Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Analysis
Defense was the driving force for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013. The unit binged on sacks and turnovers early in the season, helping to key a turnaround from 2-14 to 11-5 in one year.
However, when injuries took their toll—specifically on edge pass-rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali—Kansas City's defensive excellence disappeared.
Without consistent pressure, the Chiefs' secondary was suddenly and routinely exposed.
It didn't help that opponents had second-guessed a scheme which had become predictable. Coordinator Bob Sutton favored single-high coverage concepts behind his array of blitzes.
But without his best athletes available to get after the passer, Sutton's undermanned defensive backfield made for easy pickings. Players such as former free safety Kendrick Lewis and rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper suffered horrid spells during the second half of the campaign.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of this Jekyll-and-Hyde defensive showing, the Chiefs retooled at key positions during the offseason.
General manager John Dorsey wisely used the team's top draft choice to get Sutton another dynamic, outside pass-rusher in the form of Dee Ford.
The rookie's presence should ensure the Chiefs don't fall into the trap of being overly reliant on Hali and Houston again. It also means Sutton now has another weapon to use to help craft some terrifying pressure concepts.
New bodies will also be available in the secondary, courtesy of both free agency and the 2014 NFL draft. However, Sutton will also have to incorporate a few cover men from last season's roster into more expansive roles.
Here's how the position-by-position depth charts look, along with some analysis about how the Chiefs will utilize their personnel once the season begins.
Depth Chart: Mike DeVito, Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard
Expect veteran Mike DeVito to continue manning one starting defensive end spot this season. The ex-New York Jets starter is very familiar with Sutton's schemes.
He is also a natural two-gap defensive end, perfect for the responsibilities of a base 3-4 front. DeVito has a thick frame and uses it to occupy multiple blockers and clog running lanes.
He does both things extremely well, while still being strong enough to push the pocket. That's not to say DeVito is a dynamic pass-rusher—he's far from it with just 2.5 career sacks.
If the Chiefs want more pressure from this position, they might consider giving Allen Bailey a few more snaps. Th 6'3", 288-pounder is a bit of tweener. He's not quite nimble enough to be a dominant pass-rusher, nor is he bulky enough to be a stout 5-technique.
Bailey is similar to ex-Chiefs swing player Wallace Gilberry. He was a useful situational pass-rusher who lined up at both end and tackle.
In much the same way, Bailey is most effective whenever he shifts inside as part of a four-man front in nickel packages. That's likely still his best value to this team.
Finally, former Seattle Seahawks roster clinger Jaye Howard has a slim chance to be part of the final rotation. At 6'3" and 301 pounds, he has good size to play end in a 3-4. Even so, Howard is unlikely to take away significant playing time from either DeVito or Bailey.
Depth Chart: Vance Walker, Mike Catapano, Jermelle Cudjo, Dominique Hamilton
DeVito is certainly limited as a pass-rusher, but Sutton may not need him to offer more in that area now that new signing Vance Walker is on board.
Acquired from the AFC West rival Oakland Raiders, Walker has the skill to split gaps inside and pressure the pocket.
That's just what he'll do for the Chiefs. Walker makes sense as a more versatile and athletic alternative to Tyson Jackson, a pedestrian pass-rusher. ESPN.com's Adam Teicher referenced Pro Football Focus statistics to emphasize the difference between the two players:
Pro Football Focus rated him a better pass-rusher than run defender. He had three sacks and 32 quarterback hurries, defined as plays where pressure forced the passer to get rid of the ball.
In comparison, Jackson had several games last season in which he played fewer than half the snaps. He had four sacks for a better pass-rushing team than Walker played, but just eight hurries. PFF had him rated as a much better run defender than pass-rusher.
The Chiefs need greater pressure up front. This scheme needs a player who can consistently puncture the inside of the pocket, while Hali and Houston collapse its edges.
Walker can be that player.
As well as complementing Houston and Hali, Walker will also support the efforts of nose tackle Dontari Poe.
Just as important as his ability to generate pressure, Walker brings a level of flexibility that a creative coordinator like Sutton can use. His agent, Tommy Sims, described Walker's experience playing anywhere along the line to Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star:
He felt like he could play alongside Dontari Poe and contribute and be productive in that defense. He played up and down the line (in Oakland), and had he stayed at the three-technique (defensive tackle), he felt like he could have doubled his stats total. He’s got some ability to rush the passer, so I think in the end, they realized they’re getting a guy who’s a three-down player.
Sutton can use Walker to deploy multiple fronts or simply mix one- and two-gap alignments along his three-man base line.
Walker's chief deputy is likely to be 2013 seventh-round pick Mike Catapano. A flexible pass-rusher who starred for Princeton at the collegiate level, Catapano is still learning the transition to 5-technique end.
According to Paylor, part of the process involves bulking up:
When he arrived in Kansas City last May, the 6-foot-4 Catapano weighed about 270 pounds because he figured he might still play outside linebacker. Catapano thrived at the position at Princeton, where he was named the Ivy League’s defensive player of the year as a senior.
But once it became clear to Catapano that the Chiefs saw him as an inside player in their 3-4 scheme, he set about adding muscle to better hold up against the run. He gained 10 pounds and played last season at 281. And he’s gained more weight for the upcoming season. He says he checked in at 291 pounds when organized training began in May.
A beefier Catapano should be able to handle double-teams better than he did as a rookie. If he can, he'll be able to make it onto the field more often on base downs, while still being a factor in sub-packages.
One other player to consider at this position is Jermelle Cudjo. The ex-St. Louis Rams rotational lineman is certainly stout enough to play inside or outside in Kansas City's 3-4 front.
That level of versatility should let the 27-year-old see off Dominique Hamilton and Jaye Howard to provide depth along with Catapano and Bailey.
Depth Chart: Dontari Poe, Kyle Love, Jermelle Cudjo, Kona Schwenke
The Chiefs are fortunate to have a young playmaker like Dontari Poe at the most important position on their 3-4 defense. He struggled as a rookie in 2012 playing in Romeo Crennel's traditional, two-gap version of the scheme.
However, Sutton's arrival and the subsequent inclusion of more single-gap principles brought the best out of Poe. He began the 2013 season in dominant fashion, routinely causing havoc along the interior.
Poe logged 19 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks in his first five games. Unfortunately, his productivity slowed down considerably after that.
Poe was still a force, but was no longer making the impact plays of those first five weeks. Part of the reason for the decline might have been how long Poe spent on the field. ESPN.com's Adam Teicher detailed the high snap count the mammoth nose tackle faced in 2013:
Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe was so valuable to the Kansas City Chiefs last season he rarely came out of the lineup. Pass situation or run, first quarter or fourth, close game or blowout and Poe was on the field for the Chiefs.
That’s not strange for a linebacker like Derrick Johnson or a defensive back such as Eric Berry. But Poe goes well over 300 pounds and it’s unusual for a player of his size to see so much playing time.
The numbers show how much Sutton relies on Poe as his playmaker along the line. It will be interesting to see if and how he expands his role this season.
In 2009, Sutton was part of a New York Jets defensive staff that experimented with moving big Kris Jenkins around the lineup. He could look to use Poe in a similar way, considering the 2012 first-round draft pick's underrated athleticism.
The Chiefs are no strangers to dropping a nose tackle off the line and into coverage to surprise an offense. In the early '90s, coordinator Dave Adolph often used Dan Saleaumua in the same way.
There's a lot Sutton can do with Poe, although Teicher notes the apparent lack of depth behind him. However, that needn't be a worry if ex-New England Patriot Kyle Love can revive his career.
Love is a natural at filling gaps and taking on double-teams inside. If he can't deliver, then the Chiefs may let Cudjo spend some time over center. The team also added rookie free agent Kona Schwenke.
One of this trio ought to be able to emerge as competent cover for Poe, with Love as the early favorite.
Depth Chart: Tamba Hali, Dee Ford, Frank Zombo, Alonzo Highsmith
After the team's decision to draft Dee Ford in Round 1 of the 2014 draft, outside linebacker is the most loaded position on this defense.
It was a smart move that has netted the Chiefs a versatile and destructive situational pass-rusher who can spell veteran Tamba Hali.
However, as much as Ford will be useful, Hali should remain the starter for this season. Even though Spotrac.com indicates he's 30 and carrying an $11,464,706 cap figure for 2015, Hali is simply too good to leave off the field.
Few pass-rushers in the game use their hands as well as the one-time Penn State standout. Hali is a nightmare for offensive tackles because of his technical nous, long arms, upper-body power and quick first step.
Rather than simply limiting him to rushing over left tackle, Sutton moved him around more often last season. It was a smart ploy, and one that can keep Hali's production high in his ninth pro season.
As much as anything else, Hali will act as an excellent reference point for Ford, who is his obvious heir apparent.
Ford should see the field plenty as a rookie, having wowed teammates—including Hali—during OTAs. According to ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, Hali was so impressed he went as far as comparing Ford's style to that of franchise great Derrick Thomas:
If anybody reminds you of Derrick Thomas, that kid should pretty much remind you of Derrick Thomas with his first step. He gets off the ball so fast it's scary. I just kept rewinding [the video] yesterday just looking at his first step. I don't know if he times it but his first step is incredible.
Those skills mean Ford can be a significant part of the sub-package defense this season. Sutton should find every excuse he can to get his top rookie and Hali on the field together.
Solid depth is provided by Frank Zombo, who was wisely retained in free agency. Zombo is an excellent scheme fit, having started his pro career playing rush end in the Green Bay Packers' version of the 3-4.
Youngster Alonzo Highsmith could also vie for time, but remains a long shot to make the final roster. At 6'0" and 240 pounds, the rookie is a little undersized for this position.
Depth Chart: Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses, Josh Martin
If the Chiefs are showing foresight as Hali inches toward the end of his career, they'll be equally concerned about the long-term future of fellow starter Justin Houston.
Houston is a free agent in 2015, and the 25-year-old wants a lucrative new deal. He hasn't been shy about proving he is prepared to play hardball to get one.
He has been a no-show at OTAs this offseason in a process that Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star suggests will continue during minicamp:
A source told The Star that Houston, who is likely seeking a new contract, is unlikely to attend the Chiefs’ three-day mandatory minicamp, which started Tuesday at the team’s practice facility.
Houston missed Tuesday’s practice after missing all of the Chiefs’ offseason training program, which started in late April. He also missed all 10 practices of organized team activities, which are voluntary.
However, this doesn't have to be the precursor to a lengthy holdout, amid ugly and protracted negotiations. Count on the Chiefs making room for a new deal for Houston. That's the smart thing to do for one of the best young pass-rushers in the NFL.
Despite missing five games, Houston logged 11 sacks in 2013. Just as Hali did, Houston benefited from Sutton's willingness to move him around the lineup more often.
That process must continue this season. The Chiefs can create obvious mismatches when they pair Houston and Hali together on the same side or when they let one of the duo rush from the middle.
The potential combinations have increased with the arrival of Ford. He can be used to create some loaded pass-rushing fronts that challenge blocking schemes.
The only question is, how often can Sutton get all three of his top pass-rushers on the field together? The answer should be "As often as possible."
This season's schedule also includes games against Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots signal-caller Tom Brady.
Attacking really will be the best form of defense in Kansas City in 2014.
That should mean frequently unleashing pressure specialists like Houston, Ford and Hali from all over the field. Opponents will have a hard time deciding whom to shift their blocking toward when all three are in the lineup.
Zombo is sill on hand to provide solid depth, along with fellow ex-Packer Dezman Moses and second-year pro Josh Martin.
Depth Chart: Joe Mays, James-Michael Johnson, Nico Johnson, Ben Johnson
Joe Mays' arrival in Kansas City was a low-key affair this offseason. He was acquired during free agency to offset the eventual loss of 2013 starter Akeem Jordan.
But while the signing may not have set many pulses racing, Mays can be a more-than-solid contributor this season. The first thing he offers is good size to man the middle of a 3-4. At 5'11" and 244 pounds, Mays is stout enough to take on guards inside if he has to.
The veteran is also a big hitter against the run who has useful recent scheme experience. Mays started 13 games for the Houston Texans last season in Wade Phillips' one-gap version of the 3-4.
In that scheme, inside linebackers are often shaded by D-linemen, giving them extra cover against offensive blockers trying to get to the second level.
The alignment also gives inside linebackers more blitzing opportunities, something Sutton will be able to take advantage of. The Chiefs got solid production from a unheralded signing when they gave Jordan the job last season. Mays can be just as effective and might even be an improvement.
Behind him, the best current option is James-Michael Johnson. He's a bruiser with a natural special teams mentality.
The team is still waiting on the emergence of last season's second-round pick, Nico Johnson. Injuries during preseason derailed his rookie campaign. However, the ex-Alabama player is a bulky force in the middle who possesses the level of versatility this scheme demands.
Undrafted free agent Ben Johnson is the classic high-energy, try-hard tackling machine. He'll hope his hustle warrants a place on special teams.
Depth Chart: Derrick Johnson, Jordan Campbell, DeRon Furr
Not content with being blessed with ample talent on the edges of their linebacker rotation, the Chiefs also boast a star in the middle.
Derrick Johnson continues to do everything well from his inside 'backer position.
The 31-year-old helped himself to 107 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions in 2013. Those numbers help to show how Johnson makes himself a factor at every level of this defense.
Under Sutton, he has become even more flexible. Johnson has been deployed as a roving blitzer out of nickel packages and dime fronts.
The Chiefs will hope some of his undoubted quality and experience can rub off on youngsters Jordan Campbell and DeRon Furr, both of whom face a tough task in avoiding final cuts.
Furr is the more intriguing prospect, having played both safety and linebacker during his collegiate days. He could fit best as a rotational inside linebacker with some good coverage skills and agility.
After starting 230-pounder Jordan in 2013, the Chiefs have shown they aren't afraid to put an undersized inside linebacker on the field.
Depth Chart: Eric Berry, Jerron McMillian
Eric Berry is asked to do a lot in this defensive scheme. He lines up at strong safety, where he can be tasked to act as a box defender against the run or be used in single coverage over a tight end or slot receiver.
Berry also spends time patrolling deep zones in certain coverage shells. Under Sutton, he has also operated as a linebacker in nickel schemes and dime fronts.
Berry's responsibilities could increase this season. He may be asked to rotate his position more often as Sutton looks to add flexibility to a secondary that was savaged during the second half of last season.
That means Berry could see additional time at deep safety, which is something Bob Gretz of bobgretz.com has pointed out:
But the Chiefs made no real attempt to re-sign Lewis in this offseason and he landed in Houston. Berry remains in Kansas City, getting used to a new partner at safety in Husain Abdullah and also adjusting to his expanded role in making sure the rest of the defensive players are lined up in the right place.
That used to be Lewis’ job and he did that quite well. Now Berry inherits most of those duties. It also means that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton plans to play him more often at free safety than in his usual role of playing in the box and essentially being a linebacker in the Chiefs nickel and dime defensive packages.
This is one more way for the Chiefs to capitalize on Berry's athleticism and natural playmaking skills. Rotating safeties is often one of the best methods for disguising coverage and keeping quarterbacks guessing pre-snap.
That could be an important edge for a pass defense that must do more to complement the pressure up front this season.
The only worry about counting on Berry for even more could be the lack of depth behind him. Former Green Bay Packers special teamer Jerron McMillian currently represents the only credible cover.
However, McMillian isn't ever going to offer the same level of flexibility that Berry possesses. Kansas City's varied plans for Berry are necessary ploys, but losing him could force Sutton back to vanilla, predictable schemes.
Depth Chart: Husain Abdullah, Sanders Commings, Daniel Sorensen
The free safety spot needed a major makeover after 2013 starter Kendrick Lewis was consistently tormented in Sutton's single-high coverage designs.
Now that Lewis has left town to join the Tennessee Titans, two versatile players bid to replace him.
Husain Abdullah should have the best chance after the Chiefs made sure to bring him back during free agency.
According to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star, Sutton has since been exploring his versatility during OTAs.
"Though Abdullah, 28, is listed as a free safety, he can be found almost anywhere in the secondary, lining up in the box as a linebacker in the nickel defense, or in the slot as an extra cornerback, or playing deep in the base defense," he wrote.
This is just more evidence of Sutton's determination to move his defensive backs around to create confusion for quarterbacks. It's significant that Abdullah is showcasing flexibility similar to Berry's.
Theoretically, he could also be counted on for cover at strong safety.
In base situations, expect Abdullah to rotate with Berry as a way of masking the intended coverage. Of course, all of this depends on his ability to beat Sanders Commings to the starting job.
Drafted as a cornerback in 2013, Commings has good safety size at 6'0" and 223 pounds. He is certainly versatile enough to make a switch to safety permanent, provided he can prove his durability.
He barely saw the field as a rookie after succumbing to preseason injuries. If he's healthy this season, though, Commings can be a useful swing defensive back, providing depth at both corner and safety.
Daniel Sorensen will also hope to be in the mix after joining the team as an undrafted free agent. The ex-Brigham Young player is a hitter who can work at either safety spot.
The safety position is under a lot of scrutiny following the unit's struggles late last season. While the Chiefs are set with two quality starters in Berry and probably Abdullah, they are taking a risk with only modest depth.
Depth Chart: Sean Smith, Chris Owens, Phillip Gaines, Brandon Jones
Sean Smith is the obvious starter at one cornerback spot. The towering veteran is a good fit in Sutton's aggressive man-coverage schemes.
Smith has the ample frame to clamp on receivers at the line or press them down the field.
He will sometimes take a risk, particularly in off coverage, but Smith has a knack for producing big plays of his own. He proved that with his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in Week 9 last season.
Depth has been boosted by the signing of free agent Chris Owens as well as the decision to draft Phillip Gaines in the third round. If Gaines, a natural off-coverage corner, can adapt himself to Sutton's more physical system, his ball skills could prove to be invaluable.
So will the savvy and experience offered by Owens, who will be a dependable sub-package cornerback. Meanwhile, Gaines could also see time at safety, given his build (6'0", 193 lbs per NFL.com).
The Chiefs also added to their ranks at this position by claiming Brandon Jones off waivers, a move confirmed by the team's Twitter account.
Depth might be stronger here than it was a year ago. It needs to be, considering the potential for disciplinary issues with Smith.
ESPN.com's Adam Teicher has noted that an offseason arrest could draw the ire of league officials: "The other starter from last season, Sean Smith, is practicing but is subject to discipline from the league once his recent arrest for DUI is resolved in court."
The Chiefs are still counting on Smith as a starter, but will want to see Gaines and Owens both shine this preseason.
Depth Chart: Ron Parker, Marcus Cooper, DeMarcus Van Dyke, David Van Dyke, Justin Rogers, Vernon Kearney, Malcolm Bronson, Kevin Rutland
It's certainly a crowded field bidding to replace the released Brandon Flowers. The front-runners have to be Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker.
The latter could have the edge, considering Cooper's struggles as a rookie in 2013. Cooper got into the team as a nickel corner who often played on the outside while Flowers shifted into the slot.
Despite his good size at 6'1" and 192 pounds, Cooper found it hard to stick to his receiver. He particularly struggled with complex route combinations, often failing to track crossing patterns out of man coverage.
By contrast, Parker finished last season in strong form. He snatched two interceptions in his final three games.
Parker also offers good size at 6'0" and 206 pounds. He can play press and would give Sutton a more physical presence to pair with Smith.
However, even after his steep learning curve as a rookie, it's Cooper who has continued getting work with the first team this offseason.
ESPN's Adam Teicher has identified Cooper as a likely base starter following Flowers' release. "In their base defense it's Smith and Cooper at cornerback, and Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah at safety. It's not a bold prediction to venture it won't look that way when they begin the regular season on Sept. 7," he wrote.
Teicher's prediction of change may be true, but depth is long in numbers and short on quality.
DeMarcus and David Van Dyke will get the chance to show off their speed this offseason. However, that quality alone won't be enough to keep either on the final roster.
The similar challenge of avoiding final cuts looms for Justin Rogers, Kevin Rutland, Vernon Kearney and Malcolm Bronson.
Given the passing attacks in their own division and the decision to release Flowers, it's surprising the Chiefs haven't done a little more at this position.
Fans must hope the obvious confidence in Parker and Cooper is well-founded. If it isn't, then weaknesses at the edges of the secondary could doom this defense. They'd certainly put extra onus on the pass rush to deliver.