clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Did the Kansas City Chiefs draft their future inside linebacker starters?

New, comments

We take a look at the pair of inside linebackers drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs this year to try and project what they can be in the NFL.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

As I dig deeper into the world of "film review" I’m admittedly learning as I go. One thing that I believe is very important: ALL evaluations of incoming rookies are projections. Yes, you want to see good production in college but more importantly you want to see skills and characteristics that you can PROJECT will make them successful NFL players.

Reviewing fourth round pick Georgia LB Ramik Wilson and fifth round pick Oregon State LB DJ Alexander, I also wanted to try to find "where they win" and see if that matches up with what the Chiefs will be asking them to do.

The Chiefs use relatively traditional inside linebacker (ILB) roles in their base 3-4 defense. There’s a SILB (strong side) "thumper" that is expected to take on (and shed) blocks and be forceful in the run game. There is also a WILB (weak side) where Derrick Johnson is the quintessential playmaker, responsible for playing in coverage and flying sideline-to-sideline making tackles and causing turnovers.

You’ll also notice that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton tends to pull the SILB off the field in obvious passing situations in favor of an extra safety. So they have traditionally kept a two-down"SILB that is a starter but really a part time player as the team ends up in these nickel / dime packages for about half of the snaps. The WILB is expected to be a three down player, of course. So, I wanted to see if DJ Alexander and / or Ramik Wilson can "win" on film in the roles the Chiefs will likely put them.

Full disclosure: I am an eternal optimist. I try to practice the old saying: "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all". I WANT to believe that the Chiefs got a steal in the fourth and fifth rounds by getting an instant starter or even a future starter at ILB with Wilson or Alexander. I mentioned on Twitter that people might not be calling me a "sunshine pumper" or "homer" after this piece. I found it challenging to find much positive to say about Ramik Wilson in this film review. He wasn’t terrible, either … but looked to me like "just a guy". Chiefs GM John Dorsey and staff obviously have access to a lot more information than I have, so I acknowledge that there's a chance I'm missing something.

For this film review, I watched four games from DJ Alexander, and five from Ramik Wilson. I was looking for "wow" moments, (positive or negative) and evidence that the LB I was watching had the ability to "win" in the run game and / or the passing game.

Upon further review, maybe there’s more to it than that? Maybe there is more than one type of LB? Some of the best ILBs are always in the right position and never look like they have to sprint to do it. Many SILBs especially are somewhat invisible role players that "set the stage" for the WILB to make the plays. Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify why the guy I’m watching isn’t doing ANYTHING?

In researching how to evaluate ILBs, I found this outstanding piece from Matt Miller:

Being quick and strong is necessary, but knowing where to apply your athletic ability is most important.
Scouting a player's instincts isn't as tough as it might sound. When watching film, how long does it take the middle linebacker to identify the play after you have, or does he beat you to it? If you have experience watching game film from the All-22 view, this is a fun way to gauge yourself and the player.
In person, you want to see a linebacker in perpetual motion. When I coached high school football, we told our linebackers to be sharks—always moving, always hunting. That's what I look for in NFL prospects.
And, like Patrick Willis recently said, "I learned this camp that you don’t have to move as fast if you’re smarter. It almost looks like you’re not moving at all but you’re making the plays."

The characteristics Miller looks for in an ILB and that I’ll focus on in film review here:

Instincts, quickness to close, change of direction, strength to "stack and shed" or "scrape", coverage (comfort in zone) and tackling.

Based on the roles listed above for the Chiefs, and in Matt Miller’s piece, I watched DJ Alexander and Ramik Wilson looking to see if either guy can be the "thumper" we’ve all wanted to see for years OR if either guy could be the heir to DJ’s WILB throne.

DJ Alexander vs. Stanford (2014)

  • First thing you notice is speed.
  • Chased down ball carriers from across the field.
  • I was surprised to see him go through two blockers on this GIF to disrupt the play in the backfield.
  • This GIF shows his speed in pursuit.
  • Looking for a "DJ Special", this is one of the closest I’ve seen from the Chiefs rookies.

DJ Alexander vs. Oregon (2014)

  • Alexander usually lines up on the weak side.
  • He absolutely flies to the ball.
  • Watch Alexander sacrifice his body just to re-direct a runner in this GIF (ignore the arrow):
  • Another GIF here that shows his serious closing speed as Alexander diagnoses the play and sprints from one side of the field to the other and gets to Marcus Mariota and finishes.

DJ Alexander vs. Utah

  • Nice play to close on the RB after a catch with a tackle for a very short gain.
  • Again, the speed jumps off the film.
  • Also has the quickness and change of direction ability to re-direct and react to the play.
  • Sure tackler, doesn’t miss much.

DJ Alexander vs. Cal (2013)

  • First play of the game, flies across the field through traffic and makes the tackle for a very short gain.
  • Shows some fire and competitiveness, playing through the whistle and yelling at himself after good / bad plays.
  • Had a few chances to blitz in this game; got into the backfield on some, got lost in traffic on others.

Ramik Wilson vs. Tennessee (2013)

  • Moves pretty well.
  • Willing to stick his nose in there and tackle.
  • Not really making plays or doing much of anything really.
  • Looks reasonably comfortable in zone drops.
  • Always seems to be chasing down the play from behind.
  • Instincts seem OK. Generally knows where he needs to be.
  • Good tackler, wraps up.
  • Can get blocked out of the play on a regular basis.
  • No idea what the Draft Breakdown folks were drawing on this play but this was one of the best things Wilson did all game: sheds a blocker makes the tackle short of the first down.

Ramik Wilson vs. LSU (2013)

  • Lines up on the weak side primarily.
  • Often asked to cover a TE or WR one on one and looks better than I expected doing it.
  • He’s around the ball, and in on some tackles, but I have yet to see a "wow" play from him in two games…. Or even really a solo tackle, he’s just in the mix a lot.
  • Constantly communicating, lining people up, etc.
  • Seems to have the change of direction ability, and game speed you want to see
  • Gets blocked pretty regularly, doesn’t show that ability to get off of the blocker or go through / around them very often.
  • Not a very physical hitter, just wraps up.
  • Looks like an average player on a good team defense.
  • They blitz a lot but Wilson is typically the guy they leave back when sending DBs or LBs

Side note: this was La’el Collins film … he’s a monster, just seems to be able to erase defenders. Too bad the Chiefs couldn’t have found a way to get him.

Ramik Wilson vs. Mizzou (2013)

  • Showed good recognition on a screen play and made the hit for no gain.
  • Chased down the QB on a run and made the tackle.
  • Also notice fellow Chiefs rookie Mitch Morse is the RT in this game.
  • This GIF shows Wilson getting owned by Morse in one of my new favorite OL techniques, the one arm block. Morse holds him off with his left arm, while running and using his right arm for balance. He is able to steer Ramik for 12 yards down the field and out of this play:

Ramik Wilson vs. South Carolina (2014)

  • Looks to have improved a bit … saw him make a few solo tackles in this game.
  • Did blitz some in this game but never really did anything with it.
  • Dropped in coverage a lot and did OK.
  • Not the greatest GIF but look at the top of the screen, the LB with the dreads … that’s Wilson covering a route to the end zone and he seemed to keep up with the receiver.

Ramik Wilson vs. Louisville (2014)

  • We have a big play sighting! Got a sack on a blitz where he came free untouched.
  • I had to include this GIF because it’s the only real "big play" I saw Wilson make.
  • Again, Wilson is in coverage A LOT. I wish I had the patience to count the snaps and report a quantitative measurement but you’ll just have to take my word for it. He’s in coverage more than he’s doing anything else.
  • He shows ability to run with his man. Allows some catches because he isn't able to close and get to the football in time to stop it but he’s there. An example here.

What others have said about Wilson and Alexander

(Ramik Wilson via Field St Forum)

BOTTOM LINE – Wilson could use more thump in his game. He will occasionally flash explosiveness, but we don’t see it enough. Productive over the last two years, with ability to come in and help on special teams. Attack-oriented defense could turn Wilson into a more urgent player, but he might have to prove he can be more than just a backup linebacker.

(Ramik Wilson via CBS Sports)

STRENGTHS: Well-put-together size for the position with good bulk and length. More than enough speed and pursuit skills. Athletic enough to flip and run down the seam with pass-catchers, positioning himself well downfield. Comfortable and coordinated in his drops. Smooth lateral movements, staying balanced on the move with natural change of direction skills. Nice job mirroring and keeping his pads square at the line of scrimmage with closing burst downhill. Read/reacts well to patrol the middle of the field. Heady and plays decisive. Uses his length well to wrap and finish. High-character player with reliable work ethic. Highly productive tackler with 243 total tackles the past two seasons, the most in the SEC over that span.
WEAKNESSES: Struggles to disengage and gets hung up in the trash with questionable functional strength. Prefers to go around blockers even when quickest route is to try and go through them. Too easily bullied near the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field, struggling to keeping himself clean. Cover athleticism isn't a strength and needs to do a better job identifying keys and trusting his eyes. Often late to locate and can be distracted by eye candy. Too reactionary with suspect anticipation and needs to do a better job reading the pass-catcher to make a play on the ball. Wild angles with room to clean up his footwork. Too much of a hugger and needs to be more of a striker. Suffered a concussion during summer 2014.

DJ Alexander (via Draft Insider)

Three-year starter who finished with 70 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4 sacks as a senior. Junior totals included 63 tackles despite missing three games with a knee sprain. Positive: Undersized but flowing linebacker effective in pursuit. Explosive, fires through the gaps defending the run and easily changes direction to chase down runners. Goes sideline-to-sideline, covers a good amount of area and effective making plays in space. Flies around the action working to make positive plays. Fast in both a straight line as well as laterally. Negative: Not a forceful or impactful linebacker. Minimally effective on the blitz. Lacks size and easily blocked from the action. Analysis: Alexander was a productive linebacker for Oregon State and could fit a one-gap system at the next level if he plays well on special teams.

Comparisons

I watched some of Eric Kendricks and Josh Mauga just for comparison. Kendricks was on a different level than Wilson or Alexander as his draft status (second round) would suggest. He showed controlled aggression, functional strength, outstanding instincts, change of direction and he can certainly cover. He shows some dynamic traits that should translate very well to the NFL.

Mauga showed some ability to stack and shed and in the games I watched (49ers and Bills games in 2014) he was able to diagnose the play and make tackles. This may be a good idea for future film review but Mauga looks the part of an OK "starting" (not Pro Bowl) SILB.

On some of the plays where Mauga struggled, he won’t be on the field for those situations in 2015. In the San Francisco game, he was the sole LB on the nickel / dime looks… that’ll be DJ this year.

(Side note: has anyone ever compared Mauga to Mike Vrabel? That’s kinda who he reminds me of on film)

Mauga did have a lot of plays like I noticed for Wilson where he’s around the ball but not necessarily making a play. And he most certainly didn't have many "impact" plays last year with no fumbles or INTs, and only a half sack. But again I’ll contend that in a more limited role as the SILB next to DJ on first and second down, Mauga will be a solid enough player that we shouldn't be upset to see him on the field.

I know the comments section will be all over the Mauga paragraph but I didn't include it for the purposes of defending him. I’d be MORE THAN HAPPY if the Chiefs were to find an upgrade over Josh Mauga that could step in right away and make some "splash plays" or at least not make the handful of glaring mistakes that stick out in some of our minds when thinking about Mauga.

That said… DID the Chiefs draft an upgrade over Mauga? Did they draft their future DJ replacement?

DJ Alexander looks like he has a little bit of crazy in him which I like in my linebackers. He throws his body around like a weapon. He has all the speed and aggression you’d want, and plays stronger than I would have expected. I think from day one he’s a core special teams player that will likely put up some highlight hits. He’ll have a chance to sit behind a (hopefully) healthy Derrick Johnson and learn the nuances of playing WILB in the NFL.

Ramik Wilson is always under control and around the play but all too often I saw him just hanging out on (or next to) the pile at the end of a play.  Perhaps Wilson has already mastered the art of being in the right place so it looks like you're not moving at all, like Patrick Willis says?  In the five games I detailed above, (and including another game or two I watched but didn’t include) Wilson had one impact play, and a couple of "nice plays". I can’t tell you exactly where he "wins" or what he does that translates to an impact player in the NFL. He reminds me a bit of a more fluid version of Josh Mauga actually but Mauga looks stronger and more aggressive.

From what I can tell, the Chiefs drafted two projects at inside linebacker. One (Alexander) looks like he will be a special teams maniac and potential future playmaker. The other (Wilson) looks like a steady backup to me, unless he can develop into a SILB. Ironically, it’s the player I had never heard of (before the Chiefs called his name) that looks to have the best chance of someday becoming "DJ (A)"

Maybe they work with Wilson on building strength and attacking more aggressively and he becomes a SILB. Or perhaps, what the Chiefs like about him is that he plays under control, and is a steady / solid LB that can play the mostly invisible role of SILB while DJ (and maybe eventually DJA) flies around and makes plays from the WILB spot. But after this review, I’d be VERY surprised (albeit pleasantly so) if Wilson makes much of any noticeable contribution this year.