The Kansas City Chiefs employ a bevy of talent at defensive tackle heading into the 2021 campaign, from a pair of elite pass-rushers to one of the league's best run-defenders and a young player who more than made the most of his opportunity last season.
Here's a look at each of the six defensive tackles currently on the roster heading into training camp.
One of the top pass-rushers in the NFL regardless of position, Jones has established himself as an elite defensive tackle capable of wrecking a game. In fact, since 2018, Jones ranks fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits (77) and seventh in sacks (32) among all players.
He's racked up at least 60 pressures in each of those seasons, earning himself a spot in Pro Football Focus’ “Top 50” player rankings earlier this summer. Jones checked in at No. 19 on the list - which ranked the best players in the league heading into the 2021 campaign – making him the second-best defensive tackle in the league (behind only the Rams' Aaron Donald) and the seventh-best defensive player overall according to PFF's metrics.
Here's what the folks at PFF had to say about Jones:
"…Over the last three seasons, Jones has the second-best PFF pass-rushing grade at the position (trailing Donald) and is just two total pressures behind Fletcher Cox for second-best. Jones has also had some of his best games on the biggest stage, including the Super Bowl."
Jones is simply one of the premier defensive players in the game, and with the signing of fellow pass-rusher Jarran Reed – who we'll discuss below – the Chiefs have been experimenting with Jones at defensive end this offseason.
The Chiefs signed Reed back in March, adding one of the top pass-rushing defensive tackles in all of football to their defensive line.
Reed, who spent the entirety of his five-year career with Seattle before signing with Kansas City, has notched 159 pressures as a professional and has tallied double-digit quarterback hits in two of the last three seasons. His 38 pressures in 2020 ranked 18th among all defensive tackles.
Additionally, over the last three seasons, Reed ranks seventh in the NFL among all defensive tackles with 19 sacks. Interestingly enough, Chris Jones ranks No. 2 in that time with 32 sacks.
The duo has the potential to be one of the better combinations in the league, and as mentioned above, Reed's presence along the defensive line may allow the Chiefs to deploy Jones on the edge more often without losing too much of an interior rush.
Now entering his fourth season in the NFL, Nnadi has made himself into one of the league's top run-defenders during his young career. For more on his production as a run-stuffer, here's what NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund wrote about Nnadi earlier this summer:
"As measured by how many yards an opposing rusher gained when running within 3 yards of a defensive player, Nnadi was king last season, shutting down ball carriers at the highest rate among all interior defenders. PFF gave him an 81.7 grade in run defense, one of the best marks among interior defenders. The fit between Nnadi and Chris Jones is pretty masterful, which lends credence to the thought that Chiefs GM Brett Veach is underrated. Jones earned PFF's second-highest pass-rush grade among interior defenders (93.1 -- only Aaron Donald posted a higher figure at 93.6)."
Nnadi has also been a reliable contributor - suiting up for all but one game during his three-year career - and as Frelund noted, his skillset blends tremendously well with players such as Jones and Reed.
One of the gems from last year's rookie free agent class, Wharton went from an undrafted rookie from Missouri University of Science and Technology to one of the top young defensive tackles in the NFL. He finished the campaign with 22 pressures - which ranked fourth among all rookies and second among rookie defensive tackles – while receiving significantly less snaps than the players ahead of him in those categories.
He even made PFF’s Midseason All-Rookie Team, earning a spot alongside highly-drafted players such as the Panthers' Derrick Brown (Round 1), the Washington Football Team's Chase Young (Round 1) and the Steelers' Alex Highsmith (Round 3).
Originally a third-round pick in 2019 out of Western Illinois, Saunders has appeared in 15 games (5 starts) during his two-year career in Kansas City. That included 12 appearances (4 starts) during his rookie campaign in 2019, but an elbow injury suffered in Week 1 of last season contributed to Saunders playing in just three games (1 start) this past year.
He received his greatest opportunity in 2020 during the Chiefs' regular-season finale against the Chargers, where he tallied 51 defensive snaps and recorded two pressures.
An undrafted free agent signee of the Cincinnati Bengals last season, Clark spent time on the Bears' practice squad in 2020 before signing with Kansas City's practice squad in late December.
Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 289 pounds, the former University of Georgia standout signed a Reserve/Futures deal with Kansas City in February and will compete for a role in the Chiefs' defensive tackle rotation once camp gets underway.
The Bottom Line
The addition of Jarran Reed really puts this group over the top, as it allows the coaching staff to get creative with their defensive packages in a variety of ways. First, the combination of Jones and Reed rushing the interior rivals the best duos in the league when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Additionally, Reed's presence inside means that the Chiefs can utilize Jones off the edge more often this season while still featuring a veteran pass-rusher up the middle who can create a consistent push.
Outside of those two, Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton will also likely possess significant roles in 2021 following impressive seasons. Nnadi, as we discussed above, is particularly effective as a run-stopper while Wharton – a lean defensive tackle at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds – can hopefully continue his development as a pass-rusher.
Khalen Saunders, meanwhile, is healthy and eager to show why he was a third-round pick only a few years ago. Camp is an excellent place to do just that, and in the case of Tyler Clark, Wharton should serve as an example that there's always opportunities for under-the-radar talent to shine during this time of the year.
The old adage tells us that football is won in the trenches, and while the Chiefs invested heavily in their offensive line this past offseason, the depth at defensive tackle is looking pretty good, too.