[Editor's note: We continue on with our Chiefs offseason roster analysis from Dirk Scholl, Aaron Hansberry, and Joe Edwards of Football Futures. Many thanks to them for allowing us to post this here. Check out the introduction here.]
RE - Mike DeVito, Jaye Howard
NT - Dontari Poe, Vance Walker
LE - Allen Bailey, Mike Catapano, Nick Williams
Others: Hebron Fangupo (DT), Jerel Worthy (DT)
Free agents: Kevin Vickerson (DL)
*Note that this was written before the Chiefs signed DL Vaughn Martin, which will factor in.
A general look at the unit
One thing became apparent during last year's preseason: The front office doesn't seem to value the defensive line nearly as much as we were getting used to in KC with repeated high draft picks under former GM Scott Pioli and years before. No draft picks last year and Mike Catapano in the seventh round two drafts ago. Or they didn't see the need with the guys they had on the roster? This is something we may have to have a closer look at.
The minor change in free agency last year (Tyson Jackson being replaced by Vance Walker) was not considered a major headache.
Throughout the year the unit went from running like a BMW to running like a used VW Passat after losing talent throughout the supposedly elite front seven (lost: D. Johnson, DeVito, Berry): still handsome and efficient, but nothing nice. While some blame the putrid run defense on the defensive line, others on the linebackers, we think it's a mix of all. With the three guys mentioned out, the whole system fell apart as the replacements at least in part were only able to fill in the individual positions, but were unable maintain the overall concept and the mutual automatic support required in a sound defense.
Ultimately (even without the DeVito injury) the year developed somewhat differently than expected with Jaye Howard taking over a major role, and both free agent acquisitions (Walker and Vickerson after the DeVito injury) being an afterthought only. This may have some significant impact on our considerations about moving forward.
The guys under contract
Dontari Poe. He's a beast. He draws double teams on each and every play. He goes to the Pro Bowl game again. He's the teams fourth running back (or so). He supposedly never wears down. However, he does wear down. For the second season in a row his performance declined towards the end of the season. And from the beginning his impact was not what it was last year. Whether this is related to his workload (remember Larry Johnson after his monster season? He never recovered), Mike DeVitomissing or teams adjusting to him, it showed. Poe needs a breather every now and then to keep him fresh throughout a game, throughout the season, and throughout his career. That said, he'll be a more than solid NT in 2015 again, whether he gets help or not.
Mike DeVito is set to come back next year to a starting role. However, we aren't exactly organizing a welcoming committee. He is a logical solution to some problems the Chiefs had in the run game in that he already knows the system, has proven he can excel in it, and he is in the last year of his deal. What we all want to know is can he come back from his injury and immediately produce? The issue is his contract: He's one of the guys on which the Chiefs could save some real money.
Allen Bailey is the second best thing this line has going for it. There were a few games where he was as disruptive to the quarterback as the linebackers were. He's far from great and has some improving to do across the board, but at 25 years old and seeing his first season as a starter, we can expect him to do just that. Bailey's new contract essentially puts him at $5M per year for the next three years with a fourth year of either an earned $8M check, or else a very manageable $2M cap hit should the team opt to cut him. He earned his $5M per year with 41 tackles and five sacks. That'll do, but I want more from him, and I'm sure the coaching staff does too. Bailey is a lock to start at defensive end next year - which side of the line may depend on whether DeVito returns or not. If DeVito returns the balance of the snap count will be interesting.
Jaye Howard did what many of we dreamers often wrongfully envision: He elevated himself from a status of barely on the roster, to a more than solid fill-in for DeVito with potential to start. He kept the second DE spot over the fairly high priced veteran Vance Walker if that tells you something. IMO, at a salary and total cap hit of $660k, and with position versatility, he is a rising star of this line. Unless we were scheming around him as a handicap all of last year (what we don't believe), we think Howard may have a major role on the line, especially if the team decides to cut DeVito.
Vance Walker, after signing a three-year, $10M deal not only could not earn a starting role*, he had trouble seeing the field. According to ESPN, there were five games where Walker saw less than 7 snaps the entire day. Even still, he was the team's first DL back-up off the bench most often, so he is far from inept. But Walker has not made himself invaluable and he needs to recognize that; with no guaranteed money left and a potential cap saving of $1.75M by releasing him, the front office by no means has their hands tied.
*He did start for Bailey in two games while Bailey was navigating concussion protocol. And he earned that responsibility. However, that's not exactly what we mean when we say starter.
Mike Catapano. We're not holding out hope after seeing some positives from the Ivy Leaguer turn into an injury riddled two-year career. He's just another camp body that will have to show something impressive to make the team. He is essentially trying out for the Kevin Vickerson role and will face serious competition there.
Nick Williams didn't show anything during his short tenure in Kansas City so far. But there obviously is a reason why GM John Dorsey picked him off the Steelers' practice squad and kept him on the roster for the remainder of the season. He'll compete with Catapano for a back-up DE spot.
Hebron Fangupo and Jerel Worthy haven't shown anything yet, they'll compete for back-up spots.
The free agents
Kevin Vickerson is the lone free agent on the defensive line. It's safe to say that the Vickerson signing was out of necessity (DeVito injured September 7th, Vickerson signed September 9th). Given the emergence of Howard and him finishing the season not even with the most snaps for a backup (Walker had 61 snaps more), we don't see him rejoining the team.
Cap considerations may have a significant impact on the decisions regarding the defensive line. With a lot of snaps taken in nickel or even dime packages, the Chiefs realistically only have 2.5 starters. Poe and Bailey are set. What does DeVito offer coming off an Achilles rupture? Before he definitely was the best DE on the roster, but now Bailey had a very good year, Howard emerged, and Walker is a cheaper option ($3.75M compared to $5.4M). Add the availability of Catapano and Williams and we doubt both DeVito and Walker will be back. In addition to the risk involved in his recovery, the significantly bigger savings by releasing DeVito ($4M) over Walker ($1.75M) may push DeVito out of the door, unless he's willing to return for a lowered base salary. However, as neither Walker nor DeVito have a roster bonus coming up, the Chiefs have time until just before Week 1 to make a decision.
With Poe, Bailey and Howard, the cornerstones of the defensive line are set. The big question mark is how much cap will the team dedicate to the unit? This will decide the fate of DeVito and Walker. Keeping one of them would provide veteran depth which should be augmented by some fresh blood. Williams may be part of that approach.
Poe should be considered under two aspects: How to give him a breather every now and then, and, longer term, how long will he be with the team. He'll be up for a monster contract next year. So it may be appropriate to start looking for a back-up to groom just in case the unspeakable happens.
Other than that, we don't expect any major moving or shaking here. Adding a draft prospect should be standard procedure. Not necessarily a first rounder, but if the team is truly best player available in philosophy, it could even end up with a top-half of the draft prospect.
Another question is who will be taking the backup NT position this year? Perhaps one of the practice squad guys (Fangupo or Worthy). Maybe somebody we have yet to talk about. Whoever it is, he will come cheap.
The other variable in this group is the starting defensive end spot opposite Bailey. Will it be Howard, DeVito or perhaps Walker? While it would be nice to have DeVito coming back to form, offering his trademark lane clogging in complement of Bailey's improved gap splitting, the financial implications may point in another direction.
Tommy Brasher is assumed to work in conjunction with Gary Gibbs. Those two have their task carved out in providing a front seven that is finally able to stop the run all over the field, not only in the red zone. As far as player development, Poe more or less stalled this year in comparison to a great 2013, while Bailey and Howard took over starting roles and hit the ground running. As he's probably not a hot candidate for a promotion, we think we'll see him back for may be one more year (assuming he doesn't retire at age 74).
2015 DEFENSIVE LINE PROJECTION
RE - Bailey, mid-round draft pick / short-term free agent / Williams
NT - Poe, practice squad promotion / mid-late round draft draft pick / UDFA
LE - Howard, Walker*