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Are the Kansas City Chiefs linebackers a good value?

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A week or so ago I asked Joel if he had any ideas for potential articles I could write about. In the email he stated:

How do the Chiefs position groups vary by average age - like the o-line is really young, the LBs I assume are older. Maybe you could use that to identify areas that need an infusion of youth either this year or next.

Oh, and by the way, thanks for sharing the pictures of your cat. She is totally cute. Wish I could snuggle with her.

The last part of that may or may not have actually been said.

Due to my mental instability mostly fueled by the Chiefs I decided to blow his simple suggestion out of proportion and begin working on something bigger.

I decided I’d do a complete roster analysis of each position group and compare and contrast the Chiefs roster with the rest of the rosters in the NFL. I wanted to see how efficient the Chiefs are with their money. I wanted to see if there are areas where the Chiefs are spending too much, or areas on the team they’re ignoring financially.

Oh, and I guess I’ll also cover what Joel suggested as well; checking the Chiefs position groups and their ages.

Ultimately, I am writing these roster articles because I want them to be the premier Chiefs offseason roster guide. I’ve gone to dark places while building some of this data, and half of it isn’t even finished yet. It has been the most trying data collection I have done for any article or series of articles while I’ve been writing for Arrowhead Pride.

The Data

The player stats are from Pro Football Reference, the roster data came from each team’s NFL.com site, the roster data was validated with depth charts from Ourlads (seriously they saved my life), and the cap data was obtained from Over the Cap.

Massive thanks to each of these places, none of the information provided in this article or the ones to follow would exist if it weren’t for those sites. It was incredibly time consuming and difficult to merge all of the data, but eventually I was able to complete enough to write this first article.

Since the Chiefs defense operates primarily under a 3-4 scheme, only 3-4 defenses were taken into account while creating the data. The following teams employed a 3-4 defense in 2016: Arizona, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Tennessee, and Washington.

Linebackers

We’ll start by looking at some pretty generic information comparing the Chiefs linebacker corps with the rest of the 3-4 defenses in the NFL.

The Chiefs have the second most players under contract for 3-4 defenses. The 13 LBs under contract for the Chiefs are the following players accompanied by their contract amounts in 2017.

Please note - all contract costs used in this article are based on their 2017 cap hit, and not the amount the player will actually receive.

Chiefs LB Contract Info

Player 2017 Contract Amount
Player 2017 Contract Amount
Justin Houston $22,100,000
Tamba Hali $8,583,333
Derrick Johnson $7,562,500
Dee Ford $2,595,950
Frank Zombo $1,356,666
D.J. Alexander $665,563
Khaseem Greene $615,000
Ramik Wilson $615,000
Dadi Nicolas $579,803
Justin March-Lillard $543,334
Earl Okine $540,000
Terrance Smith $540,000
Victor Ochi $540,000

Now that we know how much each Chiefs LB contracts cost, let’s see how the Chiefs LB expenditures fare against the rest of the 3-4 defenses in the NFL.

In terms of linebacker spending, no 3-4 defensive team in the NFL even comes close to the Chiefs. One might think the Chiefs could potentially stand to trim some fat from the LB budget...

Now let’s see just how much of their financial resources the Chiefs put into the linebacker position compared to the other 3-4 defenses.

28.2 percent of the Chiefs cap spending is held by the linebacker position. This is much greater than the league average of 16.4 percent (Remember cap dollars, not cash.)

Also the numbers are slightly skewed. Over the Cap didn’t provide each teams total cap liabilities in an easy to acquire format, and some of the Chiefs linebackers contracts don’t count against their total cap spending. So, consider the 28.2 percent as a close estimate.

It’s fair to say the Chiefs value the linebacker position because they clearly spend a lot of money there. The numbers are padded greatly by Justin Houston’s lucrative $22 million dollar cap hit.

Now that we’ve done a little overview, let’s look into the ILB and OLB position groups a little more closely.

ILB - Age

For clarity, the Chiefs inside linebackers currently under contract are DJ Alexander, Derrick Johnson, Justin March-Lillard, Earl Okine, Terrance Smith, Ramik Wilson and Khaseem Greene (reported he was signed, not on the official roster yet on the Chiefs website).

We’ll start with Joel’s initial suggestion: Age.

The Chiefs have the third oldest on average ILB group out of all the 3-4 defenses in the NFL at 26.29 years of age. Perhaps a small infusion of youth would be helpful, but keep in mind Derrick Johnson somewhat skews the data.

ILB - Cost Efficiency

One of the primary goals of an inside linebacker is to stop the run. So I took each defense’s yards per carry totals, and compared it against the total contract dollars for each teams ILB position.

Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Arizona, Tennessee, and San Francisco all have regular starting inside linebackers who are free agents and don’t count against their 2017 cap for the below graph. The 2016 numbers will be a little skewed in their favor for this data. For all intents and purposes just ignore these five teams in the graph below.

So what do we have here exactly? The graph shows 2016 yards per attempt allowed vs ILB total cap dollars under contract for 2017. Essentially the data shows how bright things look going into 2017 in regards to ILB performance vs their total cost.

The red line represents the idea that teams who spend more on the ILB position should do a better job of stopping the run. Teams who are on or near the red line are par for the course. Teams below the red line are exceeding expectations, and teams above the red line are under performing.

As you can see the Chiefs spend a lot of money on the ILB position, but did not do a great job of stopping the run in 2016. Since essentially the same players return in 2017 (depending on what happens in FA and the draft.) the Chiefs are in need of upgrading this position.

Since the Chiefs ILB corps is aging, under performing, and is highly paid, this should be an area John Dorsey targets in the draft or free agency.

Now let’s take a look at the OLB position group.

OLB - Age

The Chiefs OLBs under contract are: Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Frank Zombo, Dadi Nicolas, and Victor Ochi.

Below is a chart of the Chiefs OLB average age compared with the rest of the 3-4 defenses in the NFL.

The Chiefs have one of the older OLB position groups on average when compared to the rest of the 3-4 defenses in the NFL.

OLB - Cost Efficiency

Now let’s look at 2016 sack totals compared with total OLB cap expenditures. The numbers below are the 2016 sack totals divided by each teams 2017 total OLB cap dollars spent.

Keep in mind the Packers, Colts, and Cardinals all have starting OLBs who are set to be free agents so they will not count against their 2017 cap numbers. I would recommend ignoring their data points because the numbers aren’t good estimates for 2017 cost efficiency.

Things aren’t looking so great for the Chiefs OLB position group in terms of cost efficiency.

However, this is due mostly to Justin Houston’s lack of availability through most of the 2016 season. Regardless of Houston’s injury, the Chiefs will need to sack the quarterback more frequently in 2017.

If Houston doesn’t recover from his injury and return to form in 2017 the Chiefs pass rush could be in a very bad position going forward.

Trimming Some Fat?

It’s clear the Chiefs have invested a lot of money in their linebacker corps. Below is a table containing the Chiefs top five most expensive linebackers cap cost, dead money, and potential savings if they were to be cut according to Over the Cap.

Dead Money and Cap Savings

Player Dead Money (Cut pre-June 1) Cap Savings (Cut pre-June 1) Dead Money (Cut post-June 1) Cap Savings (Cut post-June 1)
Player Dead Money (Cut pre-June 1) Cap Savings (Cut pre-June 1) Dead Money (Cut post-June 1) Cap Savings (Cut post-June 1)
Justin Houston $25,050,000 -$2,950,000 $12,350,000 $9,750,000
Tamba Hali $8,916,667 -$333,334 $7,333,333 $1,250,000
Derrick Johnson $5,500,000 $2,062,500 $3,750,000 $3,812,500
Dee Ford $1,063,400 $1,532,550 $1,063,400 $1,532,550
Frank Zombo $333,334 $1,023,332 $166,666 $1,190,000

From the looks of it the only realistic place the Chiefs could trim some fat going into the 2017 season is by cutting Frank Zombo.

Houston, Hali, DJ, and Ford all have contracts that wouldn’t really help the Chiefs money situation by cutting them. It looks as though the Chiefs won’t be able to trim much fat from their budget in regards to the linebacker position going into 2017.

Conclusion

So we covered a few things, and I just want to recap them here.

  1. The Chiefs spend a lot of money on linebackers
  2. A large portion of the Chiefs financial resources are invested in the linebacker position
  3. The ILB group needs to be more cost efficient in stopping the run
  4. The OLB group needs to be more cost efficient in rushing the passer
  5. Dorsey may invest in an ILB in free agency or the draft
  6. The Chiefs can’t clear a large portion of cap space by cutting any of their linebackers
  7. Houston NEEDS to be a factor in 2017

Up next: the Chiefs secondary. As a teaser, the Chiefs are doing great with their defensive backs.