The linebackers have been one of the strengths of the Kansas City Chiefs since Andy Reid and John Dorsey arrived. With injuries to two players on the inside, the Chiefs linebackers had to show their depth.
Here's what we learned about the Chiefs linebackers last season:
The fourth year veteran played the second most defensive snaps of the season, trailing Sean Smith by only four snaps at 1,032.
Houston has become the face of the Chiefs defense. From the Denver home game through the final game of the season, Houston grew as a leader and took his play to another level. He can hit offenses with every rush move, shut down the edge and fight through double teams.
The final step to completing Houston's game is the strip. He started to show that ability towards the end of the season. An ideal situation for the Chiefs in 2015 is to move Houston over to the ROLB position so the quarterback can no longer see him coming. It will help in his strip sack opportunities and eliminate the offense's' best pass protectors. The homegrown pass rush will likely be in Kansas City for quite some time but the contract numbers may take a while to get ironed out.
Hali took Dee Ford under his wing and taught him what he knew about the NFL. His impact will be felt long after his time in Kansas City has ended. His mentoring of Houston and Ford which speaks volumes about his character. Father Time has started to creep in with Hali. His lack of speed became noticeable toward the end of the season. Part of that was the knee injury he fought through and another is the NFL catching up with his 31-year old body.
Hali still has ability to play in the NFL. It may just come on another roster on a rotational basis that allows him to stay fresh.
The first round pick in 2014 saw 122 snaps on defense and 89 on special teams. It was 639 snaps shy of what Eric Fisher saw in his rookie campaign. Ford's impact likely isn't what fans expected. He was a converted defensive end coming into his NFL career. It was always going to take time for him to get comfortable without his hand in the dirt.
Ford has a quick first step and some serious speed around the corner. His pass rush moves continually got better as his opportunities increased later in the season. The disappointing part was his lack of opportunities on the season. I put that on the defensive coaching staff.
The staff finally did get him more involved later in the season in the Oakland, Pittsburgh and San Diego games. Ford made an impact in all those games because they allowed him to get after the quarterback in obvious pass rushing downs. The future looks promising for Ford but he is only going to get better by seeing playing time on the field.
The wrist injury that Mays sustained during the second week of the preseason and kept him out for more than half the season derailed the Chiefs run defense early on. Mays is an aggressive downhill attacker who has no hesitation in attacking once he diagnoses the play.
Mauga was originally brought in as depth to Derrick Johnson. He has a good grasp of the system based on his time with the Jets and solid NFL experience. The spot starter was thrust into the starting lineup full time after the injuries to the Chiefs inside linebackers.
The five year veteran is capable of filling in for a handful of games but an entire season reveals his flaws in run support. Mauga battled back spasms during the season which limited his productivity down the stretch. He became slower in his play diagnosis and run fits. Teams began to exploit that and the run defense struggled during the three game losing streak. Bob Sutton entrusted Mauga with the headset calls after Derrick Johnson injury. The impressive part is he only had a month in this specific system before he was thrown into that role. He was a solid pickup and will provide quality depth in 2015.
Johnson struggled at diagnosing the run. He seemed uncomfortable in coverage and some of his reads. The 2013 waiver claim has been a solid special teams contributor but hasn't been able to put it all together at inside linebacker as a full time player.
Zombo was another good special teams contributor. He provides solid depth at inside and outside linebacker. The fifth year veteran is a player that understands what it takes to play in the NFL. Zombo saw 37 snaps on defense this season and 367 on special teams.
Martin showed pass rushing promise on the field during training camp. He has put multiple pass rush moves together. He spent a portion of his offseason working out with Tamba Hali. He saw 52 snaps on defense and 367 on special teams. Martin is a very good blocker on special teams but is still learning the ropes at outside linebacker.
Johnson saw his season come to an abrupt end in Week 1. An Achilles injury at the age of 32 isn't an easy one to overcome. Johnson has been an extremely effective linebacker for the Chiefs. His speed allows him to cover both A gaps and help shut down the opponents interior run game. Johnson could also drop back into coverage and limit the damage over the middle with some zone coverages.
Johnson spent a great deal of time at the Chiefs facility rehabbing and helping his teammates prepare each week despite his injury. The 10-year veteran continued to be a leader despite not playing. The Chiefs will need to begin the preparation for life after Johnson if he is unable to effectively return from his Achilles' tear.
The Chiefs could see changes at a couple of linebacker spots. Kansas City will have a tough time replacing Derrick Johnson in the future but will need to begin those steps this offseason. The team will also need to evaluate their depth.