“Nap Harris is going to play better.” -Herm Edwards

There are several interesting position battles to keep an eye on as training camp gets closer.  None are particularly flashy, but it’s always fun to speculate as to what the opening day starting lineup might look like.  Will Casey Weigmann finally put Rudy Niswanger out of his misery?  Which injury-prone third round pick will be starting at tight end?  Who will win the free safety job?  Is Ron Edwards really still our starting nose tackle? 

All of these questions loom large in my football-starved summer brain.  Still, as much as I like spending my alone time researching Tony Moeaki’s injury history, there is one position battle that has my attention above all others.  Not because of the on-field importance, but because of what it tells us about our coaching staff.  What I want to know is, who is going to start at inside linebacker?

This is not a new question.  Most of us have spent the last year lamenting the subjugation of Derrick Johnson.  Work ethic, attitude, and other “Patriot Way” intangibles aside, our defense needs talent, and Johnson has it.  He needs to be on the field.  We all know it.  After DJ’s monster game against Denver, I thought Todd Haley knew it too.  Yet here we are again, six months later, and DJ is still being shuttled back and forth between the first and second team.  Haley still seems unwilling to commit to Johnson as a full-time starter.  There are a few different way to interpret that.  None of them are promising.

This isn’t just about Johnson.  Our linebacking corps as a whole was shabby and uninspiring last year.  For all the talk of Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson eating up blockers to free up the linebackers, only Tamba Hali had more than two sacks.  Simply put, our linebackers didn’t make plays.  Yet somehow, astonishingly, free agency and the draft passed without any upgrades being made.  We’re being told that improvement from the front seven will have to come from in-house.  I’ve heard that too many times before in my years as a Chiefs fan, and it’s never a good sign.  Essentially, the plan is to get better by staying the same. 

On the line, it could work.  At least in theory.  We still don’t have a quality nose tackle, but our ends are young.  I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and assume there will be some mild improvement because of that.  It’s hard to assume the same about the linebackers.  The Chiefs are planting stories in the Star about how much better Tamba Hali is going to be this year.  Again, I’ve heard that before.  Specifically, before the 2008 season.  Hali was coming off a solid year, and I was happy with where he was at.  The Lie Guys, however, assured us the best was yet to come.  Gunther scoffed at a question about whether Hali could have a 10-sack year.  Like they were disrespecting him by not saying more.  Enormous pressure was being put on Tamba, and he responded with a 3-sack season.  Our pass-rush that year was the worst in league history. 

Obviously, things have improved since then.  Our pass rush is still bad, but Hali has regained his old 7-9 sack form.  He’s fun to watch, and he’s a good player.  I like him.  I think we all do.  But the best solution to a weak pass rush isn’t to count on better production from the one player who was actually good to begin with.  The other three starting linebackers combined for two sacks.  Shouldn’t we be looking to increase production at those spots? 

The Chiefs have been shuffling players in and out of the first team at minicamp, and it is by no means clear how the playing time will be distributed.  But I cringe when I read that Mays, Williams and Vrabel are running with the first team.  That seems an awful lot like settling for what we had last year.  We need better.  None of those guys are ascending players.  If we’re to assume progression from Jackson and Dorsey, it seems fair to assume regression from Vrabel.  Mays is a special teams player.  I still like Speedwagon, but we saw him for a full season and he didn’t make many plays.  These guys just don’t have much upside.  We cannot count on better play from them.  It is folly.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it starts with getting Derrick Johnson in the starting lineup.  And I’d sure like to see Studebaker take Vrabel’s outside linebacker spot.  Maybe Vrabel can move to the inside.  We could probably squeeze a few more sacks out of the group that way.  He hasn’t ever played inside to my knowledge, but with a group like this talent should trump positional fit.  The Chiefs need to find the four best linebackers and start them, regardless of who they are or what position they’re supposed to play.  Hali and DJ are obviously the cream of the crop.  Training camp should be used as an open tryout for the other two positions.  Vrabel?  Studebaker?  Belcher?  Speedwagon?  Some no-namer?  Fine.  Just find the best two, and get them on the field. 

I’m not asking for a miracle from this group.  I am asking Todd Haley to be flexible.  Trotting the same starters out there for another year would show a troubling lack of creativity.  Haley is singing the same old song about guys getting more comfortable in the system and being healthier, but I refuse to believe three players with an average age of 30 are suddenly going to take it up a notch.  That group had a chance, and it didn’t work. 

This is one case where the Chiefs definitely need to put more emphasis on tangibles and less on intangibles.  Intangibles don’t put quarterbacks on their asses.  And I really, really want to see Tim Tebow get laid out.

8 Comments

  1. Ask and Hatt shall receive:

    http://arrowheadaddict.com/2010/06/14/chiefs-changing-up-the-nickel/

    The day after I call for Vrabel to the middle, Haley makes it happen (on the nickel package). Nice.

    http://www.kansascity.com/2010/06/13/2015261/haley-counting-on-linebackers.html

    Unfortunately this article also dropped in the star. Haley basically re-iterates everything I make fun of in this post. The notable exception is that he seems closer to committing to DJ as a starter.

    New motto:

    KC Sports: Assuming our bad players will play better for the last twenty years

  2. Also, I submitted a variation of my last post to arrowheadaddict, who are looking for a new writer. It’s currently up on their site for reader-review and voting. Check it out and cast a vote if you’d like to see me writing for AA. Could be a pretty cool opportunity.

    http://arrowheadaddict.com/2010/06/14/aa-reader-submission-time-for-matt-cassel-to-get-his-trent-green-on/

  3. I agree with most of what you said. To play a little devil’s advocate there is a chance to get better production out of the same group of guys. I know it is not wise to compare the NFL to college, but I am going to do so anyway.

    The second year in a completely new scheme can improve from one year to the next just based on being more comfortable with assignments. An example of this on the college level is Nebraska. They took a mediocre to bad defense in Bo Pelini’s first year and turned them into one of the best D’s in the country in year 2 with more or less the exact starting 11.

    In year one Nebraska looked slow, confused, and lacking all kinds of talent. Soon we found out that the group of players were actually very talented but just not very comfortable. Improvement of a college athlete from one year to the next is much larger than a pro, especially a 30 year-old pro, but there can be improvement. I expect to see our back 8 looking better even if it is the same people.

    Defense is much more of a team element where everyone relies on everyone else. Having a year of playing time with the same group of people can only help.

    • In theory, yes, time together could help. The problem is, its impossible to accurately quantify something like that. Seeing as how almost every team is probably saying their guys are more comfortable in their respective systems, I’m not inclined to put a lot of stock in it. I mean, we can’t expect guys who are past their prime to begin with to get better just because they’re here another year. Dorsey and T-Jack? Maybe. Mays and Vrabel? No way.

      • I still agree with you to a certain point, but I do think you can expect better production out of Mays and even Vrabel…maybe even moreso than T-Jack and Dorsey. Even the best, most seasoned linebacker can look very bad if he has three linebackers around him that are constantly out of position. A good LB has a lot to do with not only knowing your assignment but knowing where your other linebackers are going to be. If that isn’t happening it makes the whole unit look bad. Its not only new players playing together. It is a whole new system for everyone to learn last year.

        You can pick apart the lack of a pass rush, but in the first year it is hard to do it successfully when you can’t trust your ILBs to pick up the screen or dump off pass.

        Like I said earlier, I am kind of playing the devil’s advocate so I don’t truly believe there will be a HUGE improvement. I do honestly believe that the improvement is possible and even probable from anyone in the front 7. I just wouldn’t have put my job on the line betting that way as I think Haley/Pioli are doing by not addressing obvious needs (NT, ILB, etc) in free agency.

      • i actually expect Vrabel to come alive after getting that Haley-Pioli schema under his patriot belt: look for 3!! TDs fron this offensive weapon 2010

        and Mays? well, no, nevermind, i’m not even going to pretend i know who he is

  4. I don’t know if you guys have been following the Jarrad Page situation, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be back with the Chiefs this year. Will likely post about this tomorrow night at work.

  5. It now seems a little clearer as to why we drafted so many defensive backs. I have a bad feeling that this will turn out a lot like Pollard. I thought those two would be in our secondary for years to come when they were drafted. I guess that is what happens when you switch assistant coaches, head coaches, GMs, etc. Collateral damage?


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