I have given Scott Pioli plenty of grief, but the overall lineup at linebacker has proven to be a bright spot on a team otherwise surrounded by questions, showing he has been doing his homework in at least one department.
Going into the season there were tons of questions at linebacker, even with the signings of Mike Vrabel and the now-departed Zach Thomas. We could go through each question, but the list would be terribly long (I tried typing it out). Instead of answering every question, let's just focus on some surprises that have offered pleasant answers to some questions.
The biggest surprise in all of camp, let alone on defense or among the linebackers, has been the play of Corey Mays. When Zach Thomas was injured early on in training camp, Mays more than stepped up. This guy has been fantastic throughout the preseason and really raises the question of why this guy hasn't started sooner in his career. He has not only won the starting spot, he has practically starred in this defense. The only thing Mays needs work on is his pass coverage. He sometimes gets caught peeking into the backfield instead of "keeping his head on a swivel," so he sometimes shifts into coverage too late, but he hasn't started a regular season game yet. The only long-term question is whether or not we'll be able to keep him when his contract expires. This guy reminds me a lot of Donnie Edwards around 1997.
Javon Belcher hasn't made near the splash Mays has, but he has also taken advantage of the extra snaps when Zach Thomas went down. Belcher doesn't have great timed speed or size, but he has great game speed, flies around the field, and hits hard for his size. His play on defense shows a lag that is typical of many rookies. Once he has to think less and can just play, he could be a solid LB for us. His play on ST is truly exceptional. As a gunner, he is often one of the first guys down the field and has made the initial tackle several times. This guy reminds me a lot of Mike Mazlowski and, like Mazlowski, Belcher makes up for lack of athleticism with sheer effort and will.
Andy Studebaker is eerily reminiscent of the guy who starts in front of him, Mike Vrabel. When Mike Vrabel arrived in New England from the Steelers, he was no more than a lightly regarded LB who could play ST. Studebaker is a good ST player, and he is often among the first on the scene in kick and punt coverage, along with the aforementioned Belcher. Studebaker is also on his second team. Philadelphia drafted him in the sixth round in 2008, then released him. Studebaker, however, has the tools to develop into something special. His workout numbers in the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, shuttle, and broad jump are strong for a linebacker. For tiny Division III Wheaton College, he had 25 sacks over two seasons, including a senior campaign with 17.5 sacks, 24.5 TFL, 19 QBH, even 8 passes defensed. Studebaker will need some time to develop, coming from such a tiny school, but he is in a great position to succeed. He has a great mentor in Vrabel, and the move from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB will allow the 248-lb Studebaker to achieve more than he ever could as a 4-3 DE.
Tamba Hali doesn't have the humble beginnings of Mays, Belcher, or Studebaker in terms of his entry into the NFL. He has dealt with adversity before, fleeing with his father from war-torn Liberia when he as 10. Yes, he is old enough to remember the atrocities and brutality that afficted his home country. That might explain why he's a mentally tough player, and that toughness might explain why his transition to LB is going well. For a guy who played DE for three years in the NFL, DE for two years in college, and DT before that, Hali's transition to OLB is going relatively well. After looking noticeably uncomfortable in the offseason, Hali is finally settling into his new role. Hali, who looked like little more than a pass-rush OLB going into the preseason, is starting to get the feel of covering the short zones. He makes up for a lack of speed with good instincts and great effort, two things that have served him well the better part of his career. He is arguably looking better at OLB than DE, especially against the run. As a DE, teams could just run at Hali and get good yardage. As a LB, Hali is doing a much better job holding up at the POA, keeping contain, and stopping the run. He doesn't look like the pass rusher he was his rookie year, but he still looks like he should be able to get the job done. Chiefs fans might get a little nervous when Hali has to cover a pass, but he is taking well to the new role, and he is doing better than many expected.
There are plenty of troubling areas on this year's KC Chiefs team, but the LB corp looks like they are in good shape, both for now and in the future.