Coming into the 2014 season, most would argue that the linebacking corps of the Kansas City Chiefs is the best unit on the team. It’s easy to see why, with three returning Pro Bowl players in Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston. All three of these players are amongst the best in the league at their position, and it’s part of the reason why Bleacher Report recently ranked the Chiefs corps at #2 in the NFL. There is one real question Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has to answer this preseason, though: Who plays the 4th linebacker?
In the 2013 season, the Chiefs played former Philadelphia Eagles (now Washington Football-Team) linebacker Akeem Jordan next to Derrick Johnson. Jordan had a knack for plugging holes and stacking/shedding blockers in the run game, but lacked the ability to be a 3 down player with deficiencies in pass coverage and rushing the passer. Although his yards against average in the run game was solid, he gave up a lot of receiving yards against tight ends and running backs, and finished the season with 0 pass defenses and 0 sacks. The Chiefs moved along this offseason, opting for some new blood to fill the gap. AHPKC writer/podcaster/all-around good guy Ryan Scott Hall (@ryanscotthall) wrote his breakdown of the Chiefs linebackers in the upcoming training camp this morning and talked about the players at that other Inside Linebacker spot: Joe Mays, James Michael Johnson, Nico Johnson, and Ben Johnson.
The seasoned veteran of the group, Joe Mays, was a bit of a surprise signing for me. He hits very hard, as Ryan pointed out, and this team doesn’t have a player that matches his intensity on the field, which has been sorely missed. However, Mays suffers from the same issues Jordan did last year: He doesn’t blitz or cover particularly well, and he cost the Chiefs more than Jordan did. His intensity and run stopping ability will surely be boon for this linebacking corps, but one has to wonder if the acquisition was a lateral one.
Third year player, James Michael Johnson, is quite the athletic freak. He’s quick and covers a lot of ground in a hurry. He’s sharp at times in short coverage and pursuit because of his speed, and especially good at delayed blitzes up the middle of the field. He likes to hit, but sometimes relies on his strength to try to make a play and becomes lackadaisical with his technique. His read and react skills are strong, but he doesn’t always keep his focus. In reality, the negatives for him being on the field are those of a young player learning a system. Developing consistency and adding a little bulk could easily result in two splash players at inside linebacker, a la San Fransisco.
2013 draft pick Nico Johnson was quite the prospect coming out of college. A true thumper, he too will fit the mold of Joe Mays and Akeem Jordan. He was solid against the run in coverage, but wasn’t asked to do a whole lot of blitzing or coverage in Alabama’s scheme. He played 17 defensive snaps for the Chiefs last year after an ankle injury in the preseason made his development slow. As it stands, there’s not a whole lot known about his transition to the NFL, and if he’s anything more than just a 2-down linebacker. He’s arguably the one guy on this list with the most to prove going into 2014, especially with Mays’ arrival.
52 year old track star and former “fastest man in the world”, Ben Johnson, has come out of nowhere to land on the Chiefs roster. After being caught doping in the 1988 Olympics, Johnson attempted a comeback on the track, but it didn’t pan out. Now, with the Chiefs making this headscratching move…
Oh…uhhh…sorry about that. Ben Johnson, former Tennessee-Martin linebacker and 2014 Chiefs undrafted free agent put up eye popping numbers, but at 6’2″ and 235 pounds, he’s coming in a little small to the NFL. He’ll be fighting an uphill battle to take a spot from one of the bigger, more talented guys above, but his determination is a strong suit.
When it comes down to it, the Chiefs are going to have to make a decision, possibly on a game-by-game basis, as to who plays with these All-Pro linebackers. There will be cases where defending the run game becomes the paramount focus, and in those games, it’s almost assuredly Joe Mays’ job to lose. However, as the NFL becomes more and more pass-happy (and with Manning and Rivers in the division), having the “thumper” on the field isn’t going to matter as much. In those situations in 2013, the Chiefs tended to bring Eric Berry into the box while removing a linebacker, resulting in Berry filling a hybrid linebacker-safety role. This year, with the potential development of James Michael, Bob Sutton could opt to leave all four linebackers on the field to improve the shorter zone coverage.
Personally, I’d love to see JMJ win the job in preseason and utilize two splash players in the center of the defense. It may be weaker against the run, but with the coverage and blitzing ability of both ILB’s, the blitz schemes can change drastically and the defense becomes a more versatile attacking monster. However, if I had to make a prediction right now, I’d say Joe Mays is the starting linebacker, and a safety gets brought down into the box in the subset package (or Dee Ford as another pass rusher)…and yes, I’ll continue to rue the fact that this team is missing another 3 down linebacker.
-Craig Stout (@barleyhop)