The 2014 season brought mixed results from the linebacker corps, with the outside edge rushers producing a stellar effort rushing the quarterback and the interior struggling against the run.
2014 ROSTER: Dee Ford, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, James-Michael Johnson, Josh Martin, Josh Mauga, Joe Mays, Frank Zombo
INJURED RESERVE: Derrick Johnson (Achilles)
2015 FREE AGENTS: Justin Houston, Josh Magua, Josh Martin (exclusive rights)
Outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali anchored a fierce pass rush that finished fifth in the NFL with 46 sacks.
Houston, in particular, turned in a season to remember in the final year of his contract with a team-record 22 sacks in a single season, breaking the previous mark of 20 set by the late Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas in 1990.
Houston became one of 10 players in NFL history to record 20 or more sacks in a season and finished the 2014 season a ½ sack shy of tying the NFL record of sacks in a single season, which Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan set with 22 ½ in 2001.
The 2014 production earned Houston his third straight selection to the Pro Bowl and a first-team All-Pro selection by The Associated Press.
While the outside pass rushers enjoyed success, the inside linebacker corps experienced a major blow in Week 1 when Derrick Johnson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
The Chiefs also started the season with projected starting inside linebacker Joe Mays on the injured reserve list with designation to return after Mays underwent surgery in August to repair torn ligaments in his right wrist.
Josh Mauga filled in for Mays to start the season and took over the “green dot” responsibilities for Johnson. The Chiefs entrusted Mauga with the radio inside the helmet to communicate with the sideline despite him joining the team shortly before the start of training camp.
All things considered, Mauga performed admirably in his first meaningful action since the 2011 season with the New York Jets, ranking first on the Chiefs with 103 total tackles (82 solo). Mauga landed on injured reserve during the 2012 and 2013 seasons while in New York.
James-Michael Johnson took over in Johnson’s spot, but eventually gave way when Mays returned to the lineup full-time in Week 14.
Still, the Chiefs never got going against the run and finished 28th in the league allowing 127.2 yards rushing per game.
The Chiefs were stout in keeping opposing running backs out of the end zone, allowing a franchise-low four rushing touchdowns on the season.
But with the good came the bad, as the Chiefs went through a four-game stretch from Weeks 11 to 14 where the defense allowed a whopping 738 combined yards rushing.
Josh Martin and Frank Zombo contributed mostly on special teams, while rookie Dee Ford saw action mostly in situational play and special teams.
Ford finished the season with 1 ½ sacks as he learned from Houston and Hali.
Houston is a top priority, obviously, but he won’t come at a cheap price given the monster campaign he produced. The Chiefs will likely utilize the franchise designation on Houston if a long-term contract isn’t worked out.
The Chiefs should look to get younger at the linebacker corps, especially at the interior positions, either through the NFL Draft or free agency. Hali turned 31 in November, Derrick Johnson turned 32 in November and Mays turns 30 in July.
Ford, a first-round pick (23rd overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft, is on standby at outside linebacker and should be ready to become a full-time starter if the Chiefs don’t bring back Hali.
Mauga, who turns 28 in June, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March and would offer depth should he re-sign with the Chiefs, a scenario he would welcome.
“I love it out here,” Mauga told ChiefsDigest.com in the locker room after Week 17’s game. “I would love to come back to Kansas City. We’ll see what happens.”
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK?
The Chiefs have a lot of money tied up at the linebacker position and seeking to restructure contracts with two defensive leaders makes sense.
Hali, who finished his ninth professional season, is due a base salary of $6.75 million in 2015 and counts $11.9 million against the cap. He comes off a season with six sacks, marking the lowest total since the 2008 season when he recorded three.
Derrick Johnson, whom the Chiefs expect to be ready from his Achilles injury in time for the offseason workout program, is due a base salary of $4 million and counts $5.2 million against the cap.