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2018 Season in Review – Linebackers

The Chiefs’ linebacking core had a turbulent year to say the least. It’s one of the positions on the Chiefs’ roster that I think that has actually gotten worse since the beginning of the season; and is probably the position I am most worried about heading into the 2019 campaign. However, that’s not to say that they were abysmal this year, there were still some highlights, so let’s dive in.

I’m going to start things off, like I always do, with the more familiar names of the position. Justin Houston has been a staple in the Chiefs’ defence now for the last 8 years and will be sorely missed as a player. He was a huge part of our identity in the first half of this decade and will be considered an all-time great in KC. Having said this though, why did the Chiefs decide to cut the beloved linebacker?

It’s clear from looking at his stats when Houston’s ‘prime’ was. He had 4 pro-bowl years (2012-15) and one all-pro season (2014). Over this period he averaged a whopping 12.6 sacks per year and only missed 10 out of the 64 regular season games during this period. This year Houston put up 9 sacks in the 12 regular season games he played. So there has been a slight decline but the question is: is this really a surprise? Of course an 8 year veteran is going to show some signs of slowing down, simply due to age. I don’t think his performance this season was particular disappointing, in fact I think it was actually perfect for this point in his career.

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To show this even further it’s important to look at some other stats aside from just sacks. Houston also had 37 tackles in 2018, 8 of which were for a loss, and an interception. In his prime he racked up 208 tackles (52 per year), 56 tackles for loss (14 per year) and 3 interceptions (0.8 per year). So for a linebacker of his age I think he performed well.

This leaves me to believe it was simply a change of scheme that led to Houston’s release. If we are truly going to hit the reset button on the defence it needs to start from the inside out. Number 50 was a great player in the old Chiefs’ defence but, starting next season, it won’t be the old Chiefs’ defence anymore. The Spagnuolo era has started and it seems like Houston just didn’t have a spot in the new age. Plus, how long would it be before he truly does become a shadow of his old self? It pains me to say it but I don’t think it would be particularly long.

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From one loss to another. Dee Ford was another prominent linebacker who is unfortunately no longer on the team. The Chiefs’ front office decided to trade away Ford to the 49ers earlier in March. Although he was a great player this year we did receive a 2020 2nd round pick in return which may come in handy down the line. I feel like we could’ve got more for a young player who just came off the best year of his 5 year career. However, if we got rid of Ford for the same reason why we had to get rid of Houston, because of the system change, I’m all for it. Personal performance is great but I would rather take the risk by making some sacrifices and see the team succeed in the long run.

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But just how good was Dee Ford’s season? Well, he started in all 16 regular season games and achieved career highs in sacks (13), tackles (55), forced fumbles (7) and tackles for a loss (13). I’m pretty sure that answers the question. In the playoffs he wasn’t as ‘in your face’ statistically, but on tape he did still show up and perform well. But we’re not going to talk about his offside against the Patriots because I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the emotional trauma that will put me through.

So with the two best performing linebackers off the team it doesn’t seem like there’s much hope for the position. Well, as the Chiefs ran a 3-4 system last season there’s still the 2 starting inside linebackers to talk about. That’ll be second year player Reggie Ragland and 5 year veteran Anthony Hitchens. The latter appeared to have the better season between the 2 as far as the stats are concerned. The former Cowboys linebacker racked up a huge 135 tackles and proved himself to be a decent coverage player, rather than the pass rushing OLBs we’ve already discussed. His ability to take down running backs in the second level was good enough however beyond that there wasn’t much to brag about. He’ll be a decent player to keep on board but I wouldn’t want to rely on him in a tough match up or as a leader on the defence.

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Ragland proved to be similar to Hitchens in terms of their ability to fill running lanes and keep a lot of runs between the 3-5 yard mark. He totalled 86 tackles and 2 tackles for a loss. However one thing that separates the 2 is that Ragland did have a huge interception which he returned for 67 yards against Oakland. He also picked up another in the AFC Championship game, this time in the red zone against arguably the greatest Quarterback of all time, which was also a huge turning point in the game. However, without wanting to take away from what were 2 great plays, I still wouldn’t call him a coverage linebacker. I feel like both Ragland and Hitchens are respectable players who don’t necessarily jump out at you as elite but they do perform well enough to not be too much of a concern.

With Houston and Ford now gone it’s about time we take a look at who was sitting behind them last season, and who will be likely taking over their role starting in September. Rookie Breeland Speaks sat behind Houston in 2018. He played in all 16 games and started in 4 of them, creating a decent stat line in this time. Over the course of the regular season he picked up 24 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries and 3 tackles for a loss. This is a creditable group of stats for a second string player and shows promise going forward. Speaks, as a rookie, only had 476 snaps this season (Dee Ford had 1025 snaps so that you have something to compare it to). Therefore, with an increase snap count, I think that Speaks will have a confident season in 2019. Having said that though, don’t be surprised if the production from the OLB position does drop compared to this year because the shoes left behind by Houston and Ford may be a bit too big to fill.

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Second year linebacker Tanoh Kpassagnon is another outside player who didn’t see many snaps this season. He played around a quarter of the downs as Speaks did (115) from playing in 13 games. Kpassagnon totalled just 4 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and no sacks on the year. Despite the considerably lower snap count I still don’t think these stats are high enough to fill me with confidence going forward. Frank Zombo is the final OLB on the depth chart but spent the majority of the season injured.

At ILB however the back-ups did have slightly better years. Rookie Dorian O’Daniel played in all 16 regular season games and totalled 34 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss and 1 fumble recovery. This is promising from a backup player in the first year of his career. Terrance Smith played as a backup ILB this year as well and, despite only playing in 7 games, he totalled a huge 22 tackles, 1 sack and 1 tackle for a loss. These are great stats for someone who was only on the field for 172 plays last year. Ben Niemann was the final linebacker on the depth chart last season. As an undrafted free agent, Niemann played in 14 regular season games and only totalled 10 tackles with no sacks, forced fumbles or tackles for a loss.

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The depth at the linebacker position is definitely something I’m concerned about for the team. Not having our best 2 linebackers on the team anymore leaves holes at the OLB position which will be hard to fill. This is the main reason why I think it’s the weakest position on the team at the moment. Our run defence did improve slightly from 2017 to 2018 however I still think there is a long way to go. However the core is now very young and there are some promising players who will get more opportunities to shine next season.

Performance of the Season:

I use a similar rating system for the defensive line as I do for linebackers. Therefore it makes sense that I chose the same game for the linebacker’s performance of the season as I did for the d-line. For those who didn’t read last week’s article, the game I’m talking about is week 17 matchup against Oakland.

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The front 7 were extremely dominant in both run and pass defence all game long. They squashed the Raider’s run game holding them to just 127 yards and no touchdowns all game. This forced Oakland to trust Derek Carr’s arm more which, of course, led to mistake. He threw for 2 interceptions and no touchdowns. He was also sacked 3 times and had the ball stripped from him by no other than OLB Justin Houston. Holding the Raiders to just 3 points was a victory held by the defensive line and linebacker core. They dominant in all phases of this game and gave the Chiefs their last regular season victory of the year; securing them home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Future:

So is the future for the Chiefs’ linebacker position bleak or promising? Well, the front office have already tried to deal with the depth issue at the position by signing free agent Damien Wilson. The 4th year OLB played has played in Dallas for his whole career, the first 3 years was alongside Anthony Hitchens who he has now reunited with in Kansas City.

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Despite playing at OLB, his stat line suited a ILB more as he only picked up 1 sack and 2 QB hits all year. Wilson also forced 1 fumble and racked up 37 tackles across the regular season. I’m confident he’ll be a decent hole filler on the team, however I’m not confident that he is a long-term solution to our problems at the position.

As important as it was to bring in a free agent linebacker to fill the large hole on the team, I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough. We need to spend at least 1 of our draft picks on the position and, if the right player is still available, I would be more than happy if we drafted a linebacker in the first round. So, having said that, who might be available?

The obvious name on everyone’s radar is Devin White out of LSU. He’s been an absolute stud in college picking up 114 tackles in his 3 year career, 28.5 tackles for a loss, 4 forced fumbles and 8.5 sacks. He seems like an all-round player who can stuff the run game and crash into the backfield and make a play. However I’d be extremely shocked if he dropped all the way to 29th.

Aside from him, Devin Bush also had a great college career. He totalled 91 tackles over the 3 years he spent at Michigan; however he did only play 7 games in 2016. He also had 18.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks across this time. However, again I would be surprised if he was still on the board late in the first round. If either of them are, I’ll be screaming at my television for Kansas City to draft one of them.

However, like I said, I don’t feel like they’re realistic prospects for us at all. So I’m going to take my head out the clouds for a second and look at 1 of the more feasible options. The 6-1 235 pound Dakota Allen could prove to be a steal in the early to middle rounds. From the same college as Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech, this linebacker totalled 134 tackles in his 3 year college career as well as 17.5 tackles for a loss and 4 interceptions. Some may also know him from his time on hit Netflix show ‘Last Chance U’ where he appeared in the 2nd season. If he’s drafted, he’ll make history as the first player from the show drafted into the NFL.

I love the look of him as a player. With a huge number of tackles for a loss he appears to be a great backfield tackler and should help solve the run defence problem the Chiefs have. As well as this, he also seems extremely versatile, being able to drop back and make plays on the ball as well.

I feel like the linebacker position is a dire need for the team as we go into the 2019 season. With some unproven players and not much depth, it’s definitely going to need to be focused on a lot. I feel like drafting young and trusting veterans like Hitchens and Wilson to lead to the young core is the best option going forward. I won’t be expecting fireworks from this position in 2019, however if they mould well as a team, and play to each other’s strengths, they can bring the Chiefs some great results next season.

 

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