There are usually two primary goals of the offseason for NFL teams. One is to improve the team’s personnel, and the other is to improve how to use the personnel. While the fans' focus is on the former for much of the offseason, the latter is just as important.
Personnel improvements tend to be more gradual, but schematic changes can yield results right away. The Kansas City Chiefs benefitted from schematic changes implemented by head coach Andy Reid last year and had the NFL’s largest turnaround.
Many people are expecting the Chiefs to take a step back in 2014 because of personnel losses and a tougher schedule, but they can defy the odds by evolving their schemes. In the case of the defense, free-agent acquisition Vance Walker will be the catalyst for that evolution.
Per Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star, the Chiefs had to lock up Walker to keep him from planned visits with the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Walker also had an offer to return to the Raiders, per Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, meaning that securing Walker’s services was so important to Chiefs general manager John Dorsey that he was willing to outspend three men he worked alongside in Green Bay for many years.
Google defines a catalyst as “a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.”
This is, perhaps, the perfect description for what Walker can do for the Chiefs. Walker isn’t going to change much, but he should help defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme increase the rate of defensive production.
Last year, defensive ends Tyson Jackson, Mike DeVito and Allen Bailey all rotated alongside nose tackle Dontari Poe. While all of them produced in the run game, they didn’t do much in the passing game and Poe frequently found himself double-teamed as a result.
With Walker replacing Jackson and the addition of yet another edge-rusher in Dee Ford via the draft, the conditions are right for a defensive evolution. No longer will the Chiefs have to rely so heavily on outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali coming off the edge or blitzing defensive backs because Poe won’t be the only defensive lineman who can rush the passer.
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Walker nearly produced as many sacks, hits and hurries as Jackson, DeVito and Bailey combined last year, according to Pro Football Focus data (subscription required). With Walker and some improvement from DeVito, Bailey and Mike Catapano, the Chiefs should be able to create more of an interior pass rush.
In 2013, offenses figured out late in the year that they could just focus on Houston, Hali and Poe and buy their quarterback enough time to throw the ball. Houston, Hali and Poe combined for 2.0 sacks from Week 9 through the end of the season. Houston’s dislocated elbow, which forced him out for the final five games, certainly played a role, but he also went three games without a sack prior to the injury.
Walker is transitioning from a 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end, but the line between the two positions has become increasingly blurred. The Chiefs will ask Walker to do the things that made him successful last year for the Oakland Raiders and the year before for the Atlanta Falcons, which means asking him to play just one interior gap.
The fact that Walker can threaten a single gap in a way that Jackson couldn’t should mean a more productive Poe. If offenses continue to focus on Poe so much, it will be up to Walker and the rest of the defensive line to make them pay.
The Chiefs clearly believe Walker can do just that, as they gave him a three-year contract worth up to $13.75 million with $3.75 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Teicher. For a Chiefs team strapped for cap dollars, Walker is their prize acquisition for the 2014 offseason.
With one of the defensive ends more focused on rushing the quarterback, the Chiefs will need the linebackers to pick up more of the slack in the running game. Walker may be a catalyst for an evolution, but he’s not by himself the missing ingredient.
The Chiefs added inside linebacker Joe Mays, known for his ability in the running game to compensate, but his weakness is in pass coverage. Even with Mays, the Chiefs will have to shift around the personnel in the front seven with Walker in the fold.
Chances are, the Chiefs will also try to get Houston, Hali and Ford on the field at the same time, which means one of the three will not be on the outermost edge. One of the three will be in a position more conducive to support the run next to Walker, even if the Chiefs only use all three of them in pass-rushing situations.
Odds are good that it will be Hali, who turns 31 in November. Hali’s contract is such that it will be very hard for the Chiefs to retain him next year. The Chiefs need salary-cap space to pay Houston and quarterback Alex Smith, and Hali could be on the chopping block. Hali has also turned himself into a decent run defender in recent years and has the size to shift inside and still be productive.
The Chiefs have clearly made getting more pass rush from their defensive ends a priority this offseason. DeVito told Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star that he spent the offseason trying to add that skill to his game.
I have a specific thing that I’m good at, but the way things are going, the way games are being played, I need to work harder this off-season so I can contribute and get my butt on the field. For me, it’s going to be about changing my diet and turning my weight to the same weight, but better weight, so I can move around better and be a little more shifty with quicker hips.
Meanwhile, Catapano has bulked so he can play end with the hopes that he hasn’t lost the quickness as a pass-rusher. His combination of size and speed has some very excited about his potential, and he got a few first-team reps for the Chiefs during organized team activities.
“It’s unbelievable that jump he’s made from last year to this year,” said DeVito about Catapano, via The Kansas City Star's Paylor. “Usually, you see a guy put on 10-15 pounds and slow down a bit. It’s not the case (here). He’s more explosive and faster than ever. Mike’s going to be a dangerous weapon, and I’m glad we have him on our side.”
The evolution is already underway thanks to the addition of Walker. Without him, it would have been unclear just how much Sutton’s scheme would have been able to change. Catapano and DeVito both want to be on the field, but the Chiefs are not in a position where they will have to do that.
The Chiefs appear to have a clear vision and the personnel to be one of the league’s great defenses in 2014. If they are, it’s a safe bet that the signing of Walker was the catalyst that set everything in motion.