Welcome back to the Six Pack! This week's Kansas City Chiefs position group is the Outside Linebackers. As always, I'll discuss six different BEERs (Base Expectation and Evaluation Report) and get some discussion going to last us 'til Week 1! Let's crack 'em open!
[Previously: Defensive line]
1. Stock Report
Of all the position groups on the Chiefs defense, it's pretty easy to argue that the Outside Linebacker corps have the best overall starters. For years now, the Chiefs have relied on their stud OLB's to set the tempo and bring serious pressure all game long. That hasn't changed this season, but unlike the Defensive Line last week, their stock is DOWN.
Justin Houston is all-everything at the SOLB position. He's a top
25 26 NFL player and is the best football player the Chiefs have. Unfortunately, he's hurt with an undetermined return date. Reports say as long as Week 8-9 of the regular season, and even after he's back, who knows how effective he'll be? This could easily be a lost season for the guy. That alone is enough to assume the unit will be worse than last year.
However, Tamba Hali is another year older, and we've now seen back-to-back season where he began to break down toward the end of the season. That typically wouldn't be a big deal for a team that drafted his replacement a couple years ago, but Dee Ford has been ... underwhelming thus far. If he's not making progress by leaps and bounds, Jonathan Massaquoi (journeyman), Frank Zombo (backup quality player), Dezman Moses (next to no actual NFL snaps), and Dadi Nicolas (rookie in a new position) could be thrust into significant minutes. That's not ideal for a team that relies so heavily on its Outside Linebackers.
2. Lineup / Playing Time
Well, this is just the million dollar question, isn't it? Ideally, Justin Houston is healthy early, takes the majority of snaps for the season, and Dee Ford grows into the starting role, relegating old man Tamba Hali to spot duty, where he can't break down under a heavy snap load. So, that's good enough, right? We can move along?
Yeah, no. We're not living in that dream world. Dee Ford is going to get a lot of snaps, especially initially. What he does with those snaps is going to dictate the rest of the playing time for the rest of the season. Hali will start opposite him, on the weakside of the formation. Massoquoi (if he makes the team) could spell Hali until Houston comes back, when Ford (if playing well enough) should move to the weakside of the formation, splitting snaps with Tamba.
If Ford doesn't make the most of his snaps, that's when it gets interesting. During OTA's, Dezman Moses jumped in with the first team when Ford went out hurt. I'm higher on Moses than most, and I think they'll give him a good shot if Ford doesn't cut it. Massoquoi could factor in as a starter until Houston comes back as well, as he feels like a slight upgrade to Zombo.
Finally, the Chiefs could push their chips in and try to bring rookie Dadi Nicolas along as quick as possible. Needless to say, if Zombo and Nicolas are relied on for significant minutes, this season will be a long one.
BRINGING. THE. HEAT. When healthy, there is no better pass rush in the NFL than Puff Puff Pass Rush (thanks, Dirkness). Tamba Hali and Justin Houston own so much space in the opponent's backfield that they've started leasing housing back there. Both guys are quick, strong, and have stellar hands while rushing. Justin Houston's coverage ability as a pass rushing linebacker are almost as good as his run stopping ability. There's very little (if anything) in his game to criticize. Tamba Hali has embraced a leadership role over the past couple seasons, and he spends just as much time teaching and attempting to inspire the other players on the team as he does personally affecting the play on the field.
But enough about the obvious studs in the group. Dee Ford has speed, and plenty of it. Massoquoi has long arms that he uses well in the run game to set the edge and funnel back toward the rest of the defense. He's also a veteran, coming from several different schemes. Zombo is kind of a jack-of-all-trades. Moses has shown flashes of a young Tamba Hali, playing with strength, speed, and a nose for the ball. Finally, Nicolas is a intriguing prospect that could really grow if he's allowed to play in space. He is a quick twitch athlete with natural hands and comes built in with pass rush moves. If he can put some weight on his frame, there's no reason to think he can't become a third down rush linebacker.
There's only one Justin Houston. Next.
Okay, alright, here goes the not fun part. KC's best OLB is hurt. Who knows if he's the same this season. The other starter is old and has seen his pass rush production start to go down without a legitimate option on the other side of the field and as his body breaks down. His replacement is a first round draft pick that has shown more bad than good outside of one game last year. Even Hali has gone out of his way this offseason to point out that Ford should have taken the starting job from him by now. He's currently a one-trick pony that doesn't do his trick particularly well. Every other player on the roster is unproven or a backup-level player. With as many positives as this team has the potential for, the negatives have stacked up in a big, bad way going into this season. Let's get working on that cloning device so we can get a couple Justin Houstons on the field ASAP.
5. Around the League
There's not a whole lot to say here, as we're unsure the condition either of the starting OLBs will be in for the bulk of the 2016-2017 season. As stated above, I believe that when healthy, this is the best pass rush duo in the league. Denver and Oakland give them a run for their money, and New England is up there, but a healthy Hali and Houston top them all, in my opinion. Now, the Ford/Hali/Massoquoi/Moses lineup we'll probably see? That's not great. Not only would I expect the Chiefs to fall out of the top five, I'd put them in the bottom half of the league. Until I see a healthy Tamba on the field, I'm very worried about their ability to keep pace with the league average this season.
6. Stat Predictions/Expectations
Today's BEER No. 6 is something like a great Double IPA (Heady Topper, y'all) that wasn't consumed soon enough: a little grassy, but you can tell there used to be something special there.
I'm going to assume the worst case scenario for Houston and Hali's health when making these predictions. Houston gets half a season, and Hali plays around 3/4 of the snaps this season. I'm also not high on Ford's progress, and assuming Moses (or someone) takes over his spot around the time that Houston comes back. I agree with Stagdsp that Dadi Nicolas gets stashed on the practice squad initially, but I do think he'll get promoted to the roster in games that Tamba can't go.
Justin Houston - 31 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 TFL, 5 PBU's, 1 INT
Tamba Hali - 44 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 TFL, 1 PBU
Dee Ford - 30 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 TFL, 1 PBU
Dezman Moses - 28 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 3 TFL, 2 PBU's
Jonathan Massoquoi - 35 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 4 TFL, 1 PBU
Frank Zombo - 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 0 TFL, 0 PBU
Dadi Nicolas - 10 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 1 TFL, 0 PBU
That's it for this week's Six Pack!
What are your opinions/predictions on the 2016-2017 Outside Linebacker group?
Next week, I'll be covering the Chiefs Inside Linebacker position group, and I promise it won't all be about DJ...just 87 percent of it (the other 13 percent reserved for Justin March, naturally). As always, if you'd like your comments, questions, or predictions included in next week's post, send me an email at lastphoenix [at} gmail [dot] com or a message on Twitter @barleyhop. I'll look through them and use the best for next week!