Last year at this time, the demand for Mike Pennel’s return felt obvious. After a strong midseason showing with the K.C. Chiefs in 2019, Pennel had provided a nice boost to the team’s defensive line with quality run-stopping reps just as the overall unit started to look ready for a championship run. After the team’s first Super Bowl win in 50 seasons, calls for Pennel’s return were heard loud and clear.
Now, Pennel is hitting free agency once again after completing his one-year contract signed with the Chiefs last spring. General manager Brett Veach brought back Pennel and many others in an effort to “run it back,” and Pennel enjoyed a bit of continuity after bouncing from the New York Jets to the New England Patriots to the Kansas City Chiefs in successive years.
Now after two seasons with the Chiefs, is he ready for a third? And what about the team? Let’s investigate the pending free agency of Mike Pennel and whether or not a return to K.C. is in the cards.
The case for coming back
Last year, Veach showed a real predilection for maintaining as much of the team’s championship core as possible. It remains to be seen if that’s going to be the mantra once again, but pieces like Pennel will likely remain cheap in terms of commitment—both when referring to time and money involved.
Last season, Pennel appeared in 14 games for the Chiefs and even started one. However, his role was a run-stopping rotational lineman, so the stat sheet for a guy like Pennel is never going to stand out. He finished the season with 29 total tackles and little else to show for his efforts in the box score.
However, Pennel is an enjoyable player to watch on and off the field and the coaching staff clearly likes him. Pennel held off any competition from younger players like Khalen Saunders inside, even as others like Turk Wharton climbed the depth chart. In short, others made way for burgeoning talent instead of Pennel. That could bode well in terms of how much the Chiefs appreciate Pennel—and how much they want him back.
The case for letting go
Moving forward, it’s not as if Pennel’s reps are hard to replace with only 320 total snaps credited to him in a full season. It’s also important to factor in that Pennel will be 30 years old in May. In short, how difficult would it for the Chiefs to bring in a younger rotational player to play the same reps and maybe even offer a bit more in terms of overall ceiling.
The Chiefs run defense ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of average NFL metrics. They were No. 17 overall with a 4.5 yards/carry average allowed against all opponents in the regular season. However, they were 21st in overall yardage allowed. It certainly wasn’t fun watching Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones gain the yards they did in the Super Bowl, but then again, run defense isn’t exactly the primary issue when rewatching last year’s championship loss.
The Chiefs have Saunders in house and he began the year with an elbow injury that sidelined him for most of the first half of the season. Upon his return, he was benched as a healthy inactive. It makes sense, given the third round investment there, for the Chiefs to give him a real chance to grow alongside Wharton and Chris Jones in the middle of the line and bring in another young player to compete with the knowledge that Derrick Nnadi is in the final year of his rookie deal.
The likelihood of return: 20%
At this point, the Chiefs already have Jones, Nnadi, Wharton and Saunders all inside—four core young defenders who can each be expected to make a leap forward in 2021. That’s an impressive group and the Chiefs would also be wise to grab someone else in the draft to keep the pipeline flowing as Nnadi nears free agency.
Signing and placing Pennel in the mix there only makes sense if the Chiefs make it through draft season without a single player who excites them. That means that Pennel might himself have to wait until late spring or summer if he wants to re-sign with the Chiefs. Perhaps the market rewards his Super Bowl experience and another team signs him. Either way, it seems that’s the best move to part ways after a couple nice seasons in K.C.