Injuries to Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have complicated the Kansas City Chiefs’ plans. Their ability to generate an outside pass rush will suffer as a result.
To what degree this will limit the Chiefs will largely depend on how much they can coax from their stacked defensive front, one that is not only the franchise’s best since it converted to the 3-4 defense but possibly, its most promising group since the 1990’s.
Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey and off-the-bench talent Chris Jones will play a key role for the Chiefs while Houston sits for at least five games and Hali attempts a throwback effort, as he returns to the field after his own offseason knee surgery.
It will not only be interesting to see what kind of impact this foursome can have with this kind of responsibility, but merely seeing this collection pursue ball-carriers could be unique and an isolated moment in time. Since Poe is set to play out the season on his fifth-year option and potentially set himself up for a lucrative second contract in free agency, the defensive line the Chiefs deploy this season could be confined to just 2016.
But this should be the defense’s strength during the portion of the season when the Chiefs are in their most vulnerable state. Management assembling this position group will be vital to Kansas City keeping its AFC West championship hopes alive while its top player sits.
When the Chiefs first shifted to a 3-4 look, they were transitioning away from what had been a productive tandem outside in Hali and Jared Allen. Although Allen left after the 2007 season via the Jamaal Charles trade, he and Hali were on the verge of becoming a lethal pair. Two years later, Kansas City’s line was stripped of both, with Allen moving to Minnesota and Hali to outside linebacker.
But when the Chiefs moved to the current alignment in ’09, they fortified their front with immense draft capital. Unfortunately, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson did not deliver on their top-five status, and the defensive line didn’t become a notable group until those talents’ old-CBA megadeals were off the books.
Once Poe came into his own as a second-year player who somehow never needed to leave the field, he became the centerpiece up front. Though the Poe-Jackson-Mike DeVito look in 2013 proved to be a quality assortment, it didn’t quite pack the punch 2015’s did after Howard and Bailey enjoyed strong seasons. The emerging ends, no doubt aided by Houston and Hali when they were healthy, helped compensate for Poe’s back troubles early.
What happened when the pass-rushers weren’t productive shows how good this group can be.
Kansas City winning 11 straight games last season — the final six either without Houston or devoid of anything of substance from the All-Pro linebacker — came in part of the defensive front John Dorsey and Co. built. Just as important, Bailey and Howard morphed into essential cogs without a substantial draft investment. They’re bizarrely a better defensive end pair than Dorsey and Jackson despite being signed, as respective third- and fourth-round picks, to minuscule rookie deals compared to their predecessors.
With Poe healthier, being one of the few Chiefs stars about which that descriptor is accurate, this unit has a chance to be the best 3-4 defensive front in the league, outside of maybe the Jets, who used three first-round selections to craft its array of up-front producers.
Last year’s group, with Jones added, could be the best defensive front the Chiefs have deployed since their modern-era peak in the mid-1990s.
Prior to Neil Smith defecting to the Broncos, he and Derrick Thomas — who will be categorized as a defensive end for the purposes of this comparison since he essentially served that purpose, in being one of the league’s greatest pass-rushers — led elite Chiefs defenses to six straight playoff berths from 1990-95. Dan Saleamua was no slouch inside, either, in Gunther Cunningham, Dave Adolph and Bill Cowher’s 4-3 defensive fronts.
Fast-forward 20 years to the Chiefs’ next consistent winning team and there is another upper-echelon set of linemen. This group obviously doesn’t have players of that caliber, although Poe could be paid like one on this level next season, but collectively it will go a long way toward determining what kind of shape the Chiefs are in when Houston is ready to return.
Kansas City ranked seventh in total defense last season, elevating its run defense into one of the league’s better forces a year after most teams gashed the DeVito- and Derrick Johnson-less operation. There is no reason this defensive line can’t be better than last season’s, especially now with Jones in the fold.
The former disruptive SEC lineman enjoyed one of the best preseasons by any rookie, according to Pro Football Focus, and looks to be a fixture in Chiefs starting lineups for years. For now, he’s a tantalizing luxury.
Howard and Bailey combined for 10 sacks last season, and run-stuffing maven Poe produced 10.5 combined between 2013-14. Howard’s ability to line up at nose could become important down the road, but for now, Poe will be essential in helping create for his crew.
The Chiefs may have to break this group apart after this season, with contract talks with Poe having progressed slowly. He can reasonably ask for money in the Fletcher Cox tax bracket if he stays healthy in 2016. The Chiefs’ tight cap situation in 2017 may not be able to include him, which further magnifies their ’16 effort.
It could be essential for the team to capitalize on this opportunity, one that features a possibly not-yet-ready Raiders team and the division-kingpin Broncos orchestrating maybe the strangest quarterback succession plan in modern NFL history. Were it not for the injuries dogging the Chiefs, they’d be the favorites here.
The men up front will go a long way toward the team driving toward that reality. And by the time Houston returns healthy and can reduce Hali to the complementary role at which he’s best suited, this defense should be a handful.
What transpires in between will be key for determining how seriously to take the Chiefs.