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Kansas City Chiefs roster analysis: Linebackers are expensive in KC

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

[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 their analysis here. Check out the introduction here.]

The players

WOLB - Tamba Hali 
WILB - Derrick Johnson, James-Michael Johnson 
SILB - Joe Mays 
SOLB - Dee Ford, Frank Zombo 

Other Players: JoJo Dickson

Free Agents: Justin Houston, Josh Mauga, Josh Martin, Dezman Moses

A general look at the unit

Just like the offensive line, this unit was defined by injuries. With both DJ and  Mays out for the better part of the season, Mauga and JMJ moved into starting positions - and it showed big time. Blown assignments, poor tackling, and a lack of cohesion became more and more obvious throughout the season. Eric Berry and his trademark thumping near the line of scrimmage missing as well didn't exactly help things. Mauga also took DJ's green dot on the helmet communicating with the sidelines. We are not sure whether he really was up to that task as well.

That said, not all was bad. Houston racking up sacks at record levels and developing a knack for strips, Hali, although getting up in age, still playing at a high level, and Ford getting more options as the season carried on (although still at a level you may find disappointing for a first round pick) formed one of the best OLB groups in the NFL.

However, the winds of change are blowing ... and there are two elephants in the room everyone should have taken notice of by now.

The guys under contract

Derrick Johnson had a nightmare of a year. Rupturing one's Achilles at age 32 is about the worst thing a true sportsman can do to open the season. He's the leader of the whole group, motivational, organizational, and behavioral. Him missing the season was a bigger blow to the whole defense than anyone might have thought the moment he went down. His future is heavily dependent on his recovery from injury. Word has it that he spent the season at the facility rehabbing and helping to prep the team for game days. So the Chiefs should have a pretty good picture of what to expect. His cap number may be another issue to look at. $5.25M is not a marginal number, especially if the risk of an injury-induced decline in performance is lingering. However, with a $1 M roster bonus due, the Chiefs need to make a decision soon. We expect him back. Whether he can perform at his previous level remains to be seen.

Dee Ford didn't see much playing time initially. When he came to KC most people were aware that he's a furious pass rusher - but not much more. So we all anticipated that he might be stuck behind two of the top OLB in the league. However, the three OLB sets the team showed in camp and preseason raised expectations which were going to be disappointed. However, Ford was drafted with the clear intention to replace either Hali or Houston, and it would be more than a surprise if he would not take over one of the starting spots next season. The year learning hopefully made him a more flexible player. Over the last four weeks he showed he can play the game.

Joe Mays was supposed to play a big role alongside DJ. His wrist injury kept him off the field for most of the season, but when he returned there was a noticeable difference in comparison to JMJ. He has a fairly significant contract ($4M cap this year) but given the uncertainty surrounding DJ the Chiefs would be well advised to keep him.

Frank Zombo probably was only the fourth OLB in the team's pecking order, thus he hardly saw the field on defense. But he's a core special teams player, and not a shabby one. With one less OLB in front of him he may ultimately be the only experienced depth at the position, thus, as a dual role player, he may have a good chance to return.

James-Michael Johnson was forced into a starting spot due to Mays' injury. That move obviously overwhelmed him. He by no means is the hard hitter required against the run, and he didn't see much playing time on obvious passing downs. He may return as a back up, but he'll have to fight for his job during offseason. Right now we consider him on the outside looking in, especially if Mauga returns.

Tamba Hali is one of the two elephants in the room. While still playing at a high level he's getting up there in age and slowing down a bit. He is on a huge contract, and he probably can't be afforded if Houston comes back. Therefore word has it that he's gone. It's obvious, isn't it?

Well, it's not. At least not if you take a closer look. What if ... Houston does not return for whatever reason? The Chiefs can't afford to lose them both. Thus we expect a decision on Hali's fate only after a decision on Houston has been made. The deadline for designating franchise players is March 2, about a week before free agency starts (March 10). So we should know by then. However, if Houston is NOT franchised (the tender would be approximately $13M, definitely $3M+ more than the cap number a long-term contract would produce), Hali could stick around even longer. Critical factor: He has a $2M roster bonus in his contract reportedly due on March 19. If the unspeakable happens and Houston walks (which is more than likely if he hits free agency), we think Hali could be back, possibly even on a renewed contract lowering his cap figures some.

That said, for now we believe in a Houston re-signing and leave Hali out of our plans.

The free agents

Justin Houston is the other elephant. Obviously he is a must-re-sign. You just can't let a player like him walk. That gives him a really strong position to negotiate, and will eat up most if not all of the Chiefs cap space. The question is: where to put him? Move him to the weak side so he gets the advantage of the QB's blind side? Or keep him at his traditional strong side position, allowing Ford to play to his strength (pass rush) from the right? We'll go with the latter for now, especially as Ford yet has to prove he can truly play the run and drop into coverage every now and then.

Josh Mauga started the season filling in for D. Johnson pretty well, but declined significantly towards the end. Bad tackling, missed assignments - if we had to name one culprit for the team's bad run defense, especially in the second half of the season, it probably would be him. Nevertheless, he called the defensive plays in place of DJ, so I think the team will consider bringing him back. We agree, as long as it is in a backup role and at a reasonable price.

Without any further moves other than a Houston re-signing, the Chiefs have $30M+ locked up in the starting linebackers. That's untenable.

Josh Martin didn't see much playing time on defense. But he is a core element on special teams. While he's not a guy to lose sleep about it should be an easy decision to bring him back solely for that role. As an exclusive rights free agent, he won't go anywhere.

We were surprised to see Dezman Moses back on the roster after he was released during final cuts. Obviously he forced his way back in on some kind of injury grievance or formality. He should not return.

Cap considerations

Without any further moves other than a Houston re-signing, the Chiefs have $30M+ locked up in the starting linebackers. That's untenable. Even with Hali out that number is $20M+. The team will have to balance further cuts against the replacements - this year clearly showed they don't have adequate replacements for the inside guys in place. Maybe they can replace one of the two starters, but definitely not both of them. And will they be able to bring in an adequate replacement for significantly less than DJ or Mays will be paid? We are sure the team will closely monitor the situation, but take the less risky way and try to keep the unit intact.

Overall assessment

This unit was supposed to be top of the league. It wasn't, by a wide margin. With DJ and Mays returning we should see some improvement on the inside, and with Ford and either Houston or Hali on the outside the unit should be able to produce another year of ferocious pass rush, unless age and lingering injury issues catch up. Nevertheless, DJ is getting up there in age, and there's not much in the pipeline in terms of young players with room for improvement. Thus we anticipate some serious moves at the back end of the roster here, particularly on the inside, and preferably with a look to the mid-term.

Coaching

Gary Gibbs probably is one of the top coaches on Reid's team. A leftover of the Pioli / Crennel "era", we are somewhat surprised his name didn't come up for a coordinator position yet. It would be a good thing if he returns.

2015 LINEBACKER PROJECTION

WOLB - Ford, mid to late round draft pick, Martin 
WILB - DJ, mid to low end free agent / Mauga 
SILB - Mays, high mid round draft pick 
SOLB - Houston, Zombo