Welcome back to the Six Pack! This week's Kansas City Chiefs position group is the Inside Linebackers. As always, I'll discuss six different BEERs (Base Expectation and Evaluation Report) and get some discussion going to last us 'til Week 1! Let's crack 'em open!
[Previously: Defensive line]
[Previously: Outside Linebackers]
1. Stock Report
After last week's post about the Outside Linebackers, I was feeling a little down on the defensive side of the ball. Luckily, my favorite group of players is up this week. I may have spent a little time here and there discussing the Chiefs ILB's...probably close to 1/4 of my posts. I even wrote a love letter to my all-time favorite Chief two seasons ago, and it just about broke me when he when out hurt. I love Inside Linebackers, so I'm sure it'll be no surprise that after last year's young additions, their stock is WAY UP.
Derrick Johnson is amongst the best in the league at what he does. There were plenty of questions after last season as to his effectiveness coming off of an injury, and all he did was turn back the clock to 2010 and have another career year. Before last season, I didn't hold high expectations for one Josh Mauga, but Dirk's boy ended up having a very solid season when asked to do less in the SILB spot. The Chiefs also (finally) listened to me and drafted a pair of ILB's last season in Ramik Wilson and DJ Alexander, and both contributed immediately to the squad in some spot starting duty and on special teams. Finally, the team acquired my new co-favorite of the bunch as a UDFA last year, Justin March. He'll be coming back from an injury, but reports look good out of OTA's. It's easy to see why there's a lot of optimism about this group.
2. Lineup / Playing Time
I could have just filled this section with a Q&A session from twitter, honestly. Nobody's quite sure who the starter is next to DJ, and nobody's quite sure who is making the team. This position is 5 deep, which is a great thing...but the Chiefs only use the "non-DJ" linebacker 52% of the time. That means there's 4 guys competing for 52% of the defensive snaps. One of them will back up DJ, and the other will rotate in at the SILB position, but that leaves one guy out.
I used Michael's quote in this section because I've seen both of his questions be answered in the affirmative a lot this offseason. The more I think about it, the less I'm convinced it's true, though. Yes, Justin March is a heat-seeking missile that DJ won't quit praising, and Chiefs GM John Dorsey called him "the surprise of training camp" last year. I believe he's a future starting linebacker for this Chiefs team, and I do believe it happens this year. But if I'm making the decision, Josh Mauga isn't going anywhere.
I'll give you a chance to get back into your chairs after you certainly fell off of them. Are we all good now? Great, let me explain. Josh Mauga showed last season that is 2014 season was simply being played out of position and being asked to do too much. Last year with DJ back, Mauga got to stay in his preferred SILB role and had a quietly solid season plugging gaps and even made a couple splash plays, picking off two passes. Even if the Chiefs are ready to shift the focus to March this year, there is a very valuable role for that backup linebacker spot, and their focus on it in the draft last year shows that they recognize that spot. I can definitely see Mauga starting the season at SILB, then beginning to rotate series as the year goes along, especially against pass-happy teams where March will be preferred for his pass coverage ability.
So DJ, March, and Mauga are in. That leaves one spot for DJ Alexander and Ramik Wilson to compete over. Even though Ramik got snaps as a starter next to DJ last year in Mauga's absence, he doesn't have the same effect on the game that DJ2 does. We saw last year that DJ2 is a special teams stud, and with another year in an NFL training program, I'd expect him to be even bigger and faster. We've seen Toub's influence on draft picks and final rosters, and I think this one is no exception. Ramik will land on his feet somewhere, but his cut is unfortunately the byproduct of a very crowded and talented ILB group.
There's not a whole lot about this group that isn't a strength. There are guys that can do everything. You have youth to develop, experienced veterans, and an all-time Chiefs great who still hasn't lost a step. As a group, the Chiefs ranked their best against the run (8th) since the 2005 group was 7th in the league. Since then, they have been perennial bottom dwellers in the run defense rankings. That has to do with a whale of a Defensive Line in front of them, as well as the Outside Linebackers holding their own, but we also saw the emergence of the SILB position last year under Mauga. He was willing to get in the mix, eliminating the negative first step we saw in 2014 and making it a positive one in 2015. DJ showed he didn't lose his splash potential (#DJSpecial) against the run, routinely stopping plays before they start. March was taking on guys that were 100 pounds heavier than he was in the preseason and was able to shake blockers and make plays. We also got to enjoy DJ2 rifling down the field for big hit after big hit on special teams. Now imagine that translating to meeting the running back in the gap. WHEW.
Against the pass, the group doesn't appear to be AS strong as it is against the run, but it's still very prominent. DJ is one of the very best coverage linebackers in the league and routinely draws tough assignments in which he holds his own. 8 pass defenses, 2 INT's and 4 sacks to go with his 116 tackles? Really good linebackers would kill for that season, and it's about his 3rd or 4th best in his career. March seems tailor made for a 3rd down linebacker with his tracking ability and agility. He played a ton of coverage snaps in college as a 4-3 SAM linebacker, so the foundation has already been laid. Another season in the company of DJ and a season to absorb the speed of the game will do wonders for the kid.
Just like in the Defensive Line post, I feel like a bit of a homer, but there's not a whole lot of weaknesses here. That said, I'll use this space to discuss how I feel the linebackers are best utilized. To start, @tom_norwood asked me on Twitter "What percentage of plays did KC use 2 ILB compared to sub packages?". Last year, I came up with the Chiefs running the base 3-4 defense 46% of the time, and a sub package defense 54% of the time. However, as I said above, the Chiefs had a second linebacker on the field 52% of the time. Sutton definitely ran more of a straight nickel package than a hybrid nickel/dime with a safety in the box last year. I've been calling for this team to implement a 3rd down linebacker more often, and it appears the coaching staff are toying with it more than in year's past.
I believe that 3rd down ILB is how this team becomes even better. Even if Josh Mauga plays the majority of the base 3-4 snaps this season, I believe implementing a guy like Justin March in a 3rd down role makes this team even more dangerous than the box safety we've become accustomed to seeing on the field. It makes the team stronger against the run on 3rd and longer, covers the running back out of the backfield just as well as a safety, and puts a better blitzer in the box to bring further pressure. There are still plenty of teams that will force a smaller, DB-heavy sub package out of this defense, but bringing along another element that can be relied on makes it even more diverse.
5. Around the League
There's only 5 inside linebacker corps really worth trumpeting about in the NFL: the Chiefs, the Panthers, the Broncos, the Patriots, and the Seahawks. It's hard to compare 4-3 linebackers and 3-4 ILB's, but we'll try here. The Seahawks have KJ Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Mike Morgan, three really underrated linebackers, but they get a ton of help from their stellar DB's, and none of them are as good as DJ. That said, their #2 and #3 options are better than the Chiefs are currently, so I'll give this one a push. The Patriots get to trot out Dont'a Hightower, but don't have much to speak of next to him (similar to KC), and once again, I'd rank DJ just above him. A nod to the Chiefs there. The Broncos have Brandon Marshall, another really underrated ILB, but get most of their street cred from Ware and Miller on the outside. Again, DJ tips the scales in the Chiefs favor, but this one is closer than a lot of Chiefs fans want to admit. Finally, the Panthers get the best ILB in the league in Luke Kuechly and another all-timer in Thomas Davis next to him. This is no contest: Carolina.
So the Chiefs aren't the best in the league, but I'd put them a solid 2nd or 3rd. Hard to be dissatisfied there.
6. Stat Predictions/Expectations
BEER #6 this week is like a delicious aged Imperial Stout (recommendation: Prairie Bomb!). It just keeps getting better, you never get tired of it, and it hits HARD.
As stated above, I think the one guy that gets the axe this offseason is Ramik Wilson, so I won't be forecasting his stats. Also, go ahead and put your bets on him making the team, I'm so rarely correct. I'm guessing that Mauga gets the start/major snaps initially, but March slowly makes his claim on those snaps as the season goes along and he comes up to the speed of the game. DJ2 will be our resident special teams stud and won't see anything outside of mop-up duty in blowouts.
Derrick Johnson - 108 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8 TFL, 10 PBU's, 2 INT (1 pick six)
Josh Mauga - 32 tackles, 1.0 sack, 2 TFL, 2 PBU
Justin March - 41 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 3 TFL, 5 PBU, 1 INT
DJ Alexander - 16 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 TFL, 1 PBU's
That's it for this week's Six Pack!
What are your opinions/predictions on the 2016-2017 Inside Linebacker group?
Next week, I'll be covering the Chiefs Cornerback position group, and I'll try not to pat myself too hard on the back about Marcus Peters and Keivarae Russell. As always, if you'd like your comments, questions, or predictions included in next week's post, send me an email at lastphoenix [at] gmail [dot] com or a message on Twitter @barleyhop. I'll look through them and use the best for next week!