Chiefs return proven, reliable playmakers at top LB spots

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Aug. 1, 2014; St. Joseph, MO; Chiefs outside linebackers Justin Houston (50) and Tamba Hali (91) during training camp at Missouri Western State University. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Aug. 1, 2014; St. Joseph, MO; Chiefs outside linebackers Justin Houston (50) and Tamba Hali (91) during training camp at Missouri Western State University. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Chiefs linebacker corps has been a consistent presence over the past two seasons, and three original starters from 2013 – Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson – remain at their respective positions.

Hali, Houston and Johnson have been a key component in the Chiefs’ ability to apply pressure, with Houston (22) and Hali (6) accounting for 28 of the team’s 46 sacks in 2014.

Hali (11), Houston (11) and Johnson (4 1/2) accounted for 26 1/2 of the 47 sacks in 2013.

The Chiefs currently have 13 linebackers on the roster:

1. Outside linebacker Justin Houston: The $101 million-dollar man returns for his fifth season. Houston is in the prime of his career at age 26 and coming off an impressive 22-sack season. The former third-round pick is a unique combination of power and finesse. Houston can hit the opponent with a bull rush, smack-dip rip, swim move or a club with a rip and make it look effortless.

The Georgia alumnus is a relentless pass rusher and an even better run defender. He has a unique ability at setting the edge and forcing runs back inside to his pursuing teammates. Houston is also very disciplined in his assignments and stays at home on reverses.

2. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali: The former first-round pick in 2006 enters his 10th season with the Chiefs, having survived four head coaches and some playoff heartbreak. Father Time, however, is beginning to catch up with Hali at this point. He has lost some of his explosiveness from earlier in his career but does his best to counter it with his relentless work ethic. The Penn State alumnus excels at keeping defender from getting a consistent punch at his chest and has the dip rip technique perfected.

Hali would benefit from matching up against the right tackle at this stage in his career and having his snap count reduced in certain situations. There is no arguing his impact as a leader on this roster; he is always working with the younger players on how to improve their game.

3. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson: Johnson begins his 11th season in Kansas City and at 32 is the oldest veteran of the group. The former first-round pick in 2006 sustained a torn Achilles during week one that derailed his 2014 season. The former Texas Longhorn looked impressive during spring practices and did not favor his repaired Achilles during drills. Johnson did have some knee inflammation, but consistently worked throughout the spring.

The longest tenured Chief of the group looked just as quick as he did last season during bag drills, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team drills. So far, the signs look good for Johnson, but the biggest test will be once the pads come on in training camp.

4. Inside linebacker Josh Mauga: The sixth-year veteran originally joined the team on a one-year deal before training camp last year, and begins his second season with the Chiefs after signing a three-year deal in March. Mauga saw his snap count jump from 164 with the Jets in 2012 to 1,087 with the Chiefs in 2014. It was the second time in his career that he played all 16 games, but last year was the first he started all 16 games in a season.

Mauga went on to lead the team in tackles with 103 during his 2014 campaign and performed well with the increased workload. He fought through minor injuries during the second half of the season, but was consistent in performing his assignments despite the tweaks. The key will be taking that experience to improve his game on a more consistent basis and improving his strength to control blockers better.

5. Outside linebacker Dee Ford: The team’s first-round pick of the 2014 draft only saw 211 total snaps last year with 122 of them coming on defense. That put him 822 reps shy of Justin Houston.

Ford told the media during spring practices his biggest challenge was improving his understanding of situation football. The former Auburn Tiger has an explosive first step and is effective on his speed rushes around the corner. He seemed to acclimate at the season went on as a standing rusher compared to putting his hand in the dirt at Auburn.

Ford is arguably the most athletically gifted rusher on the roster, but he must see consistent reps on the field before the improvement can come. The challenge for the Chiefs defensive coaching staff is to be creative in getting Ford on the field to rush the passer while he grows in other areas.

6. Outside linebacker Josh Martin: Martin begins his third season on the Chiefs roster. The former undrafted free agent has continually improved during his first two seasons. Hali trained with Martin during the 2014 offseason and the work showed on the field in training camp. Martin was a more well-rounded pass rusher and had multiple rush moves with a blend of counters to fit his finesse style.

The Columbia alumnus was an important part on special teams with 321 snaps and key blocks that lead to some big returns. Martin has athletic upside and provides a good rotational pass rusher.

7. Outside linebacker Frank Zombo: Zombo is versatile player for the roster and can play inside and outside linebacker. He is also a key special teams contributor as he saw 367 snaps last season and 279 in 2013. Zombo doesn’t bring the same athletic ability as Ford or Martin in a backup role, but provides consistent technique and ability to utilize his veteran experience in multiple areas. He is also solid in run support.

8. Inside linebacker James Michael-Johnson: Michael-Johnson is another player who saw his role increase after the injuries at linebacker last season. He spent 324 of his snaps on special teams in 2013 and 263 in 2014. His defensive snaps rose from 67 in 2013 to 438 last year. The fourth-year veteran is a solid backup, but struggled in his run fits during his increased role. Michael-Johnson will be pushed this season by D.J. Alexander and Ramik Wilson for a roster spot.

9. Inside linebacker D.J. Alexander: The fifth-round pick has similar athletic ability to Derrick Johnson on tape. The former Oregon State Beaver is very quick and decisive in reading and reacting. He has solid understand of run fits and was rarely out of position on tape. Alexander showed impressive quickness during spring practices in the bag drills similar to Dee Ford.

The rookie also shows an ability to lay at punishing hit on a defender when necessary. The key for Alexander will be bulking up over the next year and learning from the veterans in front of him but there is tremendous promise there.

10. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson: The fourth-round pick out of Georgia seemed to have a knack for the football when dropping back into coverage during spring practices. Wilson had multiple interceptions on passes over the middle and looked comfortable in coverage. He will need to work on his fluidity when dropping back into coverage and attacking the gap.

11. Outside linebacker Sage Harold: The undrafted free agent out of James Madison showcased his athletic ability during spring practices. He had good burst around the edge and constantly spent time with Tamba Hali off to the side learning technique when he wasn’t in the drill. Harold showed a very good desire for improving his game and positioning himself for a roster spot. Harold will need to improve his strength, but the potential and attitude are there.

12. Outside linebacker Dezman Moses: The fourth-year veteran saw his 2014 season derailed with an elbow injury during training camp. Moses saw 229 snaps on special teams and 58 on defensive during his 2013 season. The Tulane product will have a lot of competition in front of him this season.

13. Inside linebacker Justin March: The undrafted free agent out of Akron had a couple of interceptions during spring practices, doing a good job of watching the quarterback’s eyes and jumping routes. There is developmental potential with March.

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Nick Jacobs is a contributing writer for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @Jacobs71.

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