Coming into the 2010 season, the Kansas City Chiefs were a mere afterthought in the minds of most NFL fans, pundits and teams.
In the second year under a new regime led by GM Scott Pioli and HC Todd Haley, KC was scheduled to show measured improvement on both sides of the ball and the potential for a playoff run in 2011. After a 3-0 start to the season, though, the calendar's been thrown out the window, and whispers of post-season play are resonating through Kansas City.
The Chiefs' hot start should be attributed to nothing else than the incredible improvement shown by the defensive side of the ball thus far in 2010. After ranking 29th in points allowed last season, KC stands eighth this year, surrendering 14 points to San Diego and Cleveland, and only 10 to San Francisco (seven of which came on the final play when the game was out of reach).
Though new Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel's impact cannot go unnoticed, the players are the ones frustrating opponents and leading the team to wins on the field. With a solid mix of talent returning, new and rejuvenated, KC's defense has been one of the NFL's best in the first month of the season.
If KC is able to make an unexpected run to the playoffs this season, its defense will be the unit leading the way. Meet the players of the Chiefs' 2010 defense, the most improved unit in the NFL.
Glenn Dorsey is starting to deliver on his the potential that made him a high 1st round pick in 2008.
Glenn Dorsey, DE: The fifth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Dorsey is not a typical fit in an NFL 3-4 defense. Standing just 6'1'', he is shorter than most DEs, though makes up for it with great arm length, rare burst and strong hands to eat up blockers and make plays in the backfield. Having adjusted to his new position last year, Dorsey has been KC's most effective defensive lineman this season, and is beginning to deliver on his considerable potential. If KC's run defense remains stout and he continues to make plays near the line of scrimmage, Dorsey could have an outside chance at garnering post-season honors in 2010.
Ron Edwards, NT: The journeyman interior lineman is a major reason the Chiefs' Inside Linebackers are off to such a strong start. KC was much maligned for its inability to acquire a Nose Tackle via the draft or free agency, but perhaps knew what they had in Edwards, who has been solid if unspectacular so far this season. Though not the Chiefs' long term answer at NT, Edwards will make an impact in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.
Tyson Jackson, DE: Drafted third overall by the Chiefs in 2009, Jackson's rookie season was far from encouraging. Though possessing ideal measurables for the position, he did not pressure the passer and made few plays behind, at, or past the line of scrimmage. After a very strong start to the season against San Diego (he had six tackles), Jackson was injured in the third quarter of the game and inactive in KC's two victories over Cleveland and San Francisco. If he plays nearly as well as he did against the Chargers once healthy, KC will have a strong bookend for the present and future opposite Dorsey.
Shaun Smith, DE/NT: Acquired in the off-season via free agency, Smith was mostly an afterthought coming into the year, a player who could provide depth at either position on the defensive line. After Jackson's injury, however, he was thrust into a starting role at DE and has exceeded all expectations. Smith was KC's most active DL against San Francisco, tallying seven tackles and providing an infectious energy and ferocity that clearly rubbed off on his teammates. Though he'll most likely relinquish his starting spot when Jackson returns, Smith has cemented himself as an impactful rotation player on KC's defensive line.
Others: Wallace Gilberry (DE), Anthony Toribio (NT), Alex Magee (DE)
Tamba Hali had three sacks against San Francisco in week 3.
Tamba Hali, OLB: A first round draft pick in 2006, Hali was drafted out of Penn State as a 4-3 DE. Playing opposite Jared Allen his first two years in the league, Hali showed a lot of promise as a pass rusher, collecting 15.5 sacks. When Allen was shipped to Minnesota before the 2008 season, he took a major step back and was all but forgotten when KC went to the 3-4 the following year. However, Hali's career was revived with the switch to pass-rushing OLB, as he tallied 8.5 sacks and multiple forced fumbles in his first year playing the position. One of the most underrated players in the NFL, Hali posted three sacks and a forced fumble in KC's rout of San Francisco yesterday, and is arguably the defense's best player. As the talent around him continues to improve, the sky is the limit for Hali and a Pro-Bowl selection could come as early as this season.
Mike Vrabel, OLB: The 14th year veteran serves as a leader of one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Though he doesn't produce like he did for New England's Super Bowl teams of the 2000s, Vrabel is still an effective 3-4 LB, possessing great size and rare instincts learned from years playing the position. Solid in coverage, Vrabel is also an underrated pass rusher, consistently pushing the pocket and pressuring the QB. Though the statistics may not show it, Vrabel's steadying influence is one of the main reasons for this defense's startling turnaround.
Andy Studebaker, OLB: A third year pro out of tiny Wheaton (Ill.) College, Studebaker serves as Vrabel's heir apparent and is KC's most effective special teams player. At his best rushing the passer, he has already notched a sack this season despite playing limited snaps. As the season progresses, Studebaker's playing time should increase as he becomes more comfortable with the speed and physicality of the NFL game. Under Vrabel's tutelage, Studebaker has a chance to make an impact in KC this season and beyond.
Others: Charlie Anderson
Derrick Johnson is beginning to capitalize on the potential he showed as a star at Texas.
Jovan Belcher, ILB: The second year man out of Maine was picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Playing as a backup his rookie season, Belcher showed the type of aggression and energy needed to stick in the NFL. Now a starter, he is KC's surest tackler, never utilizing arm tackles and always wrapping up the ball carrier. Belcher, despite his small stature (he weighs 228 pounds), is very physical. Numerous times against San Francisco he blew up a play in the backfield by meeting lead blockers in the hole and clogging run lanes. The Chiefs' second leading tackler, Belcher's emergence as a legitimate NFL starter is a major reason for this defense's turnaround.
Derrick Johnson, ILB: A Nagurski Award Winner as the nation's top defensive player at Texas in 2004, Johnson was incredibly inconsistent in his first five seasons with the Chiefs. Possessing great size and uncommon speed and agility, Johnson is a prototypical athlete at LB in the NFL. Despite that, he rode the pine in Todd Haley's initial season, playing only in passing situations. After a fantastic off-season, Johnson was awarded with a starting job and has played the best football of his career. He was KC's best player against San Diego, tallying 12 tackles and a forced fumble that led to the Chiefs' only offensive touchdown. No longer out of position or refusing to take on blockers, Johnson is the team's leading tackler and is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the young 2010 season. If DJ remains consistent, there is no reason he can't be a major force in the middle of KC's defense for years to come.
Demorrio Williams, ILB: A starter last year, Williams was beaten out by Johnson in the off-season. A speedy player who led the Chiefs in tackles in 2009, Williams showed great pass rushing ability in the pre-season, when he accounted for three sacks. Inspired by his play, the coaching staff has used Williams as a pass rush specialist (as well as a backup ILB) for KC this season, lining him up with his hand on the ground in obvious passing situations. Though he's yet to garner a sack thus far, it seems only a matter of time before Williams gets to the QB.
Others: Corey Mays, Justin Cole, Cory Greenwood
Brandon Flowers is the NFL's most underrated CB.
Brandon Carr, CB: A third year pro out of Division Two Grand Valley State, Carr has uncommon size for a CB at 6'0'' 207. He couples that with solid athleticism, possessing good speed, quick feet and fluid hips. For all his natural gifts, Carr struggled last season in his second as a starter and was often the target of the opposition's offensive gameplan. All too often, Carr kept the defense on the field by playing vanilla coverage in third and short situations and allowing easy first downs. More aggressive thus far in 2010, Carr has been physical in coverage and active in run support. If his play continues to improve, Kansas City will have the best young CB tandem in the league for years to come.
Brandon Flowers, CB: Also in his third season, Chiefs fans already know what type of player Flowers is. The rest of the NFL world will soon find out, as he is a likely candidate for post-season honors in 2010. A starter since midway through his rookie season, Flowers is KC's best defensive playmaker, having already tallied five defensed passes and two interceptions this season, one which he returned for a touchdown against the Browns. Despite standing only 5'9'', Flowers plays big. He is physical in coverage, a fantastic leaper and a great open-field tackler. Though he doesn't possess elite speed, Flowers makes up for it with great feet, the ability to quickly flip his hips and uncanny instincts. Flowers probably won't keep up his torrid statistical pace, as offenses will learn it best to throw away from his side of the field. Still, it is only a matter of time before he is mentioned among the likes of Darrelle Revis and Charles Woodson as one of the NFL's premiere CBs.
Javier Arenas, CB: Chosen in the second round of April's draft, Arenas has been more effective on special teams than he has been on defense thus far in his career. Relegated to nickel back status because of his small stature and ability to blitz, he's been somewhat taken advantage of in the first three weeks of the season. Still, he had a big pass breakup late in the 4th quarter against the Chargers and was on the field for KC's goal line stand in the same game. CBs typically struggle their rookie seasons, and the Chiefs have no reason to believe Arenas won't develop into a solid player as he gains more and more experience.
Others: Travis Daniels, Jackie Bates
Rookie Eric Berry is a future star at Safety for KC.
Eric Berry, SS: Kansas City's first round selection (5th overall) in April's draft, Berry is the highest paid safety in the history of the NFL. While his play in the first three weeks of the season has been far from worthy of his contract, Berry has made an obvious impact on the fortunes of KC's defense. One of the most gifted athletes in the league, he has exceptional speed and great agility in addition to underrated strength and a knack for big hits. Berry's athletic gifts have been most evident in stopping the run this season, as he is third on the team in tackles and tied for first in tackles for loss. However, Berry was fooled badly in pass coverage twice in the season's first two weeks, biting on an underneath route and a play-action fake that led to long touchdown passes. He was much improved in that area against San Francisco, and his instincts and ability to recognize plays will only improve from game to game. Despite a relatively rough start in coverage, Berry has shown enough in 2010 thus far to justify his high draft selection, and looks like a potential star of what is poised to become one of the NFL's best secondaries.
Jon McGraw, FS: A nine year veteran and hometown hero out of Kansas State, McGraw serves as the secondary's version of Vrabel, teaching tricks of the trade to his younger teammates at Safety. A strong tackler, he is a stalwart of KC's special teams and one of the squad's emotional leaders. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in experience, as he is rarely caught out of position. As the season progresses, it appears that McGraw's playing time will diminish as his rookie backup gets comfortable with the NFL game. Still, his impact on the Chiefs defense will be invaluable as the season progresses.
Kendrick Lewis, FS: The Chiefs' fifth round draft pick in 2010, Lewis has seen a steady dose of playing time in the season's first three weeks and started at Cleveland in place of the injured McGraw. A good athlete, Lewis hasn't made any glaring mistakes in coverage and has kept the defense in front of him thus far this year. He shows good ball skills, having defended three passes already in 2010, and is a willing tackler in the run game and open field. Very early in his career, Lewis has the look of a steal for Kansas City, and is poised to take over and gain hold of a starting position sooner rather than later.
Others: Donald Washington (SS), Reshard Langford (SS)