Two seasons ago, the outside linebacker position for the Kansas City Chiefs was as limited of a group as you’ll often find in NFL circles. Today, fierce competition has a talented veteran on the outside looking in.
A quick trip back to Herm Edwards final season as the Chiefs head coach in 2008 unveils a total mess — that’s quite obvious with a team that managed a measly two wins. The starters at LB for that season reveals (some of) the reasons why: Pat Thomas, Rocky Boiman, old Derrick Johnson, Demorrio Williams. All four made their way into the starting line-up for multiple games and achieved disastrous results — failing to provide much help via the running or passing game, and providing only two total quarterback sacks. Two.
How times have changed under new head coach Todd Haley, just two seasons later. Scott Pioli has brought in the right talent at several positions, which certainly makes it easier on the linebacking corps, but he’s also brought in the right coaches. Tamba Hali made the switch from defensive end and the results have been nothing short of revelatory, with the former Penn State draftee becoming one of the greatest pass rushers in the NFL. Derrick Johnson has finally lived up to his first round grade with a strong all-around game and an athleticism few linebackers possess.
On the other side, Mike Vrabel came over from the New England Patriots in a trade with Matt Cassel for a second round and immediately established himself as a solid veteran on the field, but also a strong vocal leader off of the field. It’s one thing to have a solid coach come in like Romeo Crennel to establish the proper schemes and defensive gameplan. It’s yet another to have experienced veterans who have been through Super Bowl winning seasons to help establish a new culture among players. Vrabel was a strong addition both on and off the field.
So where do things stand now for a veteran like Vrabel, who is a free agent who also experienced some unexpected legal issues after an arrest at an Indiana casino this offseason? Typically a young, promising team brings in a player like Vrabel to establish the new culture and provide leadership. But are the Chiefs past their need for a player like that? At what point does a team develop enough new leadership to allow other veterans past their playing prime to move on? That seems to be the point of tension where the Chiefs stand with Vrabel.
My hunch is that Haley and Pioli would both still love to have Vrabel in the locker room at all times and on the field at varied intervals. Haley’s love for veteran guys like Thomas Jones is made clear each and every week in the media (and on the field), but the roster is looking pretty crowded on that opposite side from Tamba Hali, who is clearly an asset on every defensive down. Simply put, is there room for Mike Vrabel anymore?
Andy Studebaker just signed a three-year contract extension that will keep him in Kansas City through the 2013 season. The Chiefs also added Georgia pass rusher Justin Houston in this year’s draft with the hopes that he will become a force like Hali on the opposite side. Both Studebaker and Houston have strong pass rushing skills which will keep them on the field in certain situations and if either can show they’re a force against the running game at Vrabel’s level, then it’s possible he doesn’t see the field much at all — perhaps a sign that Chiefs are ready to move on.
We’ll soon find out whether or not Vrabel will be back in the fold for a third season with the Chiefs, and it’d be a smart move to keep Vrabel around in some limited capacity. It’s also clear, however, that the talent on the field has reached a tipping point with younger guys ready to seize their opportunity with more playing time.