Pass-rush options for Chiefs? Why the Carlos Dunlap signing is key to keeping pace in the AFC West

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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo couldn’t contain his enthusiasm after the Kansas City Chiefs signed accomplished defensive end Carlos Dunlap to help revive their sagging pass rush.

"He knows how to get to the quarterback," Spagnuolo said shortly after the Chiefs added Dunlap early in training camp. "I’m always happy to add big, long guys that have experience and played in the league. It’s another veteran that’s been through the thick of things."

Dunlap’s addition now allows the Chiefs to match the other AFC West teams. All added a veteran pass-rusher during the offseason, with the Las Vegas Raiders signing Chandler Jones, the Denver Broncos bringing in Randy Gregory and the Los Angeles Chargers trading for Khalil Mack.

The Chiefs might have been the last AFC West team to make a veteran pass-rushing addition, but they were the team that most needed the boost. The Chiefs had 31 sacks last season, last in the division and 29th in the NFL. (Their 43.7% pass rush win rate did rank seventh in the league, though.)

The Chiefs drafted defensive end George Karlaftis in the first round, and they return a pair of players who at least one time in their careers had 10 or more sacks in a season -- defensive tackle Chris Jones and edge rusher Frank Clark. But it’s not difficult to picture a leading role on passing downs for Dunlap, who is 47th on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 96. He has at least six sacks in each of the past 10 seasons.

"I've done a lot in football," said Dunlap, who played with the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks in his 12-year NFL career. "One of the things I have not done is I haven't got over 100 sacks. I haven't won a playoff game, and I haven't, clearly, won a Super Bowl. So those are things that I would like to do at this point in my career. I'm in hot pursuit, and I feel like this team gives me a great opportunity -- the best opportunity -- to do it."

The Chiefs will need help from both Jones and Clark if they are to make significant pass-rush gains. Last year, Jones led the Chiefs in sacks for the fourth straight season with nine, but that was far off his career-high total of 15.5, set in 2018. Clark, meanwhile, had 4.5 sacks last season, his lowest total since he was a rookie with the Seahawks in 2015.

First-year defensive line coach Joe Cullen said he expects career seasons from both players, Jones in particular.

"Our first goal here is always to hoist that Lombardi Trophy," Cullen said. "For us to get there and get the opportunity to do that, he has to have a career year. That means not only in the stats of sacking the quarterback but knocking the run out. That’s something we’ve stressed with him."

Jones in recent years has announced his goals for the upcoming season during training camp, and they’ve usually involved personal accomplishments. One year, for instance, he said he wanted to lead the league in sacks. Before another, he said he wanted to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.

But his aim is team-oriented this time around.

"My goal is to make sure this D line is one of the best D lines in the league, whether that’s sacks, whether it’s playing the run and whether that’s being gritty on the field," Jones said. "I feel like the defense drives off the D line."

Kansas City went 8-1 last season when their pass rush win rate was 45% or higher. But in the other eight games, it went 4-4, giving up at least 24 points in seven of them.

Doing his part, Clark reported to training camp looking more fit than he did last season. He said he was at 262 pounds, the heaviest he has been to start a season over his career.

"I feel like I wasn’t as quick off the ball [last season]," he said. "I wasn’t as explosive. It’s obvious. You can watch the film, and I was way heavier. I had a gut. I was looking sloppy out there."

Clark said he knew he needed to make changes after a season-ending conversation with coach Andy Reid, who expressed that Clark didn't show the "type of player" he is during the 2021 campaign. The defensive end says he cut most red meat from his diet and quit drinking alcohol. And now he feels like he has regained the quick first-step he had earlier in his career.

"I feel my body is responding to me," he said.

Jones and Clark have been first and second on the Chiefs in sacks since they became teammates in 2019. But with Dunlap, Karlaftis and perhaps even defensive end, Mike Danna, the Chiefs have some candidates to break through.

Dunlap posted 8.5 sacks last season in Seattle, Karlaftis had 4.5 at Purdue, and Danna had 3.0 in his second year with the Chiefs.

"I think we’ve got some good options," Spagnuolo said. "I think this is going to be one of those years that it’s going to take us three, four, five games, hopefully as we win, where we figure out where everybody goes and who should be doing this and who should be playing. I just think it’s one of those years with all of the new faces."