In recent years, the Kansas City Chiefs have become the National Football League's gold standard. As winners of two of the last four Super Bowls, hosts of the AFC Championship Game for five consecutive seasons, and AFC West champions for a record seven straight years, no team is more synonymous with a winning culture than the Chiefs.
That's a testament to the veteran leadership inside the organization and some truly transformative player personnel. By now, you know the names. The Chiefs are home to the league's best quarterback, perhaps the greatest tight end of all time, and a four-time All-Pro in defensive tackle Chris Jones.
It's easy to attribute Kansas City's good fortune to that ensemble, but it may be the names that aren't on the marquee that deserve a bit more of our collective consideration. Let's look at some of the more unlikely heroes who have carried the Chiefs this far.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a type. With all grace, standing at 6'2, 255-pounds, one might say that it's not defensive end Mike Danna. He's undersized as edge players typically go in Kansas City, but that hasn't stopped him from posting by far the best start to a season of his four-year career.
Coming into the 2023 season, Danna had 10.5 career sacks. Through seven games this year, he has 4.5 (trailing team leader Chris Jones by just one sack). The former Central Michigan Chippewa has a share of the team lead in tackles for loss at four. A month ago, I tweeted that Danna was buying his ticket out of Kansas City next offseason.
Danna's always proven a valuable roleplayer in Kansas City, but this year he's taken his level of play up a notch. Some of that you can likely attribute to the "contract year being undefeated", but there's a measure of growth we've seen since defensive line coach Joe Cullen arrived in Kansas City that can't be undersold.
With Charles Omenihu back in the lineup, Danna will have even more opportunity to win 1-on-1s in pass-rushing situations. Danna's on pace for 11 sacks in 2023 and should have his hard work rewarded in the offseason. He should get a nice payday on another squad next year.
Player injuries are one of the most unpredictable aspects of life in the NFL. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they've been fairly lucky in this regard, but the injury bug has bitten a key defensive piece in 2023. Linebacker Nick Bolton has now twice been felled by injuries. The first of which, an ankle issue, sidelined Bolton from Weeks 3-5. In Sunday's contest with the Los Angeles Chargers, Bolton exited early with a dislocated wrist.
Losing such a core part of a talented, young defense could've been a disaster for Kansas City if they hadn't signed Drue Tranquill to a one-year deal in March. He's filled in admirably in Bolton's absence and demonstrated value in the middle of the Chiefs' defense.
On Sunday afternoon, he replaced Bolton as the "green dot" in the fourth quarter. Tranquill had a key nine-yard sack of Justin Herbert on the Chargers' final drive of the game. That forced them into a 2nd-and-long situation that eventually ended with a Bryan Cook interception.
On the season, Tranquill now has 2.5 sacks, one pass defensed, a forced fumble, and four quarterback hits. Tranquill has shown the ability to blitz and is solid in coverage. He'll be called on again to start in Bolton's place if he misses real time due to the wrist injury.
It might be unfair to add Watson to a list of K.C.'s unheralded players. He's currently down with an elbow injury, but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the first five weeks of the year when he may have been the Kansas City Chiefs' best wide receiver. Watson is on pace to post career-bests in receptions, receiving yardage, and receiving yardage per game. That's not bad for a player fans in Chiefs Kingdom didn't deem roster-worthy in August.
Let's be clear: Justin Watson isn't a game-changing wide receiver, but he's far exceeded the expectations placed upon him when he arrived in Kansas City. Apart from the emergence of rookie wideout Rashee Rice, Watson had been the only receiver to put anything meaningful on tape this season.
Despite missing Sunday's contest with the Chargers, Watson is still the second-leading receiver in the room with 219 receiving yards. He's shown the ability to separate and be a downfield target for Mahomes and has made key grabs in 2023. He made two massive plays in Week 5 to lift the Chiefs over the Minnesota Vikings. Watson made a boundary grab, falling out of bounds, in the waning seconds of the first half. That play helped the Chiefs tie the game at 13-all on a 40-yard Harrison Butker field goal. Watson would outdo himself when play resumed, high-pointing a ball to convert a 3rd & 18 play that extended the drive (later ending in a touchdown to Rashee Rice).
Honorable Mention: Leo Chenal
It can be tough to stand out in a crowded room of talented players, but there's a case to be made that second-year man Leo Chenal is doing that despite limited opportunities in 2023. Leo Chenal has played less than 37% of the defensive snaps thus far this season, but with that time, he's posted one sack and four tackles for loss (tied for the team-high). Pro Football Focus has a 69.6 grade on Chenal so far this season.
Joe Cullen recently had this to say about Chenal, “We call him ‘the beast’ for a reason.
He’s playing in the middle. It’s in the Buffalo package, playing the edge and our base package. And he’s playing a little end in certain situations. He’s doing a great job, doing a great job in the run game. He studies the game. And he’s powerful and doing a great job in terms of getting after the quarterback as well.”
If Bolton misses significant time, Chenal may reap the benefit and see more of the field. When Bolton was down for contests with the Bears, Jets, and Vikings, Chenal played 71 total snaps in those games. The added game experience will be a bonus for him as the season wears on. He clearly has a bright future in Kansas City and with contract situations uncertain with a few key linebackers, we could see a bigger role for Chenal sooner than we think.
The level of depth up and down the 53-man roster attests to the personnel management job general manager Brett Veach has done coming off of a Super Bowl LVII victory. Every team deals with injuries throughout the course of a season. Few teams weather those injuries as well as the Chiefs and that's largely due to the unsung players on this football team. Tip of the cap to Kansas City's front office. If the Chiefs go on to repeat as Super Bowl champions, these players in the margins will be a big reason why.