The Kansas City Chiefs have an interesting roster battle ahead at the linebacker position with no standouts and a slew of young talent – who makes the cut when the Chiefs name their final 53?
The Kansas City Chiefs have several position battles which bring a great deal of intrigue, not only to the offseason but specifically to training camp and the preseason. We’ve already detailed the wide receivers and defensive linemen, and soon we will look at the running back position. Here, we’ll discuss the linebacking corps—who will stay and will who go—as the Chiefs go through the process of putting together their new defensive unit.
Any investigation in to the Chiefs theoretical defensive roster must begin by looking at what Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s history tells us in terms of aligning his linebacker unit. Given that the team is switching over from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, it would be fundamentally useless to look at what the defense has looked like over the last several seasons (in terms of number of linebackers kept). A second consideration that we should consider is overall unit depth. Do the Chiefs have enough depth at linebacker to justify keeping an extra body here, or would it be better used somewhere else? Finally, we must consider how a player may contribute on special teams for Kansas City this season. This information will not dictate the starters, of course, but it may help decide the final spot or two in the linebacking corps.
In his career, Spagnuolo has been a defensive coordinator or six seasons (5+, he took over as the New York Giant’s interim head coach during the 2017 season). In that time, the number of linebackers kept on the roster has been as follows:
- New York Giants, 2007: 6
- New York Giants, 2008: 6
- New Orleans Saints, 2012: 7
- New York Giants, 2015: 5
- New York Giants, 2016: 8
- New York Giants, 2017: 6
This means that on average, Spagnuolo led defenses have kept an average of 6.33 linebackers. The Chiefs will have a decision to make when it comes to which path they follow, and our aforementioned two questions above (depth plus special teams) will help decide which direction they go. Here, I predict that the Chiefs will keep six linebackers. The extra investments on defense are likely to be defensive linemen (because of quality of depth at the position) or safety (depth plus special teams plus a relative pass heavy league).
The Chiefs current roster at linebacker is as follows, according to ESPN. Note: I did remove Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon from the linebacker depth chart, as they’ll line up at defensive end positions in Spagnuolo’s 4-3). I’ve split the remaining 12 players in to four categories:
- Practice Squad or bust – Those who will not make the roster and should be shooting for a spot on the practice squad.
- Locks – Those who will be on the 2019 Chiefs’ roster.
- Likely – Those who are likely to be on the 2019 Chiefs’ roster.
- Battling – Those who are likely to be competing for the final spots on the 2019 Chiefs’ roster.
Practice Squad or bust:
This was the easiest section to create and it’s where we’ll start. The following players have some nice attributes, and could ultimately be added to the practice squad if they do not get a chance with another team.
An undrafted free agent in 2018, Davison spent some time in 2018 on the Chiefs practice squad. He’s a fast backer (4.59 40yd during 2018 Cal pro day), who projects mostly as a coverage linebacker in the NFL. He struggled to shed blockers but does an overall nice job in coverage. His biggest issue is lack of versatility; with limited roster spots you can’t afford to have a linebacker on the team who can’t run defend.
McCray is big and fast and has some really nice traits about him. The Chiefs gave him a shot in training camp last year and ultimately placed him on the Practice Squad. He ended the year with an injury designation. We should expect McCray to be back in St. Joe for training camp this summer, but ultimately he’ll likely hit the waiver wire again. The Chiefs may use a spot on the P.S. for him again, but given how much they like this year’s group of UDFAs, there may not be room for him.
Soroh is small for an NFL linebacker and may ultimately be best served as a safety. He projects a bit in the Dorian O’Daniel mode, but he’s slower and lacks the coverage skills. The Chiefs brought him in to rookie training camp for depth and competition, and I would not be surprised to see him not make it to training camp. The Chiefs are sure to churn over the bottom of the roster as players are cut throughout the summer, and Soroh is a candidate for such a fate.
The second category we’ll look at are the players that are near certain to make the roster this season. Given that this is one of the thinnest and weakest positions on the current roster, there are not a lot of locks here.
Hitchens makes the list of locks for two reasons. First, if the Chiefs were to cut him they would incur $17.7 million in dead cap money. That is too much to take on. Second, Hitchens is only one season removed from posting a 73 PFF grade. This sums it up:
Kansas City will hope that he reverts back to his 2017 Dallas form under Spagnuolo and back in the 4-3 defense.
The Chiefs got a steal when they traded a sixth round pick to the New York Jets in May for former first round pick Darron Lee. He lacked ideal productivity for the Jets, and clearly new acting general manager Adam Gase felt the same way, as he quickly shipped Lee out of town literally the day that he took over in his interim role. Even as his inconsistent self, Lee posted a 72.4 PFF grade in 2018, which is good enough to best every other linebacker currently on the Chiefs roster. The Chiefs were able to skip over a big need in the draft by not taking a linebacker, but they got some really quality relief in this trade orchestrated by general manager Brett Veach. He’s a lock to make the roster because he’s simply better than everyone else on the team.
Kansas City took O’Daniel in the fourth round of the 2018 draft and it seemed like they could not figure out where to play him in Bob Sutton’s defense. The switch to the 4-3 makes a transition to outside linebacker in the WILL position both highly likely and highly fortunate for O’Daniel. The Chiefs clearly value his ability and talent, given that he played often last year, despite not being a good scheme fit and despite low production. O’Daniel becomes likely due to his ability on special teams coverage. I suspect he’ll find the field often and be a force during the 2019 season.
If we’re correct about the previous groupings, we have six players left battling for three spots on the roster. This is not easy to project. None of these players stand out above the rest, and while two were on the active roster last year, the scheme change may actually put them at a disadvantage in terms of making the roster (compared to others who are already more familiar with the 4-3).
The Chiefs signed the former Dallas Cowboy linebacker Damien Wilson in free agency in early March. The Cowboys gave up on the 2015 fourth round pick after he failed to make a significant impact with the team in four seasons. He has only started a handful of games over the course of his career, and has been both inconsistent and unimpressive.
The Chiefs took a flyer for two reasons. First, because of his familiarity with the 4-3 scheme Spags will be implementing this year. In the same way that Anthony Hitchens understands the scheme, so too should fellow former Cowboy Wilson. Second is because of his pass coverage ability, which graded in 2017 as the third best in all of football amongst qualified linebackers. That would help Kansas City free up the safeties some more to roam if they don’t have to help cover tight ends across the middle as much.
The Chiefs gave Wilson a one-year prove it deal worth $2.47M guaranteed. They could cut him and not hurt too much. Ultimately his work in training camp will determine if he makes the roster.
Attaochu came to the Chiefs via free agency after spending 2018 with the Jets, playing in 11 games and ending the season on injured reserve. The Chiefs only guaranteed Attaochu $90,000 at signing, so there is basiclly no financial obligation here for the team. A really interesting thing about this deal is that the former San Diego Charger was actually the second highest rated linebacker according to PFF currently on K.C.’s roster with a 67.8 grade. Attaochu can likely slot to either outside linebacker position, but makes the most sense to me at the SAM position, given his size and ability to take on run blockers.
Veach and Reid were really excited to get former Texas Longhorn linebacker Gary Johnson under contract. If Johnson makes the roster, you should expect to see him star on special teams this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see him become an NFL starter down the road. The only question is, can the Chiefs afford to wait on his development? In the interim, Chiefs fans will like his respect of Derrick Johnson:
The Chiefs signed Ben Niemann as an undrafted free agent in 2018 out of Iowa, and the rookie quickly made a name for himself. A little undersized for a 3-4 linebacker, Niemann could make an impact as a WILL side linebacker for Kansas City this season, if he makes the roster. In limited action last year, Niemann graded a 59.3 by PFF, which was far ahead of incumbent starters Hitchens and Reggie Ragland. Niemann is also incredibly valuable on special teams. He’s probably not good enough to be a starter for Kansas City this season, but he could contribute both as a backup and on special teams enough to merit consideration for the roster.
The former Alabama star was so promising for the Chiefs when he joined the team in 2017. Then 2018 happened. Kansas City thought Ragland would grow and blossom in 2018, and instead he regressed significantly. Twelve months ago, most fans would have considered Ragland a lock for the 2019 squad and may have even envisioned a contract extension right now. A lackluster 2018, coupled with questions about his scheme fit in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense, paired with having no guaranteed money remaining on his contract, instead make Ragland a prime trade or cut candidate in August.
Darius Harris – 6’2″, 238lbs
This one was the hardest to pinpoint what the Chiefs would do and I almost created a 5th category for him; but, I decided that putting him in the ‘battling’ category made the most sense. Harris hasn’t participated in OTAs yet because of a lingering should injury, and he may not be ready for training camp. As such, he’s a candidate for the ever-popular stash on Injured Reserve category, because he may not make it to the practice squad, but he can be stashed for a year and redshirted, so to speak. This kid has a lot of potential, and can play any of the three linebacking positions, but he’ll miss too much development time to be on the 53 man roster this year.
Veach could absolutely use the next three months to upgrade this position on the roster. The Chiefs lack any stars – and lack any players that have consistently demonstrated an ability to be NFL caliber linebackers. New Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House has been highly praised since joining the staff this Winter, and his task will be a tall one as he prepares this group for a 4-3 defensive change and works to coach up players who have been inconsistent at best.
As it stands today, the six linebackers kept on the Chiefs 53 man roster in August will be:
- Anthony Hitchens
- Darron Lee
- Dorian O’Daniel
- Damien Wilson
- Jeremiah Attaochu
- Gary Johnson
I am not projecting where each player will line up, nor who the starters will be. But if pressed, I would guess your starters will be Hitchens, Lee and Attaochu.