While the third and fourth day of the NFL’s scouting combine may be complete, the work of general managers, coaches, and scouts is not. Now comes the grueling task of not only analyzing the numbers compiled from today’s workouts, but using those numbers to determine who fits their scheme, needs, and preferences. It’s all a task that takes time, effort, and dedication that, in the end, leads to successful draft picks and improvement of the franchise. For the Kansas City Chiefs, they are a team on the brink of Super Bowl contention. Their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots is still a sore spot for myself and other Chiefs fans alike, but it also shined a light on their weaknesses. Fortunately, the Chiefs have an excellent general manager in John Dorsey and a good team of scouts that will help him and Reid make the selections that will best help the team improve in 2016.
The Chiefs defense had another standout year in 2015. Ranking third in points per game allowed (17.8), seventh in yards allowed (5,269), fifth in turnovers (27), second in interceptions (22), and eighth in rushing yards allowed (1,571), they helped fuel a historic run into the playoffs, and secured their playoff win since 1994. Now, when the Chiefs are the closest they’ve been in years to a championship, there is a dilemma raising the blood pressure of Chiefs fans across the globe.
Among their free agents, ILB Derrick Johnson, OLB Tamba Hali, S Eric Berry, CB Sean Smith, and DT Jaye Howard are free agents. Berry and Johnson were Pro Bowlers who played at an elite level all season, returning from cancer and injury, respectively, while Smith and Howard were under appreciated while playing second fiddle to their more well-known counterparts. With $32.55 million in cap space, the Chiefs can certainly afford to bring back some of their free agents, but all?
Before I jump into breaking down the guys I liked most over the last two days, let me explain a few things about the Chiefs defense, and the roles their free agents played in it. Bob Sutton continued to run the 3-4 defense that had been installed by Romeo Crennel when he joined the team in 2010, but he added more blitzes and sub packages, meaning the linebackers have to be quick enough to run blitzes, and even some stunts. Dorsey won’t just be looking for two down thumpers, he’ll be looking for three down players who can literally do it all. For the defensive lineman, he’s not looking for pass rushers. In the 3-4, the two ends and nose tackle are simply space eaters. The more linemen they occupy, the easier the jobs of the two outside linebackers. While there’s nothing wrong with being a good rusher (Howard had 5.5 sacks), it’s not first priority. In the secondary, Sutton loves press-man coverage, so tall cornerbacks with long arms. Not coincidentally, the Chiefs three starting corners last season were all six feet or taller.
Now they’ve we’ve got that out the way, let’s get to the analysis. Hali is 32 years old, and the Chiefs need to find a better running mate, although reports are the Chiefs have opened contract talks with him to bring him back. Dee Ford, 2013’s first round pick, is entering his third year in the league, but he has just 4 career sacks and lacks the edge-setting presence and pass rush consistency to be considered even an average starter. To solve this problem, there was a bevy of ends/linebackers who had a good showing. Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence, the former Ohio St. Buckeye who ran a 4.8, jumped 35 inches on the vertical, and broad jumped 10 inches, could be a solution. Spence did test positive for Ecstasy in January 2014, and after another failed test in September, he was kicked off Ohio State and banned from the Big Ten. Before the 2011 draft, Justin Houston was expected to be a first round pick, but a positive marijuana test during the combine dropped him to the 3rd round. The same happened to Randy Gregory, and he fell into the 2nd. There’s a very good chance Spence falls as well, and if there’s a team that can cure him of his personal demons, he’d be an incredible steal. Another player who I liked, and didn’t disappoint, was Utah State OLB Kyler Fackrell. Running a 4.72 and jumping 34.5 inches in the vertical, Fackrell displayed promising athleticism in on-field drills, and looked like a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, one that can not only rush the passer but cover fluidly in space. Justin Houston does that often in Sutton’s defense, and had two interceptions (one returned for a score) last year to boot. Moving to the inside of the Chiefs linebacking corps, Ohio State’s LB Darron Lee could be a solution. He ran a 4.47 and 4.49 in the 40 and showed good movement skills in coverage during drills. His tape shows a backer who isn’t afraid to stick his head in a play, and he can run sideline to sideline in pursuit of sweeps, tosses, and such. He could get heavier (just 228 pounds), but the talent is unquestionable.
Watching the Denver Broncos defense, it was evident all season long that their interior defensive line was dominant. During the playoffs, they turned it up the heat and carried their lacking offense to a world championship. DE Derek Wolfe and DT Malik Jackson may not have gotten the hype Von Miller and Demarcus Ware do, but without them, the Broncos don’t win the title. If the Chiefs are going to win their first championship since 1969, then they too are going to have to find great interior players. They have two in Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey, but Howard is that third piece who may not return. Looking at this class of defensive tackles and ends, it’s the deepest and most talented of any position this year. On my radar are Clemson DE Kevin Dodd, Louisiana Tech DT Vernon Butler, and Baylor DT Andrew Billings. Dodd is a 6’5, 271 pound finesse rusher who got better last year as the season went on. Despite the loss in the National Championship to Alabama, he wreaked utter havoc on Jake Coker, sacking him 3 times while recording 5 tackles for loss. Not only a rusher, he has the strength and leverage to play the run, making him a three down player. Butler is a 6’3, 323 tackle who can play end or tackle at the NFL level, depending on the scheme. He has incredibly strong hands, helping him shed blocks and penetrate the backfield (10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks in 2015). Finally, Billings is quite the story. He’s only 20 years old, yet stands 6’2 and weighs 310 pounds. He powerlifted a total of 2,010 pounds during a high school competition. On the field, he’s just as strong, leading to a team-leading 5.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He has an incredible lower body, which makes him almost unblockable at times. He would be quite a player in the Chiefs defense, which already boasts plenty of talent, and would give him plenty of single blocks.
In the secondary, replacing Smith will be easier said than done. The Chiefs in-house options, 3rd-year corner Phillip Gaines and 2nd-year Steven Nelson, lack the outside press coverage of Smith. Looking at the draft, there’s three cornerbacks that could be solutions. Ohio State CB Eli Apple (6’1, 200) and Virginia Tech CB Kendall Fuller (6’0,197) have the traits of a Sutton defense, and after running 4.40 in the 40 and looked tremendous in the on-field coverage skills, pairing Apple with Peters would be a deadly duo in a division that has plenty of receiver threats. Less hyped, but equally talented, is Houston’s William Jackson III. In 2015 alone, he had 43 tackles, 23 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions. He ran a 4.39 40, and at 6 feet and 185 pounds, he’s a rising star in the pre-draft process.
While the combine is over, the work of GM’s and coaches, and myself, isn’t done. Now comes the hard work of evaluating the data compiled at the combine, continuing to analyze and re-analyze players, and continue to prepare for the upcoming draft. In the upcoming weeks, along with covering the Chiefs free agent moves, I’ll be posting scouting reports on the prospects that fit them the most.
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