KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs have filled one of their biggest needs with a massive gamble.
The Chiefs selected Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe with the No. 11 pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, taking a player whose raw athletic ability and impressive numbers from the scouting combine trumped his modest on-field production.
The 6-foot-4, 346-pound Poe pushed 44 reps with 225 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in an unofficial time of 4.98 seconds. But he was only second-team all-Conference USA after making 33 stops, eight tackles for loss and one sack, flying under the radar most of last season.
“My motivation is pretty much unlimited right now,” Poe said on a conference call. “I just want to get in and start proving that I’m ready to play at the next level.”
The selection was largely panned at a watch party for season ticket-holders at the Chiefs’ practice facility, where many fans booed the pick and others walked out in anger.
“I’m excited about the pick,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel told reporters. “You should be, too.”
The selection represents a departure from the norm for Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who earned a reputation in New England and with Kansas City for being risk-averse.
Pioli wound up gambling on the considerable upside of Poe rather than take defensive tackles Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State or Michael Brockers of LSU, who put up more impressive numbers playing in the SEC and were still available when Kansas City went on the clock.
Pioli said leading up to the draft that he valued on-field performance over the bubble of the scouting combine, but Crennel said the combine weighed heavily in the decision.
“He was on the radar before the combine. Our scouts do a tremendous job, and all the reports they had on the guy talked about how good he was as a player,” Crennel said. “Now, when we went to the combine and saw what he did, that perked our ears up even more.”
Poe is expected to slide into the middle of Kansas City’s 3-4 defense and take the place of Kelly Gregg, although Crennel was quick to say that Poe wouldn’t be given the starting job.
“He played every down at 350 pounds, and he played every position along the line in every game,” Crennel said. “He has athletic talent and athletic ability for a big man. The fact that he’s big and can move like that, that made us more interested, definitely.”
The Chiefs were miserable on offense last season, but part of that was due to injuries to quarterback Matt Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki. All of them are expected to be back this season, along with an influx of free-agent talent.
That left the Chiefs in the envious position of selecting just about anybody they thought would be an upgrade, and most figured they would try to find somebody who could stop the run, the biggest area of weakness on a defense that emerged as one of the league’s best.
That’s precisely what Pioli chose to address.
Amon Gordon and Anthony Toribio are the only other serviceable players on the roster at defensive tackle, though the Chiefs also spent a sixth-round pick on Jerrell Powe last season.
“You watch him on tape, he makes moves and gets to the pocket” Crennel said. “I think he will help our pass rush, particularly with guys coming off the edge.”
Kansas City has a spotty record when it comes to drafting defensive linemen.
Tyson Jackson was the third overall pick in 2009 and has yet to live up to expectations. Alex Magee went in the third round the same year, Tank Tyler was a third-round pick in 2007 and Junior Siavii was a second-round pick in 2004 — none of them played much in Kansas City.
Perhaps the biggest bust was 2002, when defensive tackle Ryan Sims was the No. 6 overall pick and Eddie Freeman was the Chiefs’ second-round choice. Both of them also flamed out.
Crennel is confident that Poe’s career will follow a different path.
“We felt like if we could get a nose out of the draft, that we liked, that would help improve the team,” Crennel said. “Poe is the guy we have, and that’s the guy we’re going to put in there, and we’re going to try our best to make him have a big impact.”