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Heartland Health Training Camp Preview: Outside Linebackers

Posted Jul 23, 2012

Three questions surrounding the Chiefs outside linebacker position heading into training camp


1) Can Tamba Hali emerge as the AFC's best pass rusher? 

Thomas Jones was early - or so he thought.

The former Chiefs running back showed up two hours before the team's 12 p.m. game at Arrowhead. But as Jones entered the locker room at, so did Tamba Hali, fresh off a strenuous pregame workout.

"He’s coming in from the field and already drenched in sweat with his football uniform on already," Jones recalled. "And I’m just getting to the stadium. That’s a testament to how serious he is about football and about his position.”

That work ethic translated into a Pro Bowl season for Hali in 2011. And as the Chiefs travel to St. Joseph for training camp, Hali could be entering a season that cements his position as something better than a Pro Bowler in 2012. 

Hali could very well be the best pass rusher in the AFC. 

No player in the conference has had more sacks since 2010 than Hali had. He led the AFC with 14.5 sacks two years ago, and trailed only Terrell Suggs by 2.0 sacks last season. 

Suggs won't be around to challenge Hali again because of a torn Achilles. Not many other players could go sack-for-sack with Hali, and even then, the Chiefs veteran could be the conference's best when all is said and done. 

Bills linebacker Mario Williams is rebounding from an injury of his own. His replacement in Houston, Connor Barwin, had a double-digit sack season for the Texans. Players like Von Miller, LaMarr Woodley, Cameron Wake, and Dwight Freeney should always be included in that conversation. 

None of those players have had the recent output Hali has had, though. And until they do, Hali should be favored to be the AFC's best sack artist this season. 

2) What kind of second-year jump will Justin Houston make?

Tamba Hali knows how much work goes into each sack he records. So when Justin Houston boasted that he'd net a double digit sack total last year, Hali had some advice for his new rookie teammate. 

“He told me it was hard to get even one sack in the NFL and that 10 sacks would equal a great year,” Houston recalled. “Then he told me that the preseason was nothing compared to the regular season."

Hali's words proved prophetic for the better part of last season. Houston didn't record his first sack until December 4th, and finished the season with only 5.5 sacks. But a breakout, three-sack performance against the Bears in Week 13 gave Houston some much-needed momentum heading into this season.  some hope to make good on his prediction in 2012. 

During that game, Houston also forced a fumble, defended a pass, and knocked Bears QB Caleb Hanie down three times. He went on to finish sixth on the team with 70 tackles and second on the team in sacks. 

Houston's hope to make good on last year's prediction is eclipsed only by the Chiefs' hope for him to make good on last year's prediction. If the second year linebacker evolves into an impact player in his own right, the Chiefs defense would have a lot to boast about as well. 

The linebacking corps would start a pair of double-digit pass rushers instead of one--Hali--in coach Romeo Crennel's 3-4 defense. And with Hali and Derrick Johnson on the field, Houston would be a part of a defense that would be at the top of the league on paper. 

The second half of last season shows Chiefs fans that Houston is ready to make that jump. But this year's preseason will determine just how big that jump will be.

3) Who will be the next man up?

Andy Studebaker calls it luck. 

Yet whenever the Chiefs call on Studebaker to make a start, he has been lucky enough - or skilled enough - to be in the right position to make a big play. 

On Halloween last season, the fifth-year linebacker iced a Chiefs win last season with his clutch recovery of a ill-timed Phillip Rivers fumble. And in 2009, Studebaker picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice during his first career start - a Chiefs win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Those big plays have endeared Studebaker to Chiefs fans, but a reserve player's job is never secure. He'll have to fend off two former fifth-round draft picks in order to be the first player called on by Romeo Crennel for the next emergency appearance. 

Cameron Sheffield, a fifth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2010, will fight in St. Joe to earn the nod over Studebaker. Sheffield was playing well in his limited preseason appearances in 2010 before a nasty collision with Eagles running back Mike Bell sidelined him. Since then, Chiefs fans haven't heard his name called much, but that could all change with some solid preseason performances.

Another fifth round pick - 2011's Gabe Miller - is gunning for Studebaker's spot as well. But Miller is still a relative unknown after landing on injured reserve and missing all of his rookie season.

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