When the Chiefs defense takes the field, the vast majority of their opponents will be focusing on one unit specifically: the linebackers. Kansas City boasts one of the premier, talent-rich units in the NFL thanks to the development of early draft picks Derrick Johnson (R1, 2005), Tamba Hali (R1, 2006) and Justin Houston (R3, 2011).
Aided by a unanimous first-team All-SEC selection and a Senior Bowl MVP trophy, Dee Ford propelled himself into the first round of the 2014 draft and ultimately became the most recent addition to the Chiefs stellar corps of linebackers. Ford has been tabbed as the eventual replacement to aging warrior Tamba Hali but the expectations for his rookie season are still rather significant. Kansas City was in dire need of a third pass rusher last season, so the opportunity is there for him to make a big rookie splash despite having two Pro Bowlers in front of him on the depth chart.
When Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are locked-in, opposing offenses are in for a long day.
The veteran Hali paced the NFL in pressures prior to his injury in 2013 and believe it or not, the closest player to him lined-up about six feet to his left. You’ll struggle to find a more ferocious pair of pass rushers league-wide and the addition of Ford should only aid in keeping them fresh for the back-end of the season.
Despite his absence at voluntary workouts, I wouldn’t expect a lengthy hold-out from Justin Houston. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and he deserves a tremendous amount of money… you’ll need to look no further than the cap-clearing release of Brandon Flowers to see what John Dorsey and Andy Reid plan to do in the very near future.
A team captain and the unquestioned tone-setter of the defense, Derrick Johnson is one of the least appreciated superstars in the NFL today. Known as a remarkably consistent performer, DJ has fallen short of five tackles in a game just 9 times over the last three full seasons… now, if we could just get him to catch all those near-interceptions, maybe we’d have something?!
After the free-agent departure of Akeem Jordan – my surprise player for the Chiefs in 2013 – hard-hitting Joe Mays was signed to patrol the middle of the field. This stoutly-built backer has made a living of explosive, highlight-reel collisions – something Kansas City has lacked for years. The attitude and tenacity Mays brings will be a welcome addition, along with his notable contributions on special teams.
So… after those three perennial Pro Bowlers, the 23rd overall pick and a new free agent signing, things get a little murky – I like to call that one of those good problems.
With just one position up-for-grabs on the edge, Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses and Josh Martin will be battling throughout training camp to simply make the roster. There may be room for a fifth outside linebacker, but the likelihood of that happening is relatively slim.
Both Zombo and Moses are “Dorsey-guys” from his days in Green Bay, possibly giving them a leg-up on the younger Martin. You have to hand it to Martin, though: the former Ivy League standout not only made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie, he recorded 10 tackles and flashed some veteran-like savvy getting after Andrew Luck and Phillip Rivers in the last two weeks of the regular season.
Believe it or not, the Chiefs have three Johnson’s battling to backup – you guessed it – another Johnson. My personal favorite is James-Michael, an athletic specimen that makes “sideline-to-sideline” look routine. Frankly, I think JMJ should be the starter next to DJ… but that’s an argument for another day. Nico Johnson was a fourth round draft pick in 2013 and despite being pegged by many as the favorite to start last season, made very little impact (even on special teams). Ben Johnson went undrafted this year despite averaging 12 tackles per game for the second season in a row at Tennessee-Martin. He’s not well known, but this kid is a machine. He diagnoses the game well and plays with remarkable passion… looks like an ideal special teams candidate with potential to become a lot more.
Prediction: Chiefs keep 9 LBs
Starters: Houston, D. Johnson, Mays, Hali
Rotational: Ford, JMJ
Backups/ST: Zombo, Martin, B. Johnson
Cut: Moses, N. Johnson
The remaining schedule of previews:
July 18: Cornerbacks
July 20: Safeties
July 22: Kickers
July 24: Training Camp Begins
And don’t forget to check out my thoughts on the Chiefs offense: