After all the improvements the Kansas City Chiefs made in the offseason, one area that seemed to be neglected was the linebacker position.
The 2009 Chiefs were very inconsistent when it came to linebacker play. The starting group included a defensive end turned outside linebacker in Tamba Hali, the unspectacular Demorrio Williams and a career backup Corey Mays at middle linebacker and aging veteran Mike Vrabel at the other outside linebacker slot.
Hali revitalized his career by using his motor and pass rushing abilities to get to the QB. Still, he struggled in pass coverage as he adjusted to his position change. He recorded 62 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 8.5 sacks and a number of QB hurries. He seemed to get better as the season progressed.
Williams led the team in tackles but did not record a single interception, forced fumble or sack. No, all the 29 year old Williams turned in was 117 tackles. By comparison, 35 year old Ray Lewis had 134 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles for the Ravens. Williams claims he was injured last year but I think we have seen his ceiling. He is 29 and this is as good as he is going to get.
Corey Mays was a hit in the 2009 preseason. He displayed a high motor and always seemed to be near the ball. He was also used in a couple of blitz packages and delivered a memorable hit on Brett Farve. Chiefs Nation was buzzing.
Yet during the season, Mays looked in over his head. He was often out of position, getting swallowed up by blockers allowing runners to break free over the middle. He never recorded a sack and finished with only 85 tackles, no forced fumbles and no picks.
More after the jump.
That leads us to Mike Vrabel. Vrabel was steady last season but like Demorrio Williams, he was unspectacular. He has 2 forced fumbles and 2 sacks but it was clear that he had lost a step and was getting by mostly on smarts instead of athletic ability. Vrabel won’t be able to use his brains to compensate for his diminishing skills for much longer. At 35, his risk of injury is going up. He missed two games last season giving way to backup Andy Studebaker who had a couple of picks in the Chiefs win over Pittsburgh.
All of the players listed above are still on the roster and the only noticeable addition was draft pick Cameron Sheffield who was taken in the 5th round. Since it doesn’t appear Sheffield will be ready to enter the starting lineup any time this season, it appears the Chiefs have done nothing to upgrade the position group.
The lack of new faces, however, doesn’t mean the Chiefs starting linebakers will be the same this season.I have a strong feeling that by the end of 2010, the starting linebackers will line up as such:
Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Jovan Belcher, Andy Stuebaker
The changes have already begun. OTA practices started with Williams and Mays holding on to their starting roles at MLB but by the end of the practices, they had been overtaken by Johnson and Belcher.
Belcher and Johnson, both backups last season, were extremely productive when they got on the field. Johnson, who started in Haley’s dog house, began pairing with Belcher in passing situations a few games in to the 2009 season. In limited action, Johnson had 37 tackles, 1 forced fumble and 3 interceptions, 2 of which he returned for touchdowns. He also added 5 passes defended, which was was 4 more than Mays had over the entire season as the starter.
The Chiefs seemed to get the memo that despite his often inconsistent play, Johnson’s athleticism and big play ability were more valuable than anything Demorrio Williams has to offer.
Teaming with Johnson and replacing Mays will be Jovan Belcher. Belcher, an undrafted rookie out of Main was a huge surprise last season. He made the team by playing well on special teams and quickly got himself on the field as a reserve MLB. The rookie had 47 tackles in limited action, 45 of which were solo. You may remember in the Steelers game that he prevented Pittsburgh from getting a fist down in OT with a beautiful open field tackle. The Steelers punted and the Chiefs scored on the following drive to win the game.
Belcher was at a disadvantage coming out of small school Main. Since arriving in Kansas City, he has benefited greatly from a professional workout environment and is reportedly bigger and faster than he was a year ago. Factor in his year of experience and it looks like Belcher may be ready for Prime Time.
Lastly, I see Andy Studebaker eventually taking over for Vrabel at the OLB position opposite Tamba Hali. I don’t see the Chiefs pulling Vrabel from the starting lineup, as he has given them a lot in terms of a veteran presence and leadership but I do think at some point in 2010 he is likely to go down to injury. Even if he doesn’t, we will likely see more of a timeshare between Vrabel and Studebaker if the youngster continues to progress.
Studebaker also came from a small school and needs a little seasoning before he is ready to be a full time NFL starter. Still, the athletic ability he flashed last season in relief of Vrabel is worth noting. “Studi” finished the year with 28 tackles and 2 interceptions. Keep in mind, however, that Andy only had 3 tackles through Week 9. To that point he had seen very little playing time.
That all changed during a Week 10 game against the Raiders. Mike Vrabel left early on with an injury and Studebaker stepped in to replace him. Andy had 6 tackles (the Chiefs won) and the following week in Pittsburgh he added 2 picks and 5 tackles (the Chiefs won). His last start in relief of Vrabel brought another 6 tackle effort in a 43-14 butt kicking at the hands of San Diego.
Vrabel came back the next week but Studebaker had gotten Haley’s attention. He did not start again but he did continue to see action and recorded at least 1 tackle in every game for the rest of the season.
I am not saying that the Chiefs won’t be drafting linebackers in the future but I think they feel the future already lies on their roster. Studebaker and Belcher are high character, hard working guys. Hali is still in his 20′s and should only improve now that he is settled at the LB position. As for Johnson, well, we all know that this is his last chance in KC. He is in the final year of his contract and if he wants to stay in KC, he is going to have to prove he deserves a big contract next season.
Part of building a successful football team is cultivating the young talent already on the roster. This appears to be what the Chiefs are trying to do.
So while the names may be the same, 3 of the starting 4 linebackers from 2009 could be replaced by season’s end.
The only question is, will the new starters bring better results?