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KANSAS CITY Darwin Thompson Jersey nfl draft , Mo. (AP) — Twice in a span of three years the Kansas City Chiefs spent their top draft pick on defense, and the response from their fan base was a collective shrug followed by some frantic Google searches.Who had heard of Dee Ford outside the SEC? Or Chris Jones, for that matter?Ford was a speedy, athletic but raw pass rusher out of Auburn whom many draft pundits considered a risky reach when the Chiefs chose him 23rd overall in 2014. Jones had a solid if unspectacular career at Mississippi State before the Chiefs took him with the No. 37 overall pick two years later.Yet those two have been the lone bright spots on a blighted Chiefs defense.Ford has piled up 12 sacks and forced six fumbles in a contract year, giving the Chiefs a tough but welcome financial decision to make this offseason. Jones has at least one sack in an NFL-record 11 consecutive games and his 15½ this season is second only to Rams star Aaron Donald.Together, they have more sacks than the Raiders, Giants and playoff-bound Patriots.“I don’t think too much about it,” said Jones, who was among the more noteworthy Pro Bowl snubs this season. “We’re just trying to win games. That’s what is most important right now.”Especially given the stakes this week: The Chiefs must beat Oakland on Sunday to win the AFC West and earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, or risk potentially dropping to the No. 5 seed.Yet the Chiefs probably wouldn’t be in such a position without Ford and Jones, and simply making that statement speaks volumes to what they’ve accomplished in their young careers.Ford dealt with a series of injuries that kept him on the sideline about as much as the field, and he struggled to adjust to the NFL game. He was almost exclusively a pass rusher at Auburn, but learning the nuances of pass coverage and stopping the run took a few years.Sure, there were bright spots along the way. But nothing resembling his breakthrough this season.“I think Dee Xavier Williams Jersey , he’s healthy, feels good about the things he is doing,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s doing a good job of setting the edge, which kind of gets overlooked just because of his pass rush. He is playing good football right now.”Ford had three sacks and forced two fumbles in a win over the Broncos earlier this season, and his steady play has allowed him to remain on the field even in obvious running situations.In other words, he’s developed into a well-rounded linebacker.One that’s about to get paid handsomely.The Chiefs can’t afford to let him go in free agency, so Ford is an attractive candidate to get the franchise tag. And with a salary cap expected to be about $190 million next year, that means giving Ford more than $16 million — a substantial bump from the roughly $8.7 million he’s making this year.They could also sign him to a long-term deal, though Khalil Mack just shattered the market with his $141 million, six-year deal with the Bears. Eight figures for Ford is hardly out of the question.Then there is Jones, who lost about 25 pounds since last season and has become one of the top interior pass rushers in the NFL. He started his sack streak in Week 5 against Jacksonville, and not only has Jones had at least one in each game since, but he has five games with more than one.Throw in enough versatility to adequately defend the run, and enough personality to make him a fan favorite Patrick Mahomes Jersey , and Jones becomes the kind of cornerstone upon which the Chiefs can build.“His body fat is way down. He works his fundamentals and techniques. That’s what he does,” Reid said. “He still has room to grow, which is great. He isn’t tapped out by any means. I will tell you it all started in the offseason. Now it is paying off for him as the season has gone on.”It’s going to pay off in another ways. Jones still has one year left on his rookie deal, and an extension now would be costly for the Chiefs. But the alternative is to wait until the 2020 season ends, at which point they’ll be up against everybody else in free agency in need of a pass rusher.All that lies in the future, though. Ford and Jones insist they are focused solely on the present, and that means preparing for a game against Oakland with major playoff implications. With the NFL's volcanic offenses, can't-hit-them-too-hard rules and bewildered officials, linebackers today aren't the snarling 250-pound thumpers who used to just give running backs fits."Now we have to cover well, too," Denver's Brandon Marshall said. "We still have to tackle well. So, you can't be real light and only playing pass or too heavy and only playing run. You've got to be able to do all of it, man."Which means finding a sweet spot on the scale so they can run like a gazelle and still hit like a truck.Today's inside linebackers not only need to have the stamina to go sideline to sideline, but they also require:鈥攕ufficient strength to shed 320-pound linemen;鈥攅nough vigor to cover towering tight ends;鈥攁mple speed to keep up with receivers no longer timid about going over the middle;鈥攅nough recognition and quickness to keep up with shifty running backs and ever-more-mobile quarterbacks.It's also handy to have a thick skin Mitch Morse Jersey , knowing linebackers will bear the brunt of fans' frustrations as offenses pick apart apparently defenseless units at a record-setting pace.Sounds impossible."It almost is," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "It almost is.""It's definitely very difficult," Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said. "You have tight ends that provide mismatches, you've got running backs that are great receivers. You're asked to be in a lot of positions. But that's what we get paid to do. So, we've got figure out a way to do it and do it well."As do the officials, whom Joseph said are allowing illegal blocks with the run-pass option rage that has seeped from the college game and is prominently featured in places such as Kansas City, Philadelphia and Seattle.Take the Broncos' loss to the Chiefs in Week 8.Linemen aren't allowed to block more than a yard from the line of scrimmage on a pass play. But the Chiefs' guards and center got a few yards downfield several times, causing Denver's linebackers to instinctively commit to the run 鈥?only to see quarterback Patrick Mahomes pull the ball back from running back Kareem Hunt's belly and zip it to wide-open tight end Travis Kelce."It's the league we're in," Joseph said. "Those guys blocking up front don't know the ball is being thrown. They're blocking zone, so absolutely it's an issue. We have to fix this issue in this league, unless it's going to be college football."It's tough for the linebackers to play both, and you see it on tape. Todd Davis is having hell trying to fit his gap and chase the guy in the flat. When you see Kelce in the flat over there with no one around him, (Davis is) playing his run gap because the guard and center are four and five yards down the field."Joseph added, "That's an issue. It's a leaguewide issue and it's a Chiefs issue. Everyone is running these plays Chris Jones Jersey , so we have to figure out a way to officiate this better to help the game."Marshall isn't so sure the league's competition committee will do anything about it, though, saying more points equals more eyeballs."They're not going to change it," he said.So it's the linebackers who are changing.Davis, the Broncos' leading tackler, said he's dropped his weight to 233 and "I do a lot more training with DBs and corners. I add that on to what I already did in the weight room and running and conditioning. But now I have to be ready for everything in the pass game, as well."The linebackers who are modifying their bodies and games are embracing the challenge."It's the NFL," Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "There's great players at every position."Including linebacker."I love it," Davis said. "It's on us to play well and it's on us to set the tempo and be great for our team. I wouldn't have it any other way."Marshall said linebackers ultimately benefit from the ever-increasing challenges brought on by the RPO trend, faster rushers, bigger tight ends and plucky receivers."It's made me a better player," Marshall said. "It's also made me more valuable.""I think that's why teams put a premium on athletic 'backers," Marshall said. "Because we have to be out there to cover the Kelces and the Gronks and the Dion Lewises and the James Whites of the world. And then we've got to be able to tackle (Todd) Gurley. That's just how it is."Defenses are employing more defensive backs, as many as seven Steven Nelson Jersey , to combat the RPO trend."I think schematically we have to adjust as far as personnel and put faster athletes, better athletes at cover linebacker positions to nullify some of this stuff," Joseph said. "Because right now it's almost impossible physically."Joseph thinks he has an antidote in Su'a Cravens, and the 6-foot-1, 220-pound safety from USC who's used as a dime linebacker certainly agrees."The way the rules are, they handicap defenses. We're basically on the field to get in the way, we're not supposed to stop the offense," Cravens said. "Defense is already hard enough. They're making it harder."So, with guys like me, I think it's an opportunity for us to showcase what we can do because they're making it hard for traditional linebackers who are heavy-handed, heavy-footed. They're ready to be physical at the line of scrimmage and they can't do that anymore."AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker and Dave Campbell contributed

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