So the 2014 NFL free agency period has been ... interesting. So far, if I'm to estimate based on what I've seen on Twitter, the Chiefs managed to lose four starting guards and every playmaker they have. Meanwhile, the Broncos have signed everyone on the planet, regardless of whether they're available or not. Good times.
I have some thoughts on free agency, but it's not over yet so I'll wait on that. For now, let's turn our attention to the only signing the Chiefs made that generated much buzz among the fans (and really, even with this signing "buzz" is a pretty strong word. It was more of a hum. A quiet one): Mr. Vance Walker.
I'll be real honest, I come into this knowing almost nothing about Walker. But that's what makes this fun. I do know that a few analysts I respect liked the signing. I also know that he has one of the funniest Twitter feeds I've ever seen. So that's a good start, I guess.
What makes this fun is that since I'm starting with no preconceived notions about Swagger Vance (again, follow the man on Twitter), I can come to conclusions without worrying about bias. You know, other than my intense desire to not throw a tantrum about how uneventful the Chiefs free agency has been (but that's nothing, right?). With that in mind, it's time to set out to get to know Vance a little better. We'll start with a little background, then dig into the stats. And as always, we'll finish off with some review of his film.
After all that work I'm quite confident I'll be able to tell you with at least 10 percent accuracy what kind of player the Chiefs acquired. So let's get started.
This stuff is boring, so we'll make it quick. Walker was drafted in the 7th round by the Falcons in 2009 (the draft also known as "The Draft That Was So Bad Tyson Jackson Looks Like A Steal At No. 3"). He saw over 200 snaps his rookie year with Atlanta, a shade under 300 his 2nd year, nearly 400 his 3rd year, and almost 600 by 2012 (his last year with the Falcons, where he earned a starting spot midway through the season.
That's a promising start, seeing as he played his way from 7th round rotational guy to starter. He then signed with Oakland prior to 2013 and started 15 games, playing 791 snaps.
Walker is listed as 6'2 and 304 pounds. He's a big boy. He's also spent every year in the NFL playing defensive tackle in 4-3 defenses.
But enough boring stuff. Let's look at some stats!
Statistics, numbers, and other such nerdery
You can't tell the whole story from statistics, especially in the NFL. But they collect stats for a reason (other than fantasy football); there's at least SOME value in comparing players' production levels. As always, advanced statistics come courtesy of ProFootballFocus (besides grades. I won't do it. We'll do our own legwork, thanks).
In 2013 Walker was credited with 25 solo tackles and 12 assisted tackles. He was additionally credited with three sacks, six quarterback hits, and 32 hurries when rushing the quarterback. He was also responsible for 24 stops (solo tackles constituting an offensive failure).
There are a few things I'd like to hit on with those statistics. First of all, the three sacks have been discouraging to some. After all, Tyson Jackson had four sacks last year. Are the Chiefs actually taking a step BACKWARD rushing the passer? Well, no. T-Jax (who we all know I loved) had zero hits and eight pressures last season. For those of you who hate math, 38 > 8. By kind of a lot.
If you want to see how important non-sacks are to a pass rush, go back and re-watch the Super Bowl and see how Seattle's pass rush destroyed Peyton Manning even when he wasn't getting sacked (also, go back and re-watch just to cackle a little). Is a sack the best result for a pass rusher? Absolutely. But hitting the quarterback or moving him off his spot is a very, very big deal. And it's something T-Jax just wasn't doing last year out of the Chiefs defense.
Another interesting statistic to note is one PFF calls "pass rushing productivity." Basically, it's a stat that looks at how many pass rushing snaps a player had, then takes the number of times said player sacked / hit / hurried the quarterback. The percentage is their pass rushing productivity. Walker, at 7.2 percent, ranked 15th in the league among defensive tackles in that area. It's worth noting that Dontari Poe (who, to be fair, was put in the tough spot of being double teamed constantly) ranked 23rd on that same list.
One final note on those pass rushing numbers. Walker's numbers weren't boosted by one "great" statistical game. That's something I really liked about what I saw. There actually wasn't a single week where Walker didn't register a sack, hit, or hurry. That kind of consistency is important to me if we're talking about a guy the Chiefs want playing all three downs.
So the numbers tell me that Walker should be an upgrade when rushing the passer. That's a good start. But what does the film say?
(I'm going to re-watch at least a couple hundred snaps from multiple angles, trying to get a feel Walker as a player. As always, remember this is just one guy's opinion, and should not be taken with much more than a grain of salt. Maybe a grain and a half, or two if you're feeling generous. I also avoid football terminology almost entirely when writing these. That's partly out of ignorance, and partly out of practicality. Let's do this!)
Vance Walker: The film
So in order to figure out what the Chiefs are getting in Walker, I ended up watching every snap in eight games. That seemed to be a sufficient sample size against a variety of opponents. During that time, I saw a lot of things to really like about Walker and a few points of concern.
Obviously the question that's burning on everyone's mind is this: Can Vance Walker improve the Chiefs interior pass rush? This could be the single most important question of the offseason. So, naturally, I'll talk about Walker against the run first.
Walker vs. the run
There's good news and there's bad news here. I'll start with the bad news: Vance Walker is not Tyson Jackson. While that is no doubt a source of comfort to those of you who didn't appreciate Jackson's particular set of skills, in this context it isn't a good thing.
to be clear, Walker is hardly helpless against the run. He looks every bit of the 304 pounds he's listed at, and really a little bigger. It wouldn't surprise me if he's playing at something like 310-315 pounds. But he's not the immovable object T-Jax was. Double teams can bowl him over completely in a way that almost never occurred with our former defensive end. Walker additionally doesn't look quite as polished at keeping his head up while holding off offensive linemen. That's the bad news.
The good news? While he's no T-Jax when it comes to pure brute strength, Walker holds his own. He very rarely gets moved off his spot by individual offensive linemen. So if a team wants to blow him off the ball they'll need to send a double team his way (usually). Of course, Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito, and Justin Houston are three of the better run defenders in the NFL, so opposing offenses focusing on Walker (even on running plays) is a best case scenario for the Chiefs.
Walker demonstrates time and again his ability to hold individual OL at bay while tracking the ball carrier. Here's an example.
Here we see Walker put in a basic one-on-one battle with Denver's LG . The ball has been snapped and Walker has gotten decent position on the LG, easily avoiding being blown off the ball. The following snapshots reveal how Walker holds his own against the run.
You see Walker give absolutely zero ground to the LG after gaining a couple yards of penetration? This forces Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno to make a choice immediately upon receiving the ball (rather than just hitting a lane): right or left? Lamarr Houston has started to shed his blocker, so Moreno chooses right.
At this point, Walker seems like he would be in a poor position to make a play. However, as you can see in the last picture, he does a good job shoving the LG off and disengaging. This allows him to get in on a tackle for a very short gain.
The Chiefs don't need someone to be as good as Tyson Jackson against the run. They need someone who can hold their own in individual matchups and prevent a weak spot from forming on the line. Walker is more than capable of handling that.
Here's another example...
Walker lines up directly across the Washington's C. This was much more common on passing downs than I expected. Walker was often placed in that position and it seemed the Raiders trusted him with taking on blockers more than any other defensive lineman. When Walker talks about lining up all over the field, this is an example. He plays every spot along the line. This drastically reduces my concerns about him switching from a 4-3 defense.
Anyway, back to this play...
In the second picture I've focused on Walker against Washington's C. It's tough to see even with the focus, but Walker is holding the C off with an extended left arm while moving toward the direction the play is flowing. He then pushes off to get in on a tackle for no gain.
While a pair of Oakland defenders already had the play well in hand at this point, Walker still contributed in both a tangible and hypothetical way (yep, hypothetical. That just happened). First, the runner was dragging Oakland tacklers forward for what would have been a two yard gain or so once he fell forward. Walker beating the C and slamming into the runner turned it into a short loss. Additionally, had the runner NOT chosen the gap he did and tried to cut back, he would have found Walker waiting for him. See? There IS such a thing as a hypothetical benefit!
This play demonstrates enough power to be an asset against the run, as well as good hand placement to keep the OL at bay while maintaining mobility. Good stuff.
We'll look at one more play, this one against San Diego. It's fourth and goal. If there's ever a situation where you need to avoid weakness against the run, this is it. Walker is indicated by the red arrow (it's nice to get a little red in there. I feel dirty watching all these Raiders games).
These pictures are pretty self-explanatory. That said, I'll explain them. Walker gets inside his OL, bench presses him back, and creates mass in the backfield where prior to that there was space. Danny Woodhead, finding an issue with two objects occupying the same space at the same time, has to hesitate. This gives Oakland's other defenders time to surge toward Woodhead and make a crucial stop. See? Vance Walker even uses science when playing football!
There is one area of playing the run that Walker will actually be an upgrade over the deposed T-Jax. Moving down the line of scrimmage. I love T-Jax, but the man had the speed / explosion of Jabba The Hut. You couldn't move him, and he was great at stacking up blockers, but if you ran away from him he was out of the play. Walker consistently shows the speed to pursue runners down the line of scrimmage and hit them if they tried to cut back. Considering the problems those cutbacks gave the Chiefs defense last year, this is a welcome change.
Another area Walker can help where T-Jax couldn't is shooting gaps. No one is going to confuse Walker with Warren Sapp any time soon, but he shows the ability to get off the ball and into the backfield on occasion. This is just not something you'd see from Jackson.
Overall, Walker is a step backward from my boy T-Jax against the run, and when it comes to engaging double teams there's a clear drop. However, the overall gap isn't what I expected. Walker has some power, and he brings athleticism to the table Jackson just didn't possess. If Sutton is smart enough to protect Walker from constant double teams, he'll be just fine as a run defender in the Chiefs system.
Walker vs. the pass
This is the million-dollar question on the minds of most Chiefs fans. Will Vance Walker help the Chiefs interior pass rush?
We all saw what happened down the stretch to a pass rush that had been destroying worlds the first half of the season. Teams figured out two things.
1) T-Jax and DeVito were not bringing the heat in early downs, and the sole interior concern was Poe.
2) When the Chiefs went with a Tamba Hali / Allen Bailey / Dontari Poe / Justin Houston lineup on obvious passing downs, they could neutralize the three playmakers by doubling Poe and having their tackles direct Houston and Hali to the outside (as well as providing RB or TE help if necessary). Bailey wasn't winning the one-on-one matchups he found himself constantly in, and these adjustments gave quarterbacks a crucial extra second to get rid of the ball.
So the absolute most important thing Vance Walker needs to be able to do is beat individual offensive linemen and at least make opposing quarterbacks sweat as they throw the ball. He has to make defenses pay for leaving him alone. Interestingly enough, Walker knows this and has said himself that the most important thing for a defender is to win those one-on-one battles.
With Poe lining up next to him, Walker will absolutely see those battles. And let me be the first (well, maybe not the first, but the most wordy) to tell you he should be more than up to the task.
Watching Walker rush the passer wasn't exactly a night and day experience when comparing him to Allen Bailey or Tyson Jackson, but it was close. He demonstrated time and again the ability to rush half a man (basically, forcing a lineman to turn and not engaging him directly) and get around OL, something neither Bailey or Jackson have ever seemed to do.
Walker's bull rush is more than sufficient to walk most individual linemen backward. And better than that, he has more than just a bull rush to offer. He employs an effective rip move primarily, but I also caught him using a decent club / counter to cross the face of OL, as well as using his "bench press" strength to gain separation for a speed move around the lineman. While he's not Reggie White (or close), he's an effective rusher who consistently wins those precious individual battles.
Perhaps the biggest change with Walker is the fact that he's clearly more athletic than either Bailey (who is ripped but doesn't move the way you'd expect) or Jackson (who, as mentioned, is a gorilla but not an athlete). Here's an example of where that athleticism comes in handy. The Colts are going to pull their RG in an attempt to sell the play action, and the C is supposed to come over and prevent Walker from gaining penetration. It doesn't go that way.
Nine times out of 10, that play results in a sack, incomplete pass, or interception. Of course, because Andrew Luck does Andrew Luck things, the play resulted in a touchdown. Unbelievable. Anyway, that's not really the point. The point is that because of Walker's speed off the line, the C isn't able to get to him in time to direct him around Luck. Plays like this, even when they have a bad result, will absolutely cause a QB to get happy feet over time. And it's a play Allen Bailey can't (at least as far as I've seen) make.
It's also worth noting that Walker either was smart enough to not get fooled by the play fake or was determined enough to hit the QB that he didn't care who got the ball. Personally, I'm fine with either.
Of course, the real thing we want to see is Walker making teams pay for leaving him alone against an OL. Because that's his number one job. With Dontari Poe playing next to him and Houston/Hali on the edges, Walker is (in a weird way) the Chiefs most crucial player in that he's the guy who needs to win one-on-one. So can he do that? Well, let's ask Jeff Allen.
So here, Walker is alone against Allen. He gets a decent push, quickly moves into a rip, and quickly closes toward Alex Smith. In the meantime, Smith (who took a deep drop) has to step into the pocket as Branden Albert is letting Houston get a little too close for comfort. Smith steps up, Walker is there to grab ahold of him.
It's worth noting that Smith tried to shake Walker with the same spin he used with success about a half dozen times that game, but Walker brought him down with one arm. From someone who really hates it when pass rushers get ahold of quarterbacks only to slide off, that was really nice to see.
Now, I'll give everyone a moment to make the obligatory, "Who cares, it was Jeff Allen" comment (if you hadn't already). Seriously, go ahead. I'll wait.
(Looks on Twitter for FA rumors. Gets disappointed.)
All right, I'm back. Got it out of your system, did you? Good. Now I'm not going to defend everyone's favorite whipping boy on the OL too much here, but I'd like to point out that Allen gave up five sacks, five hits, and 22 hurries on the season for a combined 32 disruptions. There are plenty of guards with worse numbers than that, so it's not as though Allen was getting destroyed more than any other guard in the league (not that that's a ringing endorsement, but that's not the point).
My main point is that the sack you see above is of a type I have literally never seen from Allen Bailey or Tyson Jackson, regardless of opponent. Quickly beating your guy one-on-one with a rip move to hit the quarterback as he tries to step up into the pocket? That's been practically unheard of from the Chiefs defensive line in recent years. Bailey wasn't doing that against anyone last year, good or bad.
Walker doesn't need to be a superstar. Not with the pass rushers he'll have around him. He just needs to win those individual battles. And as his new teammate will attest, he can do that. And it's not like it's just a Jeff Allen thing. You can find it in every game he played.
Here's Walker against the Steelers...
Here we see more of the same. Walker (after drawing an initial double team) is one-on-one with the LT. He uses brute strength to move the LT back and get to his side. Once he's got the LT in that position it's all over and the LT is forced to hook in order to save Big Ben from getting hammered. Ben is forced out of his comfortable position of scanning downfield and has to move forward. He ends up scrambling for a short gain, which is called back by a the refs flagging the blatant hooking.
There's a situation where Walker didn't get a sack, and maybe didn't even get credited with a hurry (since Big Ben got out of there pretty quickly). But he affected the play, prevented a pass from being thrown, and was the reason for lost yardage.
On top of all this (as I previously mentioned), Walker shows the ability to push OL backward with a strong bull rush. This is a huge part of being an interior DL, as even when you don't get the sack you crush the pocket and make things uncomfortable for the quarterback. If you go back and watch any one of Oakland's games from last season, you'll see Walker move an OL backward multiple times. It absolutely will happen.
I could show you about 40 more sets of pictures where Walker is doing more of the same things you've seen here, but I think you get the point. Vance Walker, three sacks and all, shows up on tape as a very large potential upgrade in pass rush from the DE and DT (in nickel / dime sets) positions.
So does this mean Walker is going to be a stud, conjuring up memories of Neil Smith? Um, no. A lot of free agents don't work out in their new locations, for any number of reasons. Despite what appears to be an ideal situation, Walker might not be anything more than "meh" for the Chiefs. I'm not a fortune teller, I don't know what the future brings.
All I can say is what I see in Walker's 2013 tape. And what I see is a guy who is has a very good blend of size, strength, athleticism, and football intelligence. A guy who didn't get nearly enough credit for Oakland's pass rush being at least passable despite awful secondary play. And most importantly, a guy who can win one-on-one matchups when teams are busy dealing with Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Dontari Poe.
In other words, a guy who just might be exactly what our defense needed. Should be fun finding out.