The Kansas City Chiefs boast one of the better rosters in the NFL. Defensively, they have come a long way from where they were at a few years ago. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his terrific staff have received the most out of depth players. Furthermore, the Chiefs have seen gambles taken on star players pay off. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones have helped get this team over the hump. But, what if we added one of the top defenders in recent franchise history to this current mix?
With today’s edition of This Or That, we will not have to go back too far to find some of the more consistently dominant defenders for Kansas City. Both players joined the team as draft picks at about the same time. Meanwhile, they were each able to shine themselves when the Chiefs were going through some difficult and trying seasons. The question for today will be, would you rather have linebacker Derrick Johnson or defensive end Tamba Hali? If you had to only choose one, which player would you choose to add to the Chiefs defense right now?
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Styles and Traits
Starting off with Johnson, his style of play at linebacker was highly productive. It would not always blow you away. The prime of his career was at the same time of when linebackers like Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and others were at the top of their games. However, Johnson was so instinctive about slipping through blocks and finding that second gear of speed to fly through ball carriers. And though it may not have meant as much back then, but his perfectly formed tackles were always full proof. Seeing more and more missed tackles in today’s NFL, especially with the Chiefs from time to time, that was something that was generally taken for granted. Finally, Johnson was a reliable linebacker in pass coverage during most of his early career seasons. His stout nose for the football led to many takeaway opportunities.
On the other hand, Hali had all the makings of a natural pass rusher. Starting with his explosive get off from the snap of the ball, he would stress offensive linemen greatly. They were forced to drop their hips and rely on any semblance of strength in their back foot. Many offensive tackles had no answer in those situations. Hali was so good when bending and dipping around the edge. Yet, he was just as dangerous with a bull rush, overpowering opponents. Or, Hali had a swift, wicked inside step or jump cut to work from outside to in when chasing the quarterback. When meeting the quarterback, he held a vicious hitting style. This could lead to fumbles or even safeties.
Most of all, Hali’s ability to finish might have stood out above all else. He was still able to reach the passer, despite hands on his chest. Elsewhere, Hali appeared like he was always able to find that second gear to get after the passer out of nowhere.
The former Texas Longhorns linebacker was drafted by Kansas City 15th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. Despite that early selection, he was actually the fourth linebacker to come off the board that year (DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Thomas Davis). From the get go with the Chiefs, Johnson was seen as one of the top linebackers on the team. Then head coach Dick Vermeil named him a starting linebacker entering the regular season of his rookie year.
Alongside other backers Kendrell Bell and Kawika Mitchell, he recorded a sack and forced a fumble, with nine total tackles in his first career NFL game against the New York Jets. He started all 16 games in his first NFL season and was awarded the team’s Mack Lee Hill Award. This award is for the Chiefs’ rookie of the year, as determined by other players and coaches on the team. Kansas City enjoyed a 10-6 finish. However, it was not enough to qualify for a loaded set of playoff teams that year.
Following Johnson’s rookie season, Vermeil retired. Herm Edwards was named the new head coach entering 2006. With this, he elected to retain the 4-3 defense and kept Johnson and the previous season’s linebackers intact as the starters. During the three years under Edwards, the Texas product saw linear consistency in both run defense and pass defense. Johnson recorded around 250 tackles in those three seasons (2006-08). He was also able to add notable sacks and interceptions in crucial moments. Nonetheless, the team’s struggles forced many changes for Johnson and the defense.
Changes and Challenges
Edwards was fired after a 2-14 finish in 2008. Subsequently, Todd Haley was hired as new head coach. His defensive coordinator for that first season in 2009, Clancy Pendergast, brought in a 3-4 defensive style. Johnson was limited to just three starts, even though he played in 15 total games. The new regime struggled with how to use certain players. He had a slow start to the season and dealt with a groin injury. Johnson himself, had his first severely low year in terms of production. He was able to cap off a trying year in a big way in the regular season finale. Against the Denver Broncos, Johnson recorded two interceptions against Kyle Orton. The linebacker returned both for touchdowns, a 45 yarder and a 60 yarder. He subsequently tied a single game NFL record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Bounce Back Seasons
That lone year of struggles did not last long. Pendergast was not retained as defensive coordinator. Romeo Crennel took over the role. With his tutelage, Johnson was back to producing at a high level and was flying all over the place. He managed four consecutive seasons in which he recorded 100+ total tackles (2010-13). That four year run also saw Johnson manage 9.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, five interceptions, four fumble recoveries and a touchdown.
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Injury ruined Johnson’s 2014 campaign. The linebacker tore his Achilles in Week One against the Tennessee Titans. This would force him to miss the remainder of the season. Quite frankly, he returned right back to form for his final three seasons with the Chiefs. From 2015-17, Johnson was still turning in tackles at or around triple digits. His health also remained at a high level. The team also made the playoffs in three of his final five seasons with the Chiefs.
Following a six game stint in 2018 with the Raiders, Johnson signed a one day contract in May 2019 with Kansas City. He was able to officially retire as a member of the Chiefs. He finished his career as four time Pro Bowler and one time All-Pro. In 188 career games, Johnson recorded 1,171 total tackles, 27.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. He is still the Chiefs all-time leader in tackles.
One year after selecting Johnson in the first round, Kansas City selected Tamba Hali in the first round in 2006. The 20th overall pick out of Penn State was the third defensive end off the board, behind Mario Williams and Kamerion Wimbley. Also similar to Johnson, Hali made a major impact as a rookie.
Hali started in all 16 games and recorded five forced fumbles, four pass deflections, a fumble recovery and an interception. Most of all, his eight sacks led the team for the 2006 season. Afterwards, Hali received the team’s Mack Lee Hill Award and was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie Team. His production was extremely similar in all categories the following two seasons.
Benefitting From Scheme Change
The changes to a 3-4 defense actually brought the most out of Hali during the prime of his career. Technically switching from a defensive end position to an outside linebacker role, he saw his pass rush numbers increase. His influence was singlehanded at times. When the Chiefs defense went through some trying seasons, they generally counted on Hali to get home and effect the passer.
Hali nearly doubled his sack totals in the first three years while playing in a 3-4 (35 sacks 2009-11, 18.5 sacks 2006-08). His 12 sacks in 2011 were second highest in the AFC, trailing only Terrell Suggs‘ 14 sacks that season. To boot, Hali led the Chiefs team in sacks for five of his first six career seasons. He was eventually rewarded with a new megadeal at five years and $60 million.
The production started to slip slightly. Although, he still produced 20 sacks across both 2012 and 2013. This five year run of playing outside linebacker in the 3-4, was the greatest stretch for Hali in his career.
While the pass rush dominance was starting to wane, Hali still made a difference as a run defender. Ball carriers could struggle with getting around the edge against him. In the meantime, he was still reliable on the field. Hali was able to play in all but one game across both 2014 and 2015.
Unfortunately, injuries would start to settle in after that. He played in all 16 games, but only managed two starts in 2016. His role was relegated to being a situational pass rusher. And in that season, he had his lowest sack total when playing in double digit games for the year (3.5 sacks). Injuries carried into 2017 as well. Hali was unable to join the Chiefs until November. He made one tackle and one quarterback hit in five games.
After playing his entire 12 year career with Kansas City, Hali ranked second in team history in sacks with 89.5. Only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas had more, at 126.5. Moreover, he finished his career with 596 total tackles, 159 quarterback hits, 33 forced fumbles, 16 pass deflections and eight fumble recoveries in 177 games. The Penn State product was also a five time Pro Bowler.
The voting decisions could vary on the preference of what position you would add to the Chiefs current defense. Do you add a linebacker? Or, do you add a pass rusher? You can go to the poll to cast your vote here: Derrick Johnson or Tamba Hali?
Similar to our first edition of This Or That involving Jamaal Charles and Priest Holmes, this is an extremely difficult decision. Entering the 2021 offseason, Kansas City could certainly need to add a spark at either position. The more obvious need would be pass rusher. However, I would personally pick Johnson, if we could only add one of the two back into the fold. Johnson’s ability to fly around in his prime, slip through blocks and rarely miss a tackle is not consistently there as of now in Kansas City’s defense. Especially, when you consider where the run defense has ranked in the last handful of years.
Be on the lookout for more FPC Chiefs This Or That hypothetical articles throughout this 2021 offseason. We will post them on Tuesday and Thursday. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.
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