Feb. 22—"Sack City" was a bustling place in the 2019 NFL season. But business slowed for the Chiefs' front four on the defensive line last fall.
After combining for 35.5 of the team's 45 sacks in 2019, the Chiefs' front recorded 21 of the team's 32 sacks in 2020. That ranked a lackluster 19th in the league.
It's hard not to like the prospects for this position group next season, though. The Chiefs' defensive line continues to be anchored by a pair of proven Pro Bowlers.
As the Chiefs turn their attention to the business side of football before free agency begins March 17, we're evaluating each of the team's position groups.
The Star previously looked at the offensive line; here, we present an analysis of Kansas City's defensive line.
2020 FINAL ROSTER: Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Derrick Nnadi, Alex Okafor, Mike Pennel, Khalen Saunders, Mike Danna, Tim Ward, Tershawn Wharton
INJURED RESERVE: Taco Charlton (ankle)
2021 FREE AGENTS: Kpassagnon, Okafor, Charlton, Pennel
Let's start with Pro Bowlers Jones and Clark.
Jones led the defense with a team-high 7.5 sacks and earned a second straight Pro Bowl selection in 2020. He added 36 tackles and a team-high 28 quarterback hits in 15 games.
Clark started 15 games and finished second in sacks, with six. He made 29 tackles, including a team-high eight for a loss, and 15 quarterback hits en route to a second consecutive Pro Bowl selection.
Those two men aside, however, consistency appeared to be an issue in generating a formidable pass rush.
Kpassagnon entered a contract season after posting career-bests in 2019 for starts (eight), tackles (21), sacks (five) and quarterback hits (11). He set new career highs in 2020 with 15 starts and 28 tackles but recorded just one sack and four quarterback hits as a full-time starter.
Okafor, who projected to start at left defensive end to open the season, was absent for five games, including three spent on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury. But he can be a force when healthy and finished third on the team with three sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
The Chiefs received strong play from rookies Danna and Wharton — both were part of the team's defensive line rotation and made impact contributions.
Danna, the Chiefs' fifth-round pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, appeared in 13 games with one start and finished fourth on the team with 2.5 sacks, adding 25 tackles and six quarterback hits.
And Wharton was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri S&T. He provided flexibility as a defensive end and interior lineman in all 16 regular-season games, including one start. He totaled 27 tackles, two sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Ward spent the first half of the season on the Chiefs' practice squad before being elevated in Week 11 to the active 53-player roster. He was inactive for six games but saw action in the season finale, getting the start and making five tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits.
Nnadi and Pennel are essential run-stuffers in the interior rotation. Nnadi, atop the depth chart at right defensive tackle alongside Jones, totaled 47 tackles and a quarterback hit while Pennel recorded 29 tackles and a quarterback hit.
Saunders suffered an elbow injury in the season opener but lost his spot in the rotation because of Wharton's emergence. Saunders ended up missing five straight games on injured reserve, and then was a healthy inactive in eight more before starting in Week 17 because a majority of the team's usual starters were being rested ahead of the postseason.
Charlton appeared in seven games as a rotational player before suffering a season-ending leg injury in Week 8. He finished with seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hits.
The Chiefs project to be up to $20 million over the salary cap, so their front office must get creative for a second straight year ahead of free agency. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Chiefs seek to restructure one or more D-line contracts in an attempt to gain much-needed cap relief before the start of the NFL's new calendar year.
Clark, who previously restructured his contract in 2020, still carries a team-high 2021 cap hit of $25.8 million, while Jones, who signed a new deal in 2020, will count for $21.8 million.
Bolstering the defensive line, especially at pass rusher, through the NFL draft is a realistic scenario. And the Chiefs have already signed Demone Harris and Austin Edwards to reserve/future contracts for 2021.
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK?
Kpassagnon, Okafor, Charlton and Pennel are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, and the Chiefs probably don't have the financial means to bring each of them back.
It might make sense to bring back Charlton and Pennel on affordable one-year deals. Charlton, in particular, has flashed his first-round talent in a rotational role, so signing him to another prove-it contract could be a win-win situation for player and team alike.
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