KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The euphoria of draft night, when Romeo Crennel was perhaps as enthusiastic as the day the Chiefs beat the undefeated Green Bay Packers in his first game as their head coach, has subsided. In its place is the realization of the difficult path ahead for nose tackle Dontari Poe, their first-round draft pick.
It’s unusual for a rookie at any position to come in and immediately dominate his competition. It’s rare when that player occupies the interior of the defensive line, where success almost always comes only with experience.
The Chiefs aren’t ready to turn back on their selection of Poe. Far from it, in fact. The lack of an athletic, 350-pound player such as Poe in the middle of their line was the biggest perceived weakness in a defense that by the end of last season was among the NFL’s best.
They just aren’t expecting anything resembling a finished product by Sept. 9, when the Chiefs begin the regular season against Atlanta at Arrowhead Stadium.
“He’s a first-round draft choice, and everybody will expect him to be all-world and he’s not all-world,” Crennel said. “He’s the little fish going into a big pond, and it’s going to take a while for him to get adjusted.
“In our system, it does take time to get established. Most guys have not been involved in a system like ours, particularly with what’s happening today in the college game. So when they get here, they do have to make a transition.”
As cautionary tales, the Chiefs can offer up the players to the left and right of Poe on their three-man defensive front. Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey were early first-round draft picks.
Dorsey came to the Chiefs in 2008, Jackson a year later. But both acknowledged last week they’re still learning the trade. For their part, the Chiefs are comfortable with both players on running downs. But their pass rush skills haven’t evolved — and may never evolve — to the point where they can stay on the field on obvious throwing downs.
“In five years at LSU, basically all I did was run up the field at the snap,” Jackson said. “It’s totally different here. I’m better at it now, but there are still some things I need to get better at and work at.
“There’s going to be a transition from college to the NFL no matter what. Coming to the 3-4 defense, there are even more things (Poe) will have to learn. It’s not about taking off from the line of scrimmage on every play anymore. It’s about being disciplined and playing within the defense. It’s a challenge you take head on, and you have to understand it won’t be accomplished in one day.”
Dorsey and Jackson are useful players to the Chiefs, if not stars. By definition in their defense, the stars are going to be the linebackers. Indeed, the stars of the Chiefs defense last season were their two Pro Bowl players, linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson.
They made it to Hawaii in part because of the work of the three players in front of them. Playing successfully on the defensive line in the Chiefs’ system requires a selflessness that can take some time to learn.
Dorsey, Jackson and Kelly Gregg, who played nose tackle last season, were well down the list of the Chiefs’ leaders in tackles. The top three were, of course, linebackers: Johnson, Jovan Belcher and Hali.
Next were safety Kendrick Lewis, cornerback Brandon Flowers and then another linebacker, Justin Houston.
“If you’re a nose or an end. … It will humble you, and you have to love what you do to be able to do this,” Dorsey said. “It’s tough. It’s tough.
“When everybody up front can do their job and work together, we all make more plays. It will help out the linebackers and just the defense as a whole. The better off you are at every position up front, the better the defense will be.”
Dorsey, who played with Jackson in college at LSU, will have similar advice for Poe.
“It’s real tough, because you’re changing everything you’ve been taught your whole life,” Dorsey said. “The technique is totally different. I’m sure he knows that. I’m sure he’s excited to come in and learn it.
“You’re playing against guys that have been doing it for a long time, and they know the tricks of the trade. There’s always a learning curve. The stuff you did in college … when you get to the pros, it’s a lot of technique work. You’ve got to be perfect with your technique.”
“It’s never easy. The guys lining up (against) you are just as good as you. There’s going to be a transition for him. We’ll try to work with him, and hopefully he’ll be able to help us out.”
Crennel, a veteran defensive line coach, has worked over the years with all manner of players. That he was so enthusiastic about the selection of Poe would indicate he believes the rookie has what it takes to eventually become a monster for the Chiefs in the middle of their line.
Crennel said he’s had one rookie lineman in his 21 years of coaching the position in the NFL who figured things out quickly. That was New England’s Vince Wilfork. Drafted in the first round by the Patriots in 2004, the 325-pound Wilfork has gone on to play in four Pro Bowl games.
Wilfork, like Dorsey and Jackson, had the advantage of coming from a major college. He played at Miami. Poe worked mostly against lesser competition in college at Memphis.
“He understood if he wanted to get playing time, he had to do everything he could to learn our defense and our techniques,” Crennel said of Wilfork. “He talked to the other guys who were familiar with our system and learned as much as he could from them.
“It has a lot to do with the mentality of the player, how much they’re willing to grasp the techniques and how much they’re willing to assimilate themselves on to the team.”
Crennel’s first message to Poe, when he arrives in Kansas City for a three-day rookie camp that begins Friday will be not to worry about personal statistics and not to pay attention to what’s being said about him publicly, for better or for worse.
“The biggest thing for Poe is that he’s going to have to be patient,” Crennel said. “He can’t really listen to what everybody else says. He’s got to listen to what his coaches say. If his coaches tell him he’s doing a good job, then he has to understand he’s doing a good job. If his coaches tell him he’s doing a bad job, then he has to understand he’s doing a bad job.
“It’s hard for players to tune that out. We’re in an information society and information is all over the place all the time and everybody has an opinion. But that might not necessarily be what the coaches are thinking. Our system has been somewhat misunderstood over the years anyway.”