karlaftis, it's hard to describe in words how well he's playing. He looks like a totally different player compared to last year. Whatever work he did with Tamba Hali seemed to do wonders for his game. Karlaftis has already put up eight pressures and 2.0 sacks through two weeks. He's playing with more mobility in his lower half, changing directions quicker and using more deceleration to get off blocks. His hand fighting has also become significantly better — sequencing moves that show a deep understanding of how to rush the passer.
Jones's level of mobility in his lower half is insane for a guy that's sub-300 (insane balance, watch his ankles/feet), but George traversing multiple gaps with two swim moves is crazy impressive too. Deceleration and quick COD both ways. He looks wildly impressive pic.twitter.com/cGCCDgniBz— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 19, 2023
Karlaftis is also dominating in the run game as well. Karlaftis was already a strong run defender in his rookie season, but he's taken a massive leap this year. His recognition of blocking schemes has improved, but he's also got significantly better at the point of attack. His leverage and pad level have improved, and he's taking on double teams better.
I thought George Karlaftis was awesome yesterday. He was a maniac vs. the run, DET couldn't block him up in Duo at all. Also flashed moments as a pass rusher. Great inside long arm vs. Sewell, keeping outside hand occupied to keep chest clean. Flashed more torque/COD in his game pic.twitter.com/VwYhKdNUSr— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 9, 2023
With Chenal, I was always optimistic about him as a prospect - I had a first-round grade on Chenal in that draft. However, the way he's playing this season is blowing me away. Chenal is blowing up run plays at the line of scrimmage, using his impressive strength and explosiveness to destroy tight ends at the point of attack. He's being used more as a pass rusher and generating pressures while doing it. Even his recognition in coverage is improving, including a play where he blew up a throwback screen vs. the Jaguars.
Just an absurd read by Leo. Tackle disengages him but he's locked in on the RB leaking through. Just great eye discipline and awareness of situation pic.twitter.com/HMCBFGrdHT— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 19, 2023
Leo Chenal vs a TE, getting extension on the block, throwing the TE inside, then swimming outside to help tackle the running back. pic.twitter.com/sUbZXczb9V— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 19, 2023
Leo Chenal with a pass-rush rep— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 19, 2023
Attacks edge looking to corner pocket, gets low to dip through, BUT quickly converts that low center of gravity to a bull rush. Gets under Anton Harrison pads and finishes with strong hands
Quick release negates a legit pressure pic.twitter.com/1uPYgOqCEs
Of course, with any young player, it's about consistency. Young players will have flashes of excellent play, but it's about building more positive reps that distinguish good players from the greats.
With Karlaftis, are the flashes of improved mobility real? Is he going to continue sequencing his pass-rush moves well? How dominant of a run defender can he become? When he's rushing from the interior, can he continue improving his effectiveness there? With Karlaftis, the question was always whether his ceiling was a truly elite defensive end, but he's looked like one for two weeks. Is that just optimal matchups, or can he sustain this level of production?
With Chenal, a lot more of his questions come with the role. Chenal can be a dominant SAM linebacker for his entire career, but can he expand beyond that? Will the Chiefs give him more opportunities to rush the passer as a true edge rusher? Could we see Chenal play some more Nickel reps and play in coverage? Will the Chiefs continue using unique packages to get him on the field?
Through two weeks, it's clear he needs to be on the field more; the question is, how can the Chiefs achieve that while keeping a good defensive structure?
Looking back at that 2022 draft class, it's already clear that McDuffie is an elite player you can build a secondary around. By himself, the draft class hit a massive home run. With the rest of the draft class, I did have questions coming into the season about whether anyone else would emerge as an elite player.
Through two weeks, Chenal and Karlaftis are playing like elite players.
This could all be a flash in the pan for their careers, but I will closely monitor them every week to see if they continue playing as well as they are currently. If Karlaftis and Chenal both become elite players, we could be talking about the 2022 draft class being an all-time draft class by the Chiefs.