Kansas City Chiefs

This big Chief has quietly bolstered the defense by clogging it up, tossing guys aside

Here in this corner of the Chiefs’ locker room at their training complex resides defensive tackle Chris Jones, a budding star whose presence is always evident — as much off the field as on.

Alongside his locker is that of defensive end Frank Clark, for whom the Chiefs traded their 2019 No. 1 draft pick and 2020 No. 2 and awarded a five-year, $104 million contract, leaving him under scrutiny as one of the new pieces who theoretically would make the Chiefs’ defense whole.

Then there’s the next man over ... as opposed to the “next man up,” the mantra that the Chiefs have had to employ liberally amid an epidemic of injuries that has included Jones (who returned last week after missing three game with a groin injury) and Clark (who has missed the last two with a neck injury and has been limited this week, making unclear his status for Sunday’s game at Tennessee).

Over here in the shadow of that considerable spotlight is nose tackle Derrick Nnadi, whom defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Thursday noted wasn’t “a household name” when Spagnuolo was hired in January.

For that matter, 312 pounds or not, even now the somewhat understated and restrained Nnadi retains a generally low profile. Lest you hadn’t heard it said out loud, by the way, his last name is pronounced NOD-ee.

But you’ve probably been hearing it more and more, likely with plenty more mentions to come.

Because Nnadi has been a pivotal reason the Chiefs’ defense seems to at last be gelling over the last three weeks or so — even bristling against the running game that’s been its nemesis.

Within the organization, there is a belief that Nnadi is on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen against the run.

It’s not just that with six tackles against Minnesota Nnadi was the one defensive lineman among the seven Chiefs defenders who had four or more. It’s that Nnadi for weeks now has been emerging as a force not only absurdly tough to move but also apt to shed or even fling away would-be blockers and redirect plays as scripted.

“He’s been dominating for us,” said Jones, who may be prone to overstatement but is onto a little something here, too. “Clogging it up. Stuffing the run. He’s been a big part of our success.”

While the numbers are only a fraction of the story, Nnadi has gone from a rather quiet rookie season in which he had 35 tackles in 16 games to having 36 in nine games now.

There are plenty of reasons for his improvement, including something Jones said a moment after some banter with Nnadi was punctuated by Jones saying “his dreads are too tight; he’s thinking pretty hard.”

When it comes to the field, though, Jones was struck by one thing in particular about Nnadi.

“Playing without thinking, playing relentless,” Jones said. “I think this defense is very easy for him; he can just toss guys around and make plays.”

That trust in himself comes with everything from sheer experience to the pride in being a starter every game to the Chiefs change in scheme and staff, including animated defensive line coach Brendan Daly.

“I really think that Brendan Daly has done a great job with him,” Spagnuolo said. “And that’s a two-way street, because Derrick really has embraced the coaching from Coach Daly and I think he gets better and better every week.”

For his part, Nnadi offered an earnest, subdued assessment of his path since he came to the Chiefs from Florida State.

“I do believe I have become more comfortable,” said Nnadi, adding that a year ago at times he struggled to absorb information even as he kept his head down and tried to move forward.

And so he has now, citing coaching, film study, experience and determination.

“That’s really all it is,” he said. “Practice, repetition and reviewing mistakes to correct those mistakes.”

Nothing too flashy. But maybe that’s about right.

Nnadi by nature, you might say.

Chances are you’ll still hear more about Jones and Clark, because they will do more noticeable and dynamic things. If the defense keeps on this trajectory, for sure you’ll also hear more about an improving defensive backfield led by the charismatic Tyrann Mathieu.

But Nnadi has become a building block in helping the Chiefs address their most paramount need … even if the spotlight doesn’t find him as readily as it does others.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.