Other than sack celebration, KC Chiefs rookie George Karlaftis excelled in NFL debut

Since virtually the instant the Chiefs selected Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis 30th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft, we’ve heard about what coach Andy Reid that night called a “relentless motor” that has defined him through training camp.

It reverberated in his first news conference with Kansas City media, via video later that night, as Karlaftis rapidly rattled off a description of how he loves everything about the game: “Pre-snap, after the ball snap, during the play, whether it’s executing your assignment, making the play, doing the right thing, having the perfect technique and having to do that over and over again and being perfect …”

It was conspicuous even during the perhaps droning backdrop of defensive Zoom calls, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would say, suggesting Karlaftis’ face might as well have been pressed right up against the camera and that he didn’t want the meetings to ever end.

It echoed through minicamp, when Reid said he always “goes 100 miles an hour” … even on would-be walk-throughs.

“We’ve got to slow him down,” Reid playfully said then, though adding, “But, I’ll tell you, it looks like he’s got a nice feel for the game.”

As for how it might finally look in a game?

That feel and that tenacity were in resounding harmony in Karlaftis’ dynamic NFL preseason debut on Saturday at Soldier Field, where the Chiefs lost 19-14 to the Bears to utterly immaterial effect.

All that mattered was the snapshots the game could provide of the degree to which the Chiefs have bolstered themselves after their fourth straight AFC Championship Game appearance was ruined by a second-half collapse against the Bengals.

Beyond being a limbering-up exercise for Patrick Mahomes with a gaggle of new receivers in the wake of the Tyreek Hill trade, a drill that was practically pristine as he completed six of seven passes (to six different receivers) for 60 yards and a touchdown on his lone drive, the day was foremost about what the Chiefs newcomers might show — particularly at positions of need out of the intriguing 10-man draft class.

Safe to say none of the rookies flashed quite like Karlaftis, whose play was as invigorating as his zeal suggested it would be.

“It was a great first taste,” Karlaftis said.

And a great first impression.

It wasn’t just that the one-man swarm had a third-and-11 sack of Bears quarterback Trevor Siemian … though his unyielding pursuit typified what he was unleashing throughout the handful of series he played.

It was that he consistently bulldozed his way to the chase and narrowly missed another sack as well as, Reid figured, a potential strip and sack.

“Man, it’s dope,” said veteran defensive end Frank Clark, who has been eager to tutor Karlaftis and says the passion reminds him of himself as he entered the NFL. “You’re going to make a lot more plays with that motor than you’re going to tend to see (from) the guys who don’t have it.”

But the promise of Karlaftis isn’t just about his hard drive.

He’s been “all ears,” as Clark put it, exuding a desire to learn and improve that seems infinite. He’s a “sponge,” Reid said, and wants to do all the right things and constantly is asking questions.

When I noted how he’d consistently gotten great push at the line of scrimmage, here’s how Karlaftis processed that:

“You bring up a good point. It’s the ‘almost,’ the inches of the game, and I think that’s the big difference between the NFL and college. Getting there versus almost getting there is a big difference. So that’s just something you’ve got to take back to the drawing board and practice on and work at in order to get those ‘almosts’ to being sacks.”

So consider him eager to study what he could have done better.

“I mean, I’ll probably watch it on the way to the airport,” he said, with a grin.

To hear Mahomes tell it, though, one part of Karlaftis’ game might be too unsightly to review. Or at least may require some outside counsel.

“The only thing we have to work on is his (sack) celebration, because I don’t know what that was,” Mahomes said, smiling. “He did like a double-arm flex down. I’ve never seen that one. I was like at least go up with the flex if you’re going to do something.

“So we’re going to work on that, and we’ll get back to you.”

It sure seemed worth relaying that critique to Karlaftis, who conceded the point.

“Yeah, I’d agree,” he said, adding, “You know, you get all excited and you don’t really know what to think, and you end up running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you know?

“But that will come with time.”

When I started to ask him to clarify what he’d been attempting to do, Karlaftis anticipated the question before it was done and just said, “I don’t know.”

If Saturday is any indication, he’ll get plenty of chances to refine that playing a position the Chiefs dearly need shored up if they’re going to continue to get back to AFC Championship Games … and resume winning them.

Even if he struggles to upgrade the celebrations, we’ve seen now how his talent and sheer force of will can translate on an NFL field and potentially make him a motor of the defense itself.

“That’s just who he is; that’s what’s got him here,” Mahomes said. “I think he’ll keep crafting his skills every single week to get him better and better.”