The Kansas City Chiefs enter the 2017 regular season with a linebacker core packed with big names, but also one of the most uncertain position groups on the team.
Outside linebackers Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali have never all three been healthy or at their best at the same time, while Derrick Johnson looks to rebound from his second Achilles injury and lead an unproven set of inside backers.
The Chiefs’ defense has all the talent and potential to rank as one of the league’s top wrecking crew units, but only if the inside group can shore up a lackluster run defense, with the outside pass rushers consistently reaching the quarterback like in 2013-2015.
In defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s first three years in Kansas City, the Chiefs never finished with fewer than 46 sacks in a season, placing in the NFL’s top six each year. In 2016, Kansas City finished 28th overall in sacks, bringing down the quarterback just 28 total times.
This drastic downturn is partly due to Houston’s elongated absence after offseason surgery, with the Pro Bowler only playing in five regular season games. Even then, his four sacks in five games were second most on the team.
Even if Houston can return anywhere close to 2014 form, where he finished with a franchise best 22 sacks in 16 games, Kansas City will need more of a consistent contribution from other rushers. Houston has only played a full season once in the last four years, so assuming he’ll be ready to go each week is perhaps wishful thinking.
Hali, on the other hand, has never missed more than one game in a single season throughout his 11-year career. But the Pro Bowler is entering his 34-year old season, and the coaching staff elected to only start him in two games last year. Hali has said that he’s healthy and still can play, and his pressure frequency when on the field backs that up, but his 2017 role is still very much in question.
That’s in part due to the growth from 2014 first round pick Dee Ford. After providing just 5.5 sacks in his first two years, Ford reached the quarterback 11 times in his third season, 15th most in the NFL. But, when one takes a closer look at those numbers, Ford turned in 10 of those sacks in just six games, meaning he went 10 weeks with only one sack to his name.
This lack of consistency makes Ford quite the conundrum, especially with most of his sacks coming on Houston’s side of the field. Houston, the veteran, will not change positions for a less proven player, so Ford must find a way to adapt and still produce at a similar level.
A healthy Houston back in the fold will not only improve the pass rush, but also the Chiefs’ woeful run defense.
The Chiefs allowed the sixth fewest points in 2017 but ranked as the 27th worst run defense in the league. Something has to give, and while Houston is arguably one of the best run stopping outside linebackers in the game, it’s up to the inside linebackers to really improve upon the 124 rushing yards allowed per game.
Before going down against the Raiders in Week 13, Johnson was on his way to reaching 90 or more tackles for the sixth time in seven years. The former Texas Longhorn enters his 35-year-old season, but age has not slowed him down to this point and Johnson has looked pretty close to All-Pro form at training camp and the preseason.
Still, even Johnson has to wonder if father time will play a critical role yet again, after missing time in two of the last three seasons. Without Johnson, the Chiefs saw how bad the run defense can get in 2016, allowing 148 yards rushing against the Titans and 171 yards rushing in the playoffs against Pittsburgh.
Kansas City has thrown numbers at the second linebacker spot next to Johnson, with the likes of Ramik Wilson, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Justin March-Lillard and Ukeme Eligwe all as options. Wilson has impressed the most in the preseason and the job is his to lose, but Pierre-Louis and March-Lillard all have shown signs of potential and could be options if Wilson struggles.
Monday the Chiefs acquired another inside linebacker option from the Buffalo Bills, Reggie Ragland. The 2015-16 SEC Defensive Player of the Year from Alabama was the 41st overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft but missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. This move either signals they don’t feel strongly about their in-house options, or that Ragland was too good to pass up in their mind.
The Chiefs are not likely to have an offense on the level of the Patriots, Packers or Falcons, but a defense with talents like Houston, Johnson, Marcus Peters and Eric Berry is one that can go toe to toe with any team. The team’s top turnover ranking and fourth best red zone defense showed all the potential that the team had in 2016, but they’ll need a pass rush and run stopping production from the linebackers to improve in 2017 if KC hopes to become a truly elite defense.
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