KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Knowing that someday they might have to play without Justin Houston, the Kansas City Chiefs have tried to prepare. They drafted one outside linebacker, Dee Ford, in the first round last year. They re-signed another, four-time Pro Bowler Tamba Hali, to a restructured contract so he could remain in Kansas City one more season.
Is that enough pass-rush punch to overcome the possible loss of Houston? Houston, who led the NFL with 22 sacks last season, is the Chiefs' franchise player and unsigned. He has not been participating in offseason practice and is not expected at next week’s three-day minicamp.
This would be a moot point if Houston signs the one-year contract the Chiefs are obligated to offer him or the sides agree on a long-term deal. For now, the Chiefs have to take seriously the possibility that they will have to play without the NFL’s best pass-rusher.
Houston’s 22 sacks would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. That doesn’t mean the Chiefs couldn’t have a formidable pass rush if they have to go with Hali and Ford on the edge. The Chiefs still have other elements of a strong rush, including a pair of capable inside rushers in Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey.
But to adequately cover for Houston’s loss, the Chiefs would need to get far more from Hali and Ford than they received last year.
Hali had six sacks last season, his lowest total since early in his career. He’ll be 32 in November, and in a perfect world, the Chiefs might want to make him more of a situational pass-rusher than an every-down player.
“If the coaches feel maybe I don’t need to play the entire game, they’re going to monitor it, because the past couple of years, as the season goes on, my body starts to wear down," Hali said. “They may not want me to wear down. A guy like me, I’ll keep playing until the wheels fall off, but that might not be their plan. Their plan might be to find a way to keep me fresh for a long season.
“Look at a guy like [Baltimore’s Elvis] Dumervil. His role as any every-down player diminished. He didn’t play as much last year, but he made more plays. He had 18 sacks playing less last year. I played [most of] the time and I had six sacks. So maybe they’re trying to figure out what works best and what’s best for the team. I would love to be in there for those downs, but if it’s beneficial for our team ... the goal is the championship."
Ford, stuck on the depth chart behind Houston and Hali, played sparingly as a rookie. He did get into the lineup as a situational pass-rusher late in the season and finished with 1½ sacks.
Ford was learning a new position as a rookie. He was a defensive end at Auburn and was never required to play in pass coverage. He never advanced to the point where the Chiefs felt comfortable with him except to have him chase after the quarterback.
That will have to change this year.
“Last year, he didn’t have an offseason," linebackers coach Gary Gibbs said. “He was traveling, doing a variety of interviews and so forth [before the draft], and then he got drafted, got thrust into [offseason practice] without having any kind of background of what we’re doing.
“Now he’s got a complete offseason behind him and he’s had a good offseason. He’s worked hard in the weight room. He’s bigger, stronger and this is a good experience for him as far as establishing a really good foundation as far as our system, our scheme, and he’s competing well for us."
There are no doubts about Ford’s ability as a pass-rusher. He has a quick first step and a burst off the ball that have invited comparisons to Derrick Thomas, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and the Chiefs’ all-time sacks leader.
But Ford’s production has a long way to go before it matches that of Thomas.
“With Dee Ford, obviously his second year in, he’s starting to get it more, understanding the scheme," Hali said. Then, referring to Ford, Martin and Moses, he added, “Those guys are hungry. They want to make plays; they want to establish themselves here as consistent players that can do it year in and year out. We look forward to that.”