Insider Blog: Hali's Pursuit

Posted Jun 9, 2010

Transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker isn't a small task, but the most difficult part of the process is likely behind Tamba Hali

In general, reviews surrounding Tamba Hali’s first season as an outside linebacker seemed positive. On the surface we saw a team-leading (and career-high) 8.5 sacks, a man who played with an incredibly high motor and who possessed an ability to consistently provide the threat of a fumble each time he met a ball carrier (Hali’s 15 career forced fumbles currently place him third in franchise history behind Derrick Thomas’ 45 and Neil Smith’s 29).

Not bad for the first season on the job.

But there are other evaluation tools that go into grading the efforts of an outside linebacker. These are the little things that don’t show up to the naked eye. Slow-playing cutback rushing lanes on the backside and keeping an outside shoulder free to avoid being circled on the edge are both important and often overlooked duties. The ability to quickly identify run/pass reads upon the snap of the football and getting proper depth on zone drops are also small nuances that go a long way in the play of an outside linebacker and the overall success of a defense.

For Hali, almost all of this was new. Transitioning from a three-point position in the trenches to a two-point stance in space isn’t something that comes naturally for everyone. Some of the game’s most promising athletes have tried and failed when asked to make the switch.

Former Ohio State DE Vernon Gholston is one of the latest to join a long list of players who were unable to handle the transition from 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Unfortunately, the way some teams find out about a player unable to adjust isn’t. The Jets are moving Gholston back to his collegiate position after drafting him sixth overall in 2008 and giving him a five-year contract with $21 million guaranteed. Actually, Gholston’s move back to DE won’t be the same as he remembers it, since it will require bodying up inside much like Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey do in Kansas City.

Gholston checked out on his college film and again at the combine. He was an absolute freak, but a specimen who apparently wasn’t able to handle the transition required to play outside linebacker. In 29 career games, Gholston is still without a sack.

The purpose of bringing up Gholston isn’t to bash the guy. Hopefully a change back to defensive end will help resurrect his young career. The point is that Hali has successfully completed the first steps in a transition that is anything but easy. Now it’s time to work on the finer points of his game.

“Tamba had a very difficult transition, a lot of speculation on it last year at this time and I think he made it through that initial whitewater and now he’s really starting to make strides in becoming an outside backer that obviously has a real good skill and that being rushing the passer,” head coach Todd Haley said. “If he can continue to improve in those other areas that he has to, he’s got the chance to be a real good outside backer to a premier outside backer – I think the sky’s the limit.”

When Haley refers to Hali making improvements in other areas, he’s likely talking about some of the more anonymous parts of outside linebacker play listed above. Exactly how well Hali executes his assignment on cutback lanes and in the passing game will be judged by his coaches, but the comfort Hali shows moving in space is obvious when compared his first few months at the position.

One of those areas involves zone dropping; spot drops to be exact. The somewhat robotic drops of Hali’s early days as an outside linebacker aren’t so prevalent anymore.

Kansas City’s outside linebackers, as the majority outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses do, generally drop to specific spots when playing zone coverage. The concept sounds easy, but loosening the hips and gaining depth as small speedsters cross face isn’t as easy for a 260-pound former defensive lineman as it is for a 190-pound defensive back.

Athleticism is important, but instincts are often times even more critical. The problem is that many of these players, like Hali, are projections. For the ones who project the best, 3-4 teams will come running to develop the next “hybrid end.”

It doesn’t appear that Gholston could handle the transition, while Hali looks to have conquered the initial stages of a successful position swap. Like Hali, the entire cast of Chiefs outside linebackers consists of former defensive ends – Mike Vrabel and Andy Studebaker both began their NFL careers as defensive ends, while Pierre Walters and Cameron Sheffield both posted at the position in college.

The best hybrid ends/outside linebackers all seem to be cut out of the same mold. DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison and Joey Porter, three of the league’s best sack artists in recent seasons, all transitioned into the pro game as former college defensive ends.

The hardest part is over for Hali. Now he’s working on the parts of the position that we often overlook. These are perfections that separate the good from the great.

“This is an impressive guy who has really, in my opinion, bought in to what is going on around here, wants to be a special player and wants to be part of a really good team,” Haley said of Hali. “He is a passionate guy that I think has put everything he has into the off-season once again, like he did last year. I think he’ll start to see some more of those rewards here as he continues to become a big-time player.”

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