Evaluating the Chiefs defense going into camp

For your consideration, here’s a look at the 2015 Chiefs defense position-by-position, where they stood on New Year’s Day and where they stand as the team enjoys a vacation before starting training camp in late July in St. Joseph. The rating system is based on the following:

– Not good enough.

– Improvement needed.

– Can win with them.

– Among best in division/conference.

The Chiefs defense is the strongest part of the roster going into the 2015 season. But there are big questions that remain to be answered with the unit’s best players like Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito.

Here’s how it all breaks down:


Defensive line: the defensive line was inconsistent last season, especially in defending the run. A lot of that was due to Mike DeVito’s absence after the opener when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. DeVito was not a three-down defensive end, but he was one of the better run defenders on the defense. Allen Bailey turned in the best season of his career, picking up his production as a pass rusher with five sacks. Nose tackle Dontari Poe’s season in 2014 did not match his play from the previous season and the Chiefs have struggled to find a way to give him time off because they haven’t had a deep enough roster. Poe did put six sacks on the stat sheet, matching Tamba Hali’s total. That was a career high and a very good sign of what he’s capable of, especially when there’s so much attention on outside pass rushers. Jaye Howard got limited opportunities but his play improved from ’14. Overall last year’s defensive line depth was mediocre with Howard, Kevin Vickerson and Vance Walker. Only Howard remains, joined by veteran Vaughn Martin..

– On January 1.

– Going to camp.

Analysis: The Chiefs are hoping that the return of defensive ends they did not have last year will make a difference: DeVito and Mike Catapano, who missed all of last season due to illness. What they must find is a talent on the inside that can allow them to rest Poe more often. There’s nobody that can come in and be an equal version of Poe in the middle, but he needs help that can stand up for a dozen or so plays in a game, whether that’s Howard, Martin or rookie Nunez-Roches. If DeVito can return and play the run on first down, he’ll make a big contribution.

Linebackers: On paper and with all bodies on the field and healthy enough to play, few teams can field the level of linebacker talent that is part of Bob Sutton’s defense. That stature is a bit shaky after the 2014 season — Derrick Johnson participated in but a handful of plays due to his ruptured Achilles tendon. The Chiefs were unable to replace D.J.’s contributions with a number of players jumping into the void like James-Michael Johnson, Joe Mays and Josh Mauga. Only Mauga who was not playing Johnson’s position made much of an impact at inside linebacker. He led the team in tackles, but in 16 games he did not force a fumble, recover a fumble or make an interception. He picked up a half-sack in the season’s final game. They missed Johnson’s ability to make big plays. Tamba Hali was hampered by a bad knee all season, but that didn’t stop him from playing all 16 games. And then, there was Justin Houston, who had one of the greatest pass rushing seasons in league history. Not only did he pull down 22 quarterbacks, he also played well against the run. Houston was the best linebacker in the league during the ’14 season.

– On January 1.

– Going to camp.

Analysis: If Houston is on the field, the Chiefs have the NFL’s best and most versatile groups of linebackers. If he is not in uniform and decides to sit out one game or 10 games, the Chiefs defensive production will be significantly diminished. No defense can lose 22 sacks from one player and play at the same level the Chiefs did last year with Houston. It would not make sense for Houston to carry a holdout through to the 10th game of the season. That would cost him more than $6 million. Whether the Chiefs sign Houston to a long-term contract or he plays for the franchise tender of $13.1 million. Johnson showed in the off-season work that his Achilles tendon has healed, but that’s going to be a concern for him over the rest of his career, whether it’s one season or several. Hali took care of his knee problem with off-season arthroscopic surgery. Draft choices Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander will push Mauga for the other inside spot, but the veteran has the edge because Sutton trusts him to run the defense on the field. The wildcard will be last year’s first-round choice Dee Ford. He barely made a blip on the defense’s radar as a rookie. Ford needs a much more productive season for the defense.

Secondary: Last season the Chiefs secondary was in a state of seemingly constant flux. Eric Berry began the season with some nagging injuries, and then was lost in November when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. The left cornerback spot that had belonged to Brandon Flowers for six years was not a strong point for the defense as Ron Parker, Marcus Cooper, Jamell Fleming and Phillip Gaines all had at least one start and not one of them distinguished themselves. The only constants were Sean Smith at right cornerback and Husain Abdullah at free safety. Parker played better at safety than he did on the corner. Smith had the best season of his career and Abdullah was solid on the back line. Chris Owens handled the nickel cornerback role for most of the season and was inconsistent in his play. He’s not back for the 2015 season and neither is safety Kurt Coleman, who led the team with three interceptions; nobody else had more than one pick. Safeties Kelcie McCray and Daniel Sorenson are back; their contributions in ’14 were largely on special teams.

– On January 1.

– Going to camp.

Analysis: The Chiefs concern about their secondary was obvious in the additions they made in the off-season. First they signed bargain-basement safety Tyvon Branch, who when he was healthy was a good safety for the Raiders. They drafted Marcus Peters in the first round and Steven Nelson in the third round and both should see significant defensive snaps at cornerback or in the nickel role. The Chiefs were determined to keep Parker and that’s understandable given the unknown nature of Berry’s recovery and ability to participate this season. Branch needs to put the pressure on both Parker and Abdullah to make the back liners more productive. Smith is in the final season of his contract with the Chiefs, so he’s playing not only for the team but his future. If he duplicates his ’14 performance this season, he will collect big as an unrestricted free agent. Very doubtful the Chiefs would get into a bidding competition for Smith – that’s why they’ve used three premium draft choices in the last two years on cornerbacks with Gaines, Peters and Nelson. That competition must raise the production level at left corner and the nickel-back role.