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Chiefs training camp preview: Defensive Line.

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Will Sack nation prevail this season or take another step back?

@ChiefsFan4Lyfe Chiefs Focus @Chiefsfocus

Chiefs Training Camp starts tomorrow as the rookies and quarterbacks report, as the Chiefs will soon return to work to get ready for the 2022 season. There some changes made personnel-wise across the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line since the beginning of the off-season.

The Kansas City Chiefs announced in February that they’ve hired former Jacksonville Defensive Coordinator Joe Cullen to coach their defensive line for the 2022 NFL season. Cullen received interest from two other AFC teams (Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts) but opted to join the staff in Kansas City. He’ll fill a role previously coached by Brendan Daly, who will coach the linebackers for the Chiefs alongside Ken Flajole in the 2022 NFL season.

In this article, I will take a glance at the defensive line group leading up to training camp, as to why Joe Cullen’s addition will help Sack Nation prevail.

Cullen has coached in the NFL and college for over 30 years. He’s coached the defensive line for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens during the course of his career, with a few really impressive units along the way. He’s a coach that has the reputation of getting the most out of his guys, specifically his interior defensive linemen. He coached guys like Calais Campbell, Matthew Judon, Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, Gerald McCoy, Michael Pierce, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams, Cory Redding, Shaun Rogers, and Tyson Alualu to some of the best seasons of their careers, not just when it comes to stopping the run but also when it comes to things like pressure and sack production. Under his tutelage at Jacksonville, edge rusher Josh Allen led the team in total tackles with 71, four passes defensed and 7.5 sacks.

More impressive prior to arriving in Jacksonville the second time, Cullen spent five seasons as the defensive line coach in Baltimore (2016-2020). During his five seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens allowed the NFL's fewest total yards (318.0) and fewest rushing yards (98.3). He is known for his high-energy approach and his raspy voice can often be heard during practices especially if you were playing for the Ravens. After adding Cullen, the Chiefs picked up an elite defensive end who could rip around the edges and wreak havoc. They used the No. 30 overall selection on Purdue’s George Karlaftis. The team also restructured Frank Clark’s deal to a 2 year, $29 million dollar deal to remain with the team. Clark and Karlaftis look as if they could be dominant. As long as the two can stay healthy.

The closest comparison to the current duo is when the Chiefs had Tamba Hali and Justin Houston during the somewhat good and mostly terrible Bob Sutton glory days, but the point is our duo looks legit. When people talk about a player having a relentless motor, just throw on the tape of Karlaftis. He doesn't have eye-popping sack totals (4.5 last season), but he's a complete player on the edge. My comparison of George Karlaftis is Nick Bosa and some JJ Watt. Karlaftis and Clark look capable of being double-digit sack guys. Toss in star defensive tackle Chris Jones aka The Mayor of Sack Nation, and, It’s pretty impossible to double-team all of those guys. Like Cullen did for Josh Allen in Jacksonville, I expect Frank Clark to finally have that double-digit sack season since his Seattle Seahawk days. The addition of Karlaftis will allow Clark to avoid being double-teamed as much as years prior. This should help him get an opportunity to lead the team in sacks in 2022.

All-Pro Defensive tackle Chris Jones is one of the best at his position and should have another good season. If the Chiefs don’t add another interior lineman like Daron Payne via trade or Ndamukong Suh by signing, expect the Chiefs to use Karlaftis on the inside next to Jones on passing downs. Just watch Tanoh Kpassagnon in 2019. He was a starting left defensive end and then kicked inside in situational packages on defense. Karlaftis is a tackling machine, and he will thank Jones for most of them. The big defensive tackle can occupy two or three blockers a play, allowing Karlaftis and sometimes Nick Bolton the freedom to run free and make tackles. If Jones is single blocked, he will make the play.

Also look for Derrick Nnadi to take a step forward in his progression. Nnadi impressed the Chiefs with his improvement as a pass rusher last season, as he is coming off a career season with three sacks and five quarterback hits. He'll be among the interiors tasked to help stop the run. Tershawn Wharton, who provides strong depth, is a versatile block-eating interior guy who plays with terrific leverage and power. He shows quickness, athleticism and bend in one-on-ones, making an argument that he can be a better pass rusher on the edge than his numbers show (4.0 sacks since 2020). He also notched 29 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception last season. Wharton is undrafted and considered undersized (6’1”, 275-280 pounds) but Brett Veach struck gold when he signed Wharton in 2020. The last well known player who went undrafted at Wharton's position was Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle, John Randle (6’1”, 278 pounds). Randle went undrafted; The then-6’1” 244-pound. defensive lineman was picked up by the Vikings after trying out for the Bucs. Randle played his first season in 1990 and went to his first Pro Bowl in 1993 after recording 11.5 sacks, and quickly became one of the dominant defensive tackles of his era.

Michael Danna is easily one of the Chiefs' best pass rushers from 2021, though that was a low bar, despite often having to play the Melvin Ingram role before Ingram made his Chiefs’ debut last season. Danna started off his first 4 games with 3 sacks and then went through a slump since then. Danna is a talented rotational piece and still growing as a pass rusher. I don't think he has hit his ceiling yet, and with Clark back in the fold and the addition of Karlaftis, Danna should get more opportunities at his more natural REO (Right Outside Defensive End) spot in 2022. I expect that his numbers will continue to get better.

The development of second-year defensive ends Joshua Kaindoh and Malik Herring is something to keep an eye on in 2022. In Spagnuolo’s system, Kaindoh will need to have a strong coming out party after missing all of 2021 with an injury. Kaindoh might have the highest ceiling of all the edge rushers on the roster because he's still a raw talent from a technical standpoint. He's a plus run defender and wins on the pass rush with pure athleticism and power vs. having a refined set of pass-rush moves. He's long, strong and plays with a very good motor. Just imagine what he can be when Joe Cullen works with him to refine the pass rush part of his game more. Remember, just like Kaindoh, Jared Allen was a 4th rounder.

Malik Herring is a powerful bull rusher with deceptive quickness and athletic ability, coming off a redshirt season after tearing his ACL in the 2021 Senior Bowl practice. Herring reminds me of former Ravens edge rusher Pernell McPhee. Cullen was McPhee’s Defensive line coach in Baltimore, Cullen is now Herring’s Defensive line coach in Kansas City. Both are 6-3 but Herring is 11 pounds heavier (280 pounds) but he can drop that weight to gain more speed to go with his explosive ability. He could carve out a role this season. One thing that coaches will love about Herring, his dependability. He has been a very productive, steady player as part of the Bulldog defense over four seasons (2017-2020). He’s not the flashiest player. Herring doesn’t have Azeez Ojulari’s speed off the edge, nor does he have the quickest first step. Herring uses his football IQ to find ways to affect the play rather on the edge or inside. He’s like the energizer bunny. He has great hands, is good at using leverage, and has developed a solid repertoire of pass rushing moves. And before his injury, he was turning heads at the Senior Bowl in January with those skills.

Khalen Saunders is back for his fourth season with the Chiefs after playing in seven games last year. Originally a third-round selection (No. 84 overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft, Injuries since that span have limited his availability including suffering a knee injury in Week 7 of last year that essentially ended his season. Now healthy, however, Saunders will have an opportunity to earn a rotational role which would solidify his roster spot. His past film shows he’s got a non-stop motor and should help the team right away as a solid two-gap nose or 3-tech tackle. Saunders will be facing off for his spot against Taylor Stallworth. The Chiefs signed Stallworth this offseason after he notched 16 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, four tackles-for-loss and three sacks last season while appearing in 16 games (1 start) for the Colts. It was a career season for the 4-year defensive tackle, whose 22 total pressures ranked fourth on the Colts. He has disruptive traits Cullen will like.

The Chiefs will continue to make several decisions this season to fill roles on their roster. The Chiefs expect improvement from their defensive line under Cullen in Spagnuolo’s scheme, and it’s possible everyone’s production could improve that could help us finish Top 10 in sacks and total defense. No more Pressure Nation, it’s Time for the Return of Sack Nation.

Video Links:

Chris Jones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYFwKQDKo7Y

Frank Clark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8E5Aam2_l7I

Derrick Nnadi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjTWzbFKA1w&t=21s

George Karlaftis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXU0gzjo8QU&t=51s

Michael Danna:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUATWMiPGTE

Tershawn Wharton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDSkI6Y9-Ho

Malik Herring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euBmHSjakFk

Joshua Kaindoh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OF2yTcA_ILs&t=110s

Khalen Saunders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8DMltP0lPE

Taylor Stallworth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G22p8mSs-d4

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