Life After Vrabel

Posted Jul 12, 2011

Finding a full-time player opposite Tamba Hali

Physically, Mike Vrabel simply couldn’t hack it anymore. The 35-year old said so himself in front of a national audience shortly after announcing his retirement Monday morning.

“At some point and time you realize that you just can’t do what you used to be able to do when playing football,” Vrabel said on ESPN’s College Football Live. “The ability to train for the rigors of an NFL season just weren’t a possibility anymore. Just like Rocky Marciano, age retires undefeated.”

Vrabel’s skills eroded like any other 14-year vet, and he’d clearly lost a step from his days as one of the NFL’s most versatile performers. But the three-time Super Bowl champion was still as fundamentally sound as any player on Kansas City’s defense.

He played nearly 700 defensive snaps last season because his reliability and execution made the Chiefs a better team. That in itself is a Chief concern going forward.

For one, Vrabel rarely got circled.

His ability to leverage the tight end and attack lead blocks while keeping his outside shoulder free remained one of his greatest assets. Turning runners inside to closing middle linebackers and alley-running safeties is a thankless job, but it’s one of the most vital assignments of an outside linebacker.

Just like Casey Wiegmann has done for so many years as an undersized offensive lineman, Vrabel won his individual battles using superior leverage and technique.

Vrabel may have been the least athletic linebacker on Kansas City’s roster last season, but he was still one of the most efficient. He knew how to study an opponent, take care of his body and put himself in proper position through pre-snap reads. It’s no coincidence he started 30 games during his two seasons with the Chiefs.

Minus Vrabel, the Chiefs are left without a proven four-down player opposite AFC sack champion Tamba Hali. Suddenly, the starting position at left outside linebacker has become one of THE position battles to watch this preseason.

There’s plenty of young talent to compete, but little experience to go around.

Andy Studebaker, who’s developed into a fan-favorite, has long been considered Vrabel’s eventual replacement. His in-season contract extension last September only furthered that belief.

But keep this in mind. While Vrabel took over 700 defensive snaps last season, Studebaker barely broke 250. The year before, Studebaker rarely saw action outside of the 2 ½ games Vrabel missed because of injury.

From 2009-10 Studebaker appeared in just 403 defensive plays while Vrabel’s snap total eclipsed 1,500. Studebaker seems to have made so many big plays in his limited amount of snaps that it’s easy to forget he’s been a sub-package player for the past two seasons.

Now is Studebaker’s time to shine. Suddenly, he and Hali have become the elders at a very young position.

Studebaker has proven himself as an effective part-time player, but is he ready for the demands of playing 50 plays per game for 16 weeks? He’s also proven his ability in coverage and as a pass rusher, but can he be an effective player in run support as well?

We’re about to find out.

Studebaker will be pushed by rookie Justin Houston, a player who probably finds himself in the best situation of any Chiefs draft pick coming out of the NFL Lockout.

While the majority of Kansas City’s rookies will be starting from ground zero, Houston has the advantage of playing in a defensive system similar to Chiefs 3-4 scheme. Much of the terminology used at the University of Georgia mirrors that of the Chiefs because of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s strong ties to Romeo Crennel.

Grantham served as defensive coordinator on Crennel’s staff in Cleveland from 2005-07.

The preseason progress of Studebaker and Houston (or Studebaker vs. Houston) will be well documented and followed by plenty, but others may play a factor in the race for playing time – particularly if the Chiefs opt for a linebacker-by-committee approach.

When it comes to run support, Cameron Sheffield might be the most intriguing option. He showed the ability to run, hit and take on lead blocks during a very impressive 2010 training camp. As a result, Crennel had begun experimenting with Sheffield in various sub-packages prior to a season-ending neck injury.

The problem with Sheffield is that the Chiefs won’t know exactly where his health stands until the lockout lifts. Sheffield’s first stop upon returning to Arrowhead will undoubtedly be a visit to the training room.

Most seem optimistic regarding Sheffield’s end of season prognosis (including Sheffield himself), but this is a player who many feared was paralyzed as he left the field on a stretcher last preseason. Thankfully, Sheffield gained full use of his extremities shortly after his exit from Arrowhead.

Other players that could factor into the mix are Pierre Walters, Gabe Miller and Charlie Anderson, but the trio all face uphill climbs for significant play-time.

Walters spent all of 2010 on the practice squad and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli made it clear that Miller would be a developmental player after the club used a fifth-round pick on the former Oregon State tight end and defensive end. Anderson, a seven-year veteran, backed up Hali last season but did not see any defensive snaps. He’s also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.

The future is now at outside linebacker and Kansas City is in need of someone to step into Vrabel’s full-time role.

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