Every NFL off-season starts with flurry of activity when teams can negotiate with free agents. Billions of dollars are promised to players within the matter of days through long-term contracts that result in a frenzy of news coverage and record-setting deals. After the first few days of free agency come to an end, a smaller group of players remain and the hum of media coverage settles down in anticipation for the draft only weeks later.
While many of the most impactful free agent signings come in those first few days, every year there are players who end up signing with teams much later in their off-season process who make a difference. Veteran safety Mike Adams joined the Colts on June 14, 2014 and played a significant role in the secondary. Defensive tackle Al Woods was signed in mid-March last year but was only considered a rotational interior defensive lineman. He ended up serving as the starting nose tackle all season long. This year, there are numerous players who could end up having a similar impact and Rakeem Nunez-Roches might be as likely to make his presence felt as any of the other bargain free agent signings.
One of the most important things to learn about free agents who come in a bit under the radar is what direction their career is taking. While Adams and Woods were a bit longer in the tooth, both had performed well when healthy and when given the opportunity. They came from teams that were either particularly strong at their positions or that were looking to give younger players an opportunity.
For “Nacho,” he is only 24 years old and has used the last two seasons to increase his role in the Kansas City Chiefs defense. There has been every indication that he has improved in his young career. Matt Connor of Arrowhead Addict shared the following:
“From the eye test to the stat sheet, Nunez-Roches was a player on the rise. While he might not have the ceiling of a Chris Jones, it’s also clear that he was still growing as a player. From his rookie season in which he played in only 7 games with no starts to last year when he played in all 16 games and made 11 starts, Nunez-Roches was earning more time and trust from the coaches.
Nunez-Roches had earned the fourth most snaps along the defensive line in 2017, behind Chris Jones, Allen Bailey and Bennie Logan, rising from 25% of defensive snaps in 2016 to 36% last year.”
For a late free agent addition, he looks like a player whose career is still on solid ground.
ROSTER AND SCHEME CHANGES
The Chiefs spent two early draft picks on the defensive line and had a relatively strong rotation that already went five players deep. This makes it entirely possible that the biggest motivation to Nacho’s release was cap space limitations.
The Chiefs have indeed released Rakeem Nunez-Roches. FYI, hearing it was purely a cap move; was due $1.9 million as a backup— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) May 8, 2018
While $1.9 million is not a ton of money, the Herald Bulletin’s George Bremer explains that Kansas City is also moving in a different direction on the defensive line.
Kansas City runs a 3-4 scheme similar to the system former head coach Chuck Pagano employed for six years with the Colts. Defensive linemen are asked to soak up blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays behind them.
The Chiefs made some tweaks over the years to allow for some of the athleticism on their roster. But there’s a glass ceiling. Get too aggressive, and it will leave holes for running backs to fly through.
In Indy’s new 4-3 scheme, aggression is the key.
It is relatively easy to do the math. The Chiefs are focusing on getting bigger on the line and targeting looking for space eaters — Nunez-Roches is 6’2”, 307 lbs. Kansas City is playing things very close with their salary cap situation — cutting Nunez-Roches frees up $1.9 million in space. The team spent its two top draft picks in the 2018 draft on defensive linemen — who will need to sign contracts.
Nacho was the odd man out.
NACHO TOOK A BIG LEAP IN 2017
Arrowhead Pride wrote a story in August last year about the big improvements from Nunez-Roches in the Chiefs’ first pre-season game of 2017 against the San Francisco 49ers. We will borrow heavily from it and utilize the hard work done by Seth Keysor to demonstrate some of his attributes as a player.
“...let’s talk about Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who looked like the best defensive lineman on the field for either team last Friday.”
What a play by RNR. Holy smokes he looked good out there. Also, Ramik w/ no hesitation to take on FB and plug gap. pic.twitter.com/5FIldzYL5m— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 13, 2017
“Nacho keeps his feet in the face of what appears to be some kind of attempted cut block (basically the OL just wants to keep him away from the play long enough for the runner to get to the line of scrimmage), locates the ball, then LEAPS over the offensive lineman to help make the stop. It’s a fantastic display of explosiveness by Nacho, which is all the more impressive given that he’s apparently gained 25 pounds since last season (we’ll come back to that soon).”
“The biggest change to Nacho’s game is that he appears to be significantly bigger and stronger.”
I love RNR and Ramik on this snap. RNR can't be moved, Ramik doesn't hesitate a bit and plugs the gap. Watch DJ too, that one's funny. pic.twitter.com/PWAsWeGzAt— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 13, 2017
“Last season, Nacho had to be playing a very specific role against the run in order to have success: one of a gap-shooting penetrating lineman. If he was asked to hold his ground at the point of attack (or move down the line without getting washed out of the play), there were problems.
Not so in the play above (or in multiple other plays against the Niners). You see Nacho get a great jump at the snap (which is basically every snap for him) and get underneath the center, driving him backwards. Just as importantly for his development from last year, he doesn’t let the center recover and holds his ground as he moves down the line and keeps his eyes on the backfield.”
“Of course, gaining weight and strength would be counterproductive if it removed Nacho’s best asset: explosion at the snap. Fortunately...”
Almost every single Rakeem Nunez-Roches nap looks like this. Consistently gets off the line faster than anyone else. pic.twitter.com/7S4wjUvfh7— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 15, 2017
“... that doesn’t appear to be a problem.
Snap after snap after snap, Nacho was getting a fantastic jump off the line. He was constantly engaging well before the other defenders, and it allowed him an instant advantage OL who often weren’t set when he reached them.
He was so fast off the line he was keeping up with Dee Ford (who was SCREAMING off the right side a few times), who is... a tad smaller.”
Look at RNR's speed getting out of his stance and engaging the OL. Allowed him to beat Ford to the backfield. No escape for RB. pic.twitter.com/qYaOy4DbfC— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 17, 2017
“Nacho is just quick, man. There’s nothing else to say there. He explodes off the line so consistently. Here, he’s so fast off the line that he actually gets in Ford’s way helping close down any escape lanes for the runner.”
Keep in mind that these videos were taken during the first preseason game of 2017. These are just snapshots that show he is quick off of the line of scrimmage. The commentary from Keysor makes it clear that his best strength is playing as a penetrating defensive lineman who relies on speed more than size -- though he remained quick after putting on weight.
If even parts of this analysis are true, it is understandable what Chris Ballard sees in bringing Nacho into the fold. If he is able to show the kind of anchor he showed in many of these clips, maintains his speed off of the snap and shows further proof that his needle is pointing up, he could quickly find himself having an impact on the Colts new-look defensive front.