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Holding The Keys: Outside Linebacker

Posted Mar 29, 2011

Andy Studebaker’s role in 2011 is key to the Chiefs approach at outside linebacker

Two years ago, Tamba Hali and Andy Studebaker were just beginning the transformation from defensive end to outside linebacker. Fast forward to 2011 and each player finds himself at the forefront of the Chiefs future at outside linebacker.

Hali was franchised in February, after leading the AFC with 14.5 sacks, and the chances of the five-year veteran signing a long-term contract extension seem promising.

"We want Tamba to remain a member of the Chiefs, and we will continue to work together with the hope of reaching a long-term agreement," General Manger Scott Pioli said after placing the franchise tag on Hali.

Meanwhile, Studebaker has climbed the NFL’s version of the corporate ladder to secure his long-term future with the club.

The former sixth-round pick began his tenure with the Chiefs as a practice squad pluck from Philadelphia in 2008 and spent the majority of his rookie season on the inactive list. He’d eventually work his way into a special teams role in 2009 and sprinkle two spot-starts into the mix before settling in as a situational contributor last season.

A sparkplug from the sideline, Studebaker was awarded with a contract extension in September.

Even with two players who appear to be in the Chiefs long-term plan, the position remains one of need this off-season. Much of the questioning surrounds Studebaker’s role for 2011 and whether or not Mike Vrabel returns for his 15th NFL season.

Is Studebaker ready for a full-time gig? Do the Chiefs ever envision him becoming a three-down player?

The answer to those questions will shape Kansas City’s approach to the position in 2011.

Vrabel, who has served as Studebaker’s mentor each of the past two seasons, is scheduled to become a free agent for the second time in as many seasons. At 35 years old, Vrabel will eventually pass the torch to a younger player, but is the time now?

Last year wasn’t the time and Vrabel re-inked a one-year deal. It’s a scenario that could repeat itself in 2011 as well.

Even though Studebaker’s defensive snap total jumped 77% from 2009 to 2010, Vrabel still tallied 2.5 times the defensive snaps that Studebaker did last season. Hali and Derrick Johnson were the only linebackers to log more snaps than Vrabel (special teams totals excluded).

Studebaker was a sub-package player for the most part and he excelled in that role. It wasn’t uncommon to see both Studebaker and Vrabel on the field at the same time even though the two played the same position. That wasn’t the case in 2009, which speaks to the rapid rise in Studebaker’s defensive role with the club.

If Vrabel is re-inked, it’s because he’s still part of the Chiefs plans (and still wants to be part of the Chiefs plans).

If he’s not, attention immediately turns to Studebaker and to what degree the Chiefs address outside linebacker in April’s draft.

Depth is another issue facing the position group.

Among outside linebackers, only Hali, Vrabel and Studebaker saw defensive snaps last season. Between the three, a total of 1,981 reps were taken and Hali rarely left the field.

Remove Vrabel from the situation and Studebaker’s role won’t be the only one increasing. The Chiefs would then be reliant on another player to join the rotation as well, whether help comes through the development on an in-house player, the addition of a draft pick or via a free agent acquisition.

The situation might look different had Cameron Sheffield not suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Unfortunately, there is very little game experience waiting among the reserves.

Some draft experts have the Chiefs targeting an outside linebacker in the draft’s first round. That’s one way to address the issue.

Others believe that attempting to resign Vrabel isn’t up for debate.

Regardless of how the Chiefs address the future at outside linebacker, identifying Studebaker’s role for 2011 is a major part of the process.

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