The Best Depth Chart Battle

Before his neck injury, Sheffield showed well in the 2010 preseason.

Screw the lockout. Let’s talk meat & potatoes football.

This year’s draft has given this team so many possibilities, that the lack of OTAs and offseason depth chart projections are sending every Chiefs fan scrambling to figure out who’s the Right 53, and who’s left out.

Among the battles: running back depth, fullback, wide receiver depth, tight end (if Brad Cottam is back in the mix), defensive end, and corner.

But the best battle we’ll be watching is the now suddenly fascinating battle at a position this team has been struggling with ever since Pioli arrived: rushbacker.  With seven (!!!) outside linebackers now on the roster, as well as the likely return of Mike Vrabel, this is the position to watch on this team over the next four months while the depth chart sets.

After the jump, a brief preview of each of the players with vested interests in the position, and some conceivable ways we might line them up.

The Positions

Crennel’s 3-4 asks the outside linebackers (OLBs) to both (a.) be able to violently rush the passer at a moment’s notice, and (b.) operate in space in any number of manners, from containing on run plays outside of the tackle, to covering intermediate routes run by tight ends, running backs, or occasional slot receivers.  This requires them to be more versatile than 4-3 passrushers, who rarely (if ever) drop into coverage. 

The positions are typically labeled the “right outside linebacker” (ROLB), who is typecast for the weakside of the field (i.e. the QB’s blind spot) and is expected to be more of a passrusher, and the “left outside linebacker” (LOLB) who is type-cast for the strong side of the field, and is expected to be more of a versatile jack-of-all-trades.  The names of these two positions are misnomers, however, especially under Romeo Crennel, who likes to move them around, and will often experiment by putting weird combinations of passrushers on the field or taking them off the field entirely.

Typically, a team will carry four or five OLBs.  Often times, four will be activated for any given game (the backups have to be versatile enough to flip in at ILB if need be).  One will be deactivated, and another may sit on the practice squad. 

The Players

Tamba Hali — There’s not much left to say about Tamba Hali.  He remains franchised and all signs point to a deal getting done in the next year to tie him up for the long term in Kansas City.  His nonstop motor and his relentless passrushing (as well as his horrid pass coverage), land him as the no-doubt starter at ROLB. 

Mike Vrabel – After his horrid 0-sack performance in 2010 that nonetheless featured strong run defense and adequate pass coverage, one might fear Vrabel has played his last season in Kansas City.  But while his contract with the team has run out, he still enjoys a comfortable rapport with the Pioli administration and a resigning for the right price seems likely.  What he brings more than anything, unquestionably, is his indispensible leadership on a young, talented team.  Which is fine and dandy in theory, but in practice, there may not be a roster spot left for him. 

Andy Studebaker – Now that Vrabel is currently without contract and Justin Houston is just a rookie, the startling LOLB job is Studebaker’s to lose.  Even if Vrabel returned, The Stude probably still comes out on top.  Stude performed admirably in passrushing, run support and in space, with plenty of room to still develop.  Justin Houston’s arrival makes his ability to man the position dicey for the future, but Studebaker is the quintessential Pioli player: he will fight and scrap for his roster spot, which will only benefit this team in the long run.

Justin Houston – More than any other player, the entire depth chart depends on Justion Houston.  I’ve written about Houston at length on this site, and Ladner Morse stirred up some good stuff on him very recently.  Houston is a knucklehead with a ton of experience playing in the space and schemes of a Crennel-identical 3-4 defense at Georgia.  His passrushing repetoire needs work; he has a great burst around the edge, but he lacks for various passrushing manuvers, and has no bullrush (yet).  He is nonetheless a fantastic run defender and decent in space.  His floor is as a situational ROLB, but I believe he has the vast potential necessary to lock down a starting position at LOLB.  Whether he can unseat The Stude, who is a coach favorite, soon enough to start in his rookie season has yet to be determined.  

Cameron Sheffield – After going out with a season-ending neck injury in his rookie preseason, bringing Sheffield back is like bringing in a third rookie after Houston and Miller.  He’s still an unknown quantity, but unlike Miller and Houston, Sheffield does have some in game reps in 2010′s preseason that we can examine.  That limited playing tells us that Sheffield is probably best suited as a ROLB.  His passrushing looked pretty strong, he’s not the fastest player on the block but possesses good strength to get push off the edge and get some pressure in on passers.  His defense against the run and dropping back are much more questionable.

Gabe Miller — It’s hard to say what GM Scott Pioli saw in Miller to believe he justified being drafted over any dozens of the other players worth of the 5th rounder he spent on him, but it probably had to do with two things: his production at Oregon State was pretty strong in an offensive-oriented Pac 10, and his Combine numbers (featuring a 40 in the high 4.5s) were downright impressive.  I don’t pretend to know where Miller fits on this team, but my guess is as a LOLB, as his measurables and college stats suggest he features plenty of versatility.

Pierre Walters – A couple-season backup behind Hali, Walters ability to stay on this team will hinge entirely on his special teams production.

Charlie Anderson — A seven-year veteran, Anderson was brought on late in the year to boost special teams.  I can’t speak enough to whether he did or not; the Chiefs special teams units were solid all season, but his statistics were damn near nonexistant.  (He was only activated for a couple of games.)

Projected Depth Charts

So here’s the deal.  This team has done such a great job of accumulating and retaining talent at this position over the past year, that I simply can’t find a way to plug Mike Vrabel onto this depth chart.  He has long since been passed by Andy Studebaker as the best player at LOLB (to say nothing of Justin Houston…), making his chances at starting slim.  And he has no value as a backup, which you need to fill out special teams.  If he makes this team at all, it must be as a starter… an uphill battle, to be sure.

With Vrabel on the roster:

ROLB: Hali, Houston
LOLB: Vrabel, Studebaker
(Gabe Miller to the practice squad.)

But the entire depth chart, including Vrabel’s place on this team, is tied to Justin Houston’s development.  Is Houston shows that he can immediately be a reliable, smart player that can cover some ground and play in space, the depth chart makes itself:

ROLB: Hali, Sheffield/Miller (whoever wins this battle, the other lands on PS)
LOLB: Houston, Studebaker

If Houston provides to initially be unreliable in open space, then Studebaker likely gets the nod to start at LOLB.  It’s unclear what position Houston would back up at that point, but it would be open frickin’ season between himself, Sheffield, and Miller:

ROLB: Hali, Houston/Sheffield/Miller
LOLB: Studebaker, Houston/Sheffield/Miller

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