The latest Chiefs player development experiment appeared poised for a huge test in the fourth game of the season. However, Dee Ford’s apparent return from a groin strain seems to signal that rookie Breeland Speaks, the top pick from this past spring’s draft, will continue to play a backup role as opposed to being forced into major playing time.
A 6-foot-3, 285-pound second-round pick out of Ole Miss, Speaks has been one of the two primary backups at outside linebacker along with Tanoh Kpassagnon despite switching positions from a down lineman playing primarily on the interior in college to an edge rusher in the NFL who also has pass coverage responsibilities.
The Chiefs rolled the dice on Speaks successfully transitioning to the outside based on his physical attributes and their need. The jury is still out on whether it was a worthwhile gamble. He’s been re-learning how to play defense from a position farther away from the football, adjusting to the higher level of competition and trying to acclimate to Bob Sutton’s defense while figuring out his place within it — or at least his temporary place in it.
“I feel like I’m finally getting used to it,” Speaks said. “Last game, I had, what, two tackles with the playing time I got. So I feel like it’s coming along. My plays are starting to be made.”
Those two tackles were the first of his career. And yes, Speaks recognized he hasn’t made as many plays as he probably should. The speed of play in the regular season has picked up and the number of defensive calls have also increased to the point that Speaks has found himself thinking instead of reacting. As a result, he has played with less aggression.
“Yeah, part of it is just knowing the defense and seeing where I fit into it,” Speaks said. “I feel like I’m finally settling in and getting used to it. It’s getting a lot easier for me.”
Speaks has played 45 defensive snaps. His two-tackle performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the Chief’s home opener last week came on a day when he played just six defensive snaps, including having stepped in for Ford after his groin strain in the fourth quarter.
Speaks actually got caught too far inside which allowed 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to escape the pocket and scramble up the sideline before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Even before the regular season started, it seemed an open secret that Speaks’ future may take him back to his roots as a down lineman. General manager Brett Veach, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and Speaks acknowledged it prior to the season opener against the Chargers.
“I think he’s another guy that has flexibility,” Sutton said. “He can be an edge guy. Over the years, we’ve played these guys — Justin (Houston), Tamba (Hali), all these guys — both inside and outside as far as rushing. Breeland fits in that same mold. Breeland is a really big, strong individual. He’s got some other things about him that make it really difficult. Like in the run game, he’s a hard guy to move. He really is, so he gives us that and he’s got tenacity in the (pass) rush game.”
Speaks has a unique combination of speed and strength, but his body build could be considered somewhere between an interior defensive lineman and an outside edge rusher. He’s listed as a similar size as starting defensive lineman Allen Bailey (6-foot-3, 288 pounds) but three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than starting defensive lineman Chris Jones (6-foot-6, 310 pounds).
Speaks’ relentlessness as a pass rusher intrigues Sutton.
“He has a little bit of that edge to him, and a little bit of ‘Hey, you’re going with me or I’m going by you. One of the two, but we’re going someplace here,’” Sutton said. “As long as he keeps that going, he’s got a chance to be a really good football player.”
Whereas Speaks now lines up as a stand-up edge defender usually a step outside of either the tackle or the tight end, he spent his collegiate career as a defensive tackle and defensive end in a four-man front. At Ole Miss he lined up in positions similar to where the Chiefs align Jones and Bailey.
“If he continues to work and develop, maybe he sticks at outside linebacker and he turns into a really good player there,” Veach said of Speaks at the end of the preseason. “These guys are all young and they are all developing. You also have the flexibility to kick him inside. This guy can probably also rush from the three and also play five technique moving forward, too.
“He is a valuable defensive line commodity that, because of how we are set up with our depth right now, it is going to help us best at outside linebacker to keep Dee (Ford) healthy, to keep Justin (Houston) healthy in regard to limiting their reps. But also, he is a guy in the future he could potentially play anywhere across the board there. That is the value we saw.”
That versatility can prove both a blessing and a curse.
As Veach pointed out, playing outside linebacker has allowed Speaks valuable experience and playing time in game situations. As a rookie, Ford hadn’t surpassed 40 defensive snaps played until the seventh game of the season and finished the season having played 122.
Meanwhile, Speaks has to, in his words, “learn to rush at this level” at the same time as learning a new position and facing blockers who are longer, more polished and better equipped to stop his best one or two moves.
Being farther outside and coming from a different angle has meant different footwork and different techniques that, in some cases, were foreign ideas to him.
“I remember just day one getting here, him understanding how to clear his hips and flip his hips — something as simple as that — he’d never been taught,” Chiefs outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said.
Smith said one of the biggest thing Speaks has had to work through was understanding what type of pass rusher he should be instead of falling into the trap of doing the same things a speed rusher like Ford does in drills.
“I see Breeland like Justin,” Smith said. “He’s a power rusher. He’s strong. Use your long arm. Use your stab and swipe, stuff like that, your jerks. He’s still coming along, figuring out who he is. He’s getting a feel for it, but it takes time.”
The potential downside of this experiment is that Speaks may be painstakingly working to learn this new position only to realize he’s not as capable of helping as much as he would inside. After all, 14 of his college starts came at defensive tackle as opposed to just seven at defensive end. Now, he’s farther outside.
While the Chiefs appear committed to playing Speaks at linebacker at least for this season, there are those like former SEC Network analyst and current Monday Night Football analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland, who look at the experiment as ill-considered. McFarland, who will call Monday Night’s Game on the ESPN television broadcast, insists Speaks needs to play from a stance with his hand in the ground.
“In my opinion, he’s not a guy that ever needs to be dropping back. He’s a defensive lineman. I thought that he was the quintessential three technique,” said McFarland, who played eight seasons as a defensive tackle in the NFL. “You’re running this 3-4 defense and you’re drafting a guy who should’ve been a three technique. To me he’s a guy who needs to have his hand in the ground at all times. He should never ever ever ever ever be in a situation where he’s standing up dropping back anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Jones, now in his third season with the Chiefs, believes Speaks is a natural pass rusher who will only benefit from moving around.
“Breeland is a stud,” Jones said. “I mean, you look at how he is built. He can play three technique, go outside and play outside linebacker and play D-end. If you look at the versatility that Breeland Speaks has, it’s good for this defense.
“When you’re versatile, you kind of want to move around so they just can’t pinpoint you in one position. You kind of want to get out and rush on the edge, also rush at three technique, seeing where your highs and lows are at, create advantages.”
Time will ultimately reveal whether this experiment proved successful for both the Chiefs and Speaks.