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.