Mike Pennel, Tershawn Wharton and the fight over Chiefs snaps

As Mike Pennel comes back, it’s going to lead to less snaps for someone on the Chiefs.

The reinforcements are starting to arrive for the Kansas City Chiefs.

In Week 3, defensive tackle Mike Pennel returns after a two-game suspension. The Chiefs are also two more weeks from seeing cornerback Bashaud Breeland come back. In addition, injured players like Charvarius Ward, Alex Okafor, and Khalen Saunders will also make their way back into the lineup in the next few games.

Pennel’s return to the defensive line is a nice addition for a team that’s been thin up front with the loss of Saunders to injury as well. The Chiefs are generating plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks (third in overall pressures with 29), but they’re also 8th overall in yards allowed per play (6.1 yards). Given how well Pennel looked last year for the Chiefs as an in-season signing, fans are excited to have him back for another year.

When Pennel first joined the Chiefs, he slotted right inside the line with rotational snaps and helped solidify the team’s defensive improvement against the run. Pennel never played more than 24 snaps and was even losing them by season’s end. He averaged just under 23 snaps/game in his first four games with the Chiefs (between 29-41% of the team’s defensive snaps). In his last four games, he averaged just under 16 snaps (between 17-27%).

As Pennel works his way back into the rotation, it makes sense to expect Pennel’s snap count to land in that same range once again. He is, after all, a proven vet who was valuable for the Chiefs just a year ago and the team re-signed him for good reasons.

However, guess who is occupying that same role now: Tershawn Wharton. Right now, Wharton is playing an average of 27.5% of the Chiefs defensive snaps through two games. He played 14 in Week 1 (25%) in a win over the Houston Texans. He earned even more trust from the coaches in Week 2 by playing 25 snaps (30%) in a win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

By all accounts, Wharton has been a helluva story for the Chiefs so far, a feel-good plotline on a team full of stars on a local college prospect who flew under the national radar because he played at Missouri S&T. The Chiefs saw something in the regional player and gave him a chance to show what he can do. His natural talents and work ethic took care of the rest.

Wharton has not only earned a spot on the Chiefs against all odds without any preseason games or in-person rookie minicamps but he’s also a solid rotational contributor for the defending Super Bowl champs. Wharton has looked so good that the idea of lowering his playing time (and thus his learning curve) feels like the very opposite of what the Chiefs should be doing right now.

Where does this leave everyone? Certainly Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi have earned their starting spots. Nnadi in particular in such a steady presence often overlooked because of his more charismatic teammates up front. However, he’s starting for good reason and the Chiefs don’t want to move him. It’s possible Wharton could slide out when it makes sense, but the Chiefs are also seeing promising results from fellow rookie Mike Danna and former first round pick Taco Charlton.

Basically, this is the problems that occur when a team has too much talent—if such a thing can be considered an issue. All of us would like to see Pennel back in the fold doing what he did last season while simultaneous developing Wharton with the reps he’s earned as well. Unfortunately something is going to have to give for the Chiefs in the meantime as they learn to balance playing time for all parties involved.

Fortunately the Chiefs have plenty of depth to handle the rigors of the regular season and a rotation of players capable of making plays at any time, no matter who is in the game.