At 2-1, the Kansas City Chiefs find themselves in a familiar position — atop the AFC West standings. The path to a division lead, however, has not exactly gone to plan.
Tight end Travis Kelce missed the opener with a knee injury that appeared to limit him upon his return in Week 2. As quarterback Patrick Mahomes has adjusted to new weapons in the lineup, the team’s defense has been in top form out of the gate — allowing only three touchdowns on the season through three weeks.
Who is the most underappreciated Chiefs player so far this season?— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) September 28, 2023
Earlier today, Arrowhead Pride asked its X followers to identify some of the team’s under-the-radar players who have stepped up big early in the season. Let’s look at what Kansas City’s assistant coaches said about three popular choices before practice on Thursday.
DE Mike Danna
Danna has probably overperformed my expectations by the most. Preseason, I rarely even remembered to mention his name when talking D, but he's made some big plays and has been all over the field.— GrantMarch (@grantmarch88) September 28, 2023
Fourth-year defensive end Mike Danna has had a great start to the season. He has 2.5 sacks on four pressures early this season. His presence helped the Chiefs’ defense put in a respectable effort in Week 1’s loss against the Detroit Lions — as well as alleviate concerns about Kansas City’s pass rush during defensive lineman Charles Omenihu’s six-game suspension. Chiefs’ defensive line coach Joe Cullen bragged on Danna’s understanding of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense on Thursday.
“Oh geez, Mike,” Cullen began, “I say this always — this is my second year with Mike. Mike did a great job since the day he got here, but Mike’s one of those guys that — I’ve had some guys over the years — that everything they do, he’s doing it right. Coach Spags has a certain defense or a technique that he wants the ends to do.
“Mike’s doing it right, and [he’s] doing it as hard as he can do it and doing it that way all the time. And I always tell the D-line, ‘I don’t want a box of chocolates, I want to know what I’m getting.’ You know what you’re getting in Mike Danna...He’s tough, he’s physical. We move him inside. He plays all four positions across the front.”
Chiefs linebackers coach Brendan Daly was coaching Kansas City’s defensive line when Danna was drafted in 2020. In his remarks Thursday, he noted the improvement he has seen from a player he was very excited to acquire.
“That’s guy’s been fun to watch,” Daly declared. “The type of person he is first — and then, he grinds. He’s gotten better; he’s gotten extremely versatile. He works. He’s accountable, dependable, tough, smart, consistent — keep throwing those adjectives out, and that fits Mike Danna. Every football team should have a guy like him. They’d be lucky to.”
LB Leo Chenal
Leo Chenal— Michael Brennan (@KC_R8R_H8R) September 28, 2023
Second-year linebacker Leo Chenal has also been a pleasant surprise in his sophomore campaign. Spagnuolo has used the Wisconsin product in unpredictable roles, sometimes even seeming to rotate him as a defensive end.
While Chenal has not yet registered a sack, he is credited with five quarterback pressures through three games.
“Leo — we call him ‘The Beast’ for a reason,” Cullen stated. “Coach Spags has done a tremendous job of getting opportunities for guys in certain packages when they show that A, the love football and B, they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do. Leo’s doing a great job. He’s playing the middle in the ‘buffalo’ package, playing the edge in our base package, and he’s playing a little end in certain situations. He’s doing a great job — doing a great job in the run game, he studies the game, and he’s powerful and doing a great job in terms of getting after the quarterback.”
His position coach appreciates Chenal’s versatility.
“I think that it’s something that we saw a little bit of in the draft process coming out of Wisconsin,” Daly recalled, “although he wasn’t quite used in some of those ways, you thought there might be some potential for that. He’s proven to be capable in a lot of those different roles — both mentally and physically...We’re in year two now, and I would say he’s evolved tremendously from a mental standpoint to where he’s able to handle multiples.
“He’s able to do different packages and different roles that allow us to use his skill set a little differently, and he’s done a very nice job when we’ve put him in those positions. We’ll see. Moving forward that might evolve week-to-week in terms of how much, how little, where that ends up going, but he’s done a very nice job with it.”
WR Justin Watson
I have to say Justin Watson— Joe Cool (@yeahokcuz) September 28, 2023
A month ago, few would have predicted that sixth-year wide receiver Justin Watson would lead Kansas City in receiving through three weeks with 158 yards on seven catches. In his second year with Kansas City, Watson has been key as the Chiefs worked Kelce back from injury and managed the workload of some of their younger options.
On Thursday, offensive coordinator Matt Nagy discussed how Watson has become a dependable contributor.
“I don’t think he’s looking for recognition at all,” Nagy said of the veteran. “I remember him coming in last year and just wanting to soak up the offense terminology, what we do. Now he’s having opportunities. He doesn’t get tired in practice. He doesn’t get tired in games. His motor is going non-stop.
“I think there’s a trust that’s being built between him and Patrick right now, and that’s great. We want to keep building on that, we need that, and Justin has done a great job in meetings which extends to practices.”
What players do you feel have delivered underrated contributions to the 2023 Chiefs so far? Weigh in below.