The decision by Mike Vrabel to become a college football assistant coach instead of an active NFL player has several ramifications, but the most pressing one for the Chiefs is the vacancy left in their linebacking corps. Vrabel, who would have been a free agent had he chosen to remain in the league, started 30 games the past two seasons for the team, including every game in 2010 at left outside linebacker. Now that he's retired, a group of players will battle to replace him in the starting lineup.
It is expected that veteran Andy Studebaker will get the first crack at the job, playing opposite Pro Bowler Tamba Hali. Heading into his fourth NFL season, Studebaker has never been a full-time starter, coming off the bench for all but two of his 38 career games. He's a sure tackler, however, and it is believed he can help improve upon Vrabel's production (100 tackles, two sacks the past two seasons combined).
Third-round draft pick Justin Houston is another candidate to grab the job, though he's likely going to start the season as a situational pass rusher. Houston is a strong tackler and a better pass rusher than Studebaker, and his presence in the lineup likely would take some attention away from Hali. However, he's still very raw, and without a chance to learn the playbook and work with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and the other Chiefs coaches this offseason, the rookie will be behind the eight-ball when the lockout ends.
"We're going to have a competitive group this year and ultimately, that's what you want every year," Studebaker told PFW about the unit. "A group of guys that will compete against each other, and at the end of the day, we're going to compete together to do our job on Sundays."
There is also a chance that 2010 fifth-rounder Cameron Sheffield could be in the mix, though there are still major questions about his health after a preseason neck injury wiped out his rookie campaign. Sheffield and this year's fifth-round pick, Gabe Miller, a college defensive end, are likely to make their greatest contributions on special teams in 2011.
Without the trusted veteran Vrabel, who served as a coach on the field, in the lineup the other outside 'backers will need to adjust quickly entering their second year in the scheme.
"I think we've taken some steps forward, but obviously we're not settled where we need to be," Studebaker said.
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