Trying to answer the top 10 questions about the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into their title defense.
Heading into the season, I’ll cover my “10 Biggest Questions” regarding 2023 Kansas City Chiefs. So far we have asked…
In this post, we will turn our attention to the Chiefs’ young pass rushers: Felix Anudike-Uzomah and George Karlaftis.
How far are George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as pass rushers?
Last season, the Chiefs’ pass rush was excellent. The bosses tied for second in sacks with 55, fifth in sack percentage, first in total pressure and had fifth highest pressure speed in the NFL. Defensive tackle Chris Jones had the best season of his career and finished with most total pressures he has had in a season with 77 in his career and bond his 2018 career high for sacks with 15.5. On the verge of getting his third contract, Jones put together an NFL Defensive Player of the Year season.
However, it wasn’t just Jones who had a monster season. The Chiefs did an excellent job of filling out their roster with complementary rushers, especially at the defensive end position. After a rough 2021 season, the Chiefs brought back Frank Clark, who had his healthiest and most consistent season of his Chiefs tenure. Carlos Dunlap was signed in July but was productive on third downs all season. Mike Danna and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders had career years, and rookie first-round pick George Karlaftis had one of the better seasons we’ve seen from a rookie defensive end in the past decade.
The hiring of defensive line coach Joe Cullen was huge for the unit. Coaching can be hard to quantify, but I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Danna and Saunders had their best seasons under Cullen. Veterans like Clark saw their play improve significantly, and Jones had his breakout season under Cullen’s tutelage. Even getting Karlaftis to produce as well as he did as a rookie is a huge testament to Cullen’s coaching.
However, the Chiefs have experienced a lot of turnover in the defensive line room this offseason. Clark, Saunders and Dunlap (as of now) are all gone, replaced by defensive lineman Charles Omenihu and a pair of rookies in defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and defensive tackle Keondre Coburn. The Chiefs lost a ton of production from last year’s team, but brought in a lot of talent to complement Jones as a pass rusher.
Coburn doesn’t necessarily factor into this equation, as he’ll mainly be Derrick Nnadi’s backup at nose tackle. Omenihu was a big signing that gave the Chiefs an inside-out presence they haven’t had since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been in Kansas City. Danna was surprisingly good as an interior pass rusher in 2022, but Omenihu’s combination of length, power and speed make him a superior interior pass rusher to Danna. Omenihu instantly raises the floor in this pass rush and helps unlock Jones to rush from anywhere on the defensive line. The Chiefs can go a lot more matchup hunting this season — something they haven’t had in a long time.
But while I think Omenihu is a great floor lifter, he’s not a good enough pass rusher to lift the ceiling in this pass rush where it was last year. Danna also fits the same mold. Both are quality pass rushers who can win from a variety of alignments, but neither are good enough pass rushers to complement Jones and take pressure off him. For the Chiefs to reach their pass-rush ceiling, it will come down to the development of Karlaftis in Year 2 and how quickly Anudike-Uzomah can hit the ground running as a rookie.
Karlaftis in year 2
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images
I thought Karlaftis had an incredibly strong rookie season. I’ve gone back and reviewed his film from last year and there was clear growth in the back half of the season. Karlaftis could mix in more counters in addition to his bullrush and even gained some ability to win around the corner. Considering Karlaftis was asked to play high-leverage snaps at one Super Bowl contender as a rookie, he hit every mark the Chiefs needed.
The concern about Karlaftis since he was drafted was his ceiling. I was extremely high on Karlaftis going in that draft, but even I will admit I wonder what heights he can reach as a player. I believe there is plenty of growth in his game. As he learns to mix inside counters and pull moves into his game, the already strong foundation of his burst and power will emerge more.
Still, can Karlaftis mix enough speed and flexibility into his game to round out his profile as a pass rusher? Or will he be stuck as a quality defensive end, but one who can’t succeed against any matchup he faces?
Felix in year 1
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images
With Anudike-Uzomah, there is a fair amount of pressure on him to produce quickly. The Chiefs decided to let Clark — their best speed rusher — go to open up that role for Anudike-Uzomah. I was incredibly bullish on Anudike-Uzomah coming out because of his poise, flexibility and potential to add weight to his frame, but the Chiefs will need his quickness and explosiveness to show right away.
I’m not super worried about Anudike-Uzomah accelerating his learning curve since he was so productive at a young age in college and being coached by Cullen, but how good can he be right away? It’s hard to ask him to be as good as Clark right away, but what percentage of Clark’s productivity can he provide? Will he be able to get some pass rush wins on third downs as a rookie?
It won’t be easy to repeat the Chiefs’ pass rush performance last season, but they still need this group to perform at a high level to win a Super Bowl. Omenihu and Danna are great veterans who can help the team in many ways, but they are not going to carry the Chiefs’ pass rush outside of Jones.
For the Chiefs to get close to where they were last year, Karlaftis and Anudike-Uzomah must consistently be positive pass rushers. However far they are on the development curve will determine the success of Kansas City’s pass rush, and I’m intrigued to track how well they play.