The initial plan for Chiefs first-round draft pick Dontari Poe was to bring him along slowly. Poe, a largely unproductive collegiate player at Memphis, was to be a situational pass rusher at first while learning the rest of his craft at a more leisurely pace.
The Chiefs may no longer have that luxury. A rash of injuries has suddenly made Poe, a nose tackle, a key figure in their defense, ahead of his time.
Poe will probably start for the first time Thursday in the final preseason game against the Packers in Green Bay. He may also start the regular-season opener on Sept. 9 against Atlanta at Arrowhead Stadium, whether he’s ready or not.
“It’s just another chance for me to show what I’ve got, to show what I’ve learned,’’ Poe said. “I feel I’m learning. I’m getting to the point where I’m grasping the whole concept and I’m starting to show it.’’
The Chiefs were aware when they drafted Poe that he might take some time to adjust to the NFL game. He wasn’t much of a playmaker in college even as the level of competition at Memphis frequently wasn’t the best in college football.
Their hope was to get something from him initially. After getting a look at Poe in offseason practice, the Chiefs decided that would best be as a situational pass rusher.
Poe plays on obvious passing downs, where the Chiefs are hopeful he may be able to cave in the middle of the opposing offensive line and not allow the quarterback to step up and avoid pass rushers like Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
“Back when we drafted him, I mentioned that he might have more of an impact as a third-down player than a first- and second-down player because the techniques that we use on first and second are so different than what he has been used to,’’ coach Romeo Crennel said. “On third down, they’re more like what he was doing in college. He showed some flashes that he could do some things, particularly in the one-on-one situation, so that’s why we put him there in that pass-rush area.’’
An ankle injury to starting nose tackle Anthony Toribio has moved up the timeline for Poe, at least for now. Poe was the starter in practice this week.
“I don’t think I alter the expectations,’’ Crennel said. “You give him the reps and you give him the practice time to try to get him where you need him to be. Then I think that the young man is a conscientious young man. He wants to do well. He wants to help this team win. I think that he will do everything he can to do that.
“I’m asking him to be the most efficient nose tackle that he can be. If he can be that, he will help the team win. All of a sudden, I’m not asking him to rev up with what he’s doing or cut back anything he’s doing. I want him to play the technique the way it needs to be played. He’s still learning how to play the technique, so if he continues to learn and continues to perform, then I think he will be an effective player for us.”
Whether trying to take some pressure off Poe or attempting to motivate him, Crennel during training camp said Poe was a long way from being ready to start. That still looked to be the case in last week’s game against Seattle.
Poe had a difficult matchup against Seahawks center Max Unger, a tough player who frequently got the best of him.
“He’s making progress, but he’s still that rookie that reverts back to what he knows at times, and he forgets how to remember how we want to do it,’’ Crennel said. “I know there was one play in the game, he was in good position on the block, and then he ended up jumping off the block. He thought that he could make the play, and that opened up a hole. You have to point those out to him and get him to correct it. He’s a conscientious student, so I think he will get it corrected.”
It’s important to the Chiefs that Poe get it corrected sooner rather than later. Poe said it would happen.
“It’s never easy, but there’s been a lot of learning going on,’’ Poe said. “It’s been a large learning curve, but everybody around here has been on my side and trying to help me out any way they can, so it’s been good for me.
“Coming in, I was a little wet behind the ears, but now I’m getting used to it. It takes time, but I’ve got to get it as soon as I can. It’s not impossible to learn.’’