The mysterious disappearance of Chiefs linebacker Dorian O’Daniel

The lack of any buzz, news or playing time for linebacker Dorian O’Daniel is one of the most overlooked elements of Kansas City Chiefs training camp.

One year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs made Dorian O’Daniel one of the top 100 players picked in the 2018 NFL Draft. In 2019, you’d never know he was even on the team’s roster.

Given the amount of media coverage at each NFL franchise’s training camp these days, it’s hard for a player to not draw any attention to himself. Every nuance of practice is now broadcast in bits on the internet, and such close access allows for each and every fan base to create exaggerative responses to meaningless bits of action.

“Look at that incredible catch by Demarcus Robinson,” we exclaim, without remotely acknowledging the complete lack of a pass rush or ability to tackle.

“What an incredible throw by Chase Litton,” we say, without pointing out that everyone is in t-shirt and shorts.

Even with 90 men on each team’s roster, the amount of media coverage and the length of training camp allows for nearly every player to receive some kind of coverage. Some of it can be negative in terms of their level of play or injury news. Even then, however, there’s at least something being churned out. Perhaps the worst thing overall is to simply disappear, as if you were never even a part of the competition in the first place.

This has happened to a handful of Chiefs players this year. It’s hard to find much in the way of commentary or attention coming from a wide receiver like Davon Grayson before his recent injury. If the Chiefs are high on tackle Dino Boyd or linebacker Darius Harris or defensive back Harold Jones-Quartey, they must be keeping the news to themselves. The same can be said of running back Marcus Marshall or nose tackle Cavon Walker.

Unfortunately for O’Daniel, he’s somehow been lost in much the same way as late roster additions have been.

The vision for O’Daniel

It’s an odd place for O’Daniel to be. The talented linebacker was drafted with the very last pick on Day 2 in Brett Veach’s first draft class. He spoke highly of his special teams acumen that was going to immediately give him playing time with Dave Toub’s units as he learned the defense. The dream at that point—when he was deemed ready—was to use him as a “chess piece,” a specialized sort of defender who could nullify an opponent’s tight end in coverage.

In a league bent on creating mismatches for offensive success, O’Daniel was described as the defense’s answer—a man well-suited for the task of defending in the modern NFL. Here’s how GM Brett Veach described him after the draft:

“Dorian O’Daniel is going to be a guy who is a chess piece for us,” he said. “We play in so much dime and sub packages that he’ll be on the field. He’ll cover tight ends and do a lot of different things in regards to matching in our sub personnel. Then we had him graded as the highest rated special teams player. A guy like that at pick 100 is extremely valuable to us.”

What made O’Daniel even more impressive was his championship experience, having won a national title at Clemson. He’d played against the best and came out on top. He played well in clutch situations. He was a great teammate and leader who wasn’t afraid to do the dirty work on special teams while also earning a starting role on the No. 1 team in college football.

Veach’s actions speak loudly

Every team goes through an intensive evaluation upon the close of a season, a way of sifting through what went right and what went wrong at each and every position. For the Chiefs, this offseason included the insight of a few outsiders as the incoming defensive staff under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo gave their input on the current roster and the changes they’d like to see.

Before general manager Brett Veach went shopping, they gave him a list. Included on that list was a desire for several new linebackers.

Whether Veach was the one driving that ship or Spagnuolo came in with a different idea of what he wanted at the position, it’s interesting that Veach put in such work at a position at which he’d already imported so many new faces the previous season and beyond.

In 2017, Veach’s first move as the team’s new general manager was to sign linebacker Josh Mauga back to the team. Weeks later, he would trade D.J. Alexander to the Seattle Seahawks for Kevin Pierre-Louis. One month after that, he would trade a mid-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for Reggie Ragland. Three new linebackers in his first two months on the job added to a veteran mix.

The following offseason featured even more activity, centered around the big free agent signing of former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a five-year deal that raised eyebrows around the league. O’Daniel was drafted that spring as was Breeland Speaks, who was being converted to outside linebacker in Bob Sutton’s defense. Ben Niemann also turned heads as a rookie free agent.

This offseason brought even more investments. Even as the team shifted the pass rush up front, the team traded for Jets linebacker Darron Lee, signed Jeremiah Attaochu and Damien Wilson. Suddenly the linebacker room is overflowing and there’s not nearly enough snaps to go around for a room of guys hoping to help a potential Super Bowl team rebound on the defensive side. There’s a lot of attention and money at stake.

Not every linebacker is made the same, but reading the tea leaves, it’s hard to see any real vote of confidence for O’Daniel to hold down one of three starting spots—at least one year into his NFL career. In fact, there might not even be space as a backup.

Preseason playing time

It’s only one game and it’s the preseason, but here’s who Steve Spagnuolo wanted to see play the most in his first preseason game as the Chiefs defensive coordinator. The number of snaps is found in parentheses.

  1. Darren Lee (44)
  2. Ben Niemann (39)
  3. Jeremiah Attaochu (36)
  4. Rob McCray (19)
  5. Ray Davison (14)
  6. Dorian O’Daniel (14)
  7. Reggie Ragland (14)

At this point, Ragland looks as if he could challenge for a starting role at Mike. It also looks like Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson have two of the starting roles locked down at Will and Sam, respectively.  That means that O’Daniel tied with Ray Davison for the least amount of preseason game reps among those linebackers vying for a backup role.

The good news is that he beat out D’Juan Hines.

Even on the team’s unofficial depth chart (on which nothing is settled, obviously), O’Daniel is firmly entrenched with the third tier of linebackers with McCray and Davison. If the Chiefs want to make sure they’re covered in coverage, Lee is certainly the better player at this point.

This is not a good situation for O’Daniel.

Super Bowl or bust

What might hurt O’Daniel’s ability to make this final roster more than anything else is the ability of this team to win it all. The Chiefs have a very real chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in 50 years on the strength of its historically great offense.

To that end, the Chiefs are thinking now and only now in the way they construct their roster—or at least they should be. The playing time given to others certainly backs that idea. Something is not clicking for O’Daniel in ways that Veach and company hoped it would and the lack of confidence in him to be a force in the present shows on the depth chart.

None of this means that O’Daniel’s days in the NFL are over or that he will never turn into the player that Veach envisioned. It doesn’t even mean that his days on the Chiefs are finished. There’s plenty of preseason left and the Chiefs have already made the investment here. It actually works in their favor to have O’Daniel develop well. Having a young linebacker on a rookie deal who can impact the game is just what this team needs.

At this point, however, the Chiefs are going to face a very difficult decision: whether or not to allow a roster spot to go to a guy who they hope, in time, will become the “chess piece” he was selected to be. A team with Super Bowl can’t throw O’Daniel out there to the wolves and hope something works, at least not when it matters most. There’s a reason Veach looked at O’Daniel and then gave up a sixth round pick for Lee. It was a sign that one player wasn’t ready so the Chiefs needed one who was.

For both O’Daniel and the team, here’s hoping that he can somehow turn the corner in the coming weeks and prove his doubters wrong. Veach was excited to bring him on board in the first place and the potential is there. Right now, however, only one thing matters and that’s winning a championship.

O’Daniel now has to decide whether or not he can help a team get there. If not, the Chiefs might surprise a fan base and cut ties with a third round pick just one year after making it.