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Chiefs offseason review: inside linebackers

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Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens lead the Chiefs inside linebacker room for 2018

Kansas City Chiefs v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Offseason in review

Should we be talking more about the linebackers?

This is a position that has undergone a total makeover during the Brett Veach era, and, as much as any other group, symbolizes a shift in attitude and direction. Do the Chiefs finally have a pair of enforcers that can stay on the field for running and passing downs? Do they have enough depth to make it through a long season (and hopefully, a long postseason)?

Returning:

SILB, Reggie Ragland

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chief
Reggie Ragland tackling enemy RB #1
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The makeover, and the Veach era essentially started with the trade for Reggie Ragland last year. He came on strong in the middle of 2017 and appears to have become a leader on the defense. We know he can hit and stop the run and we think he can help a bit in zone coverage. The question is this: can he do enough to stay on the field for all three downs?

Special Teamers: Ukeme Eligwe, Terrance Smith

Ukeme Eligwe is one to watch in camp. Is he part of the long-term plans for the team? What’s his position? Strong side, weak side, outside? Or is he strictly on special teams?

Terrance Smith has made his name and his living on special teams for the past two seasons with the Chiefs. With Dorian O’Daniel on the roster, will Smith become expendable?

Notable additions: WILB, Anthony Hitchens

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons
Anthony Hitchens has a new uniform this season. Thank goodness.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Adding Anthony Hitchens to replace Derrick Johnson was a bit of a surprise move. Not so much because Johnson needed to be replaced, but because Veach felt strongly enough about Hitchens to give him a massive contract. With all of the hype around Sammy Watkins and Kendall Fuller, Hitchens is a bit of a forgotten man this offseason. But he has a chance to be the most impactful player added for 2018. If he can show that he’s an ascending player that has the ability to fully replace the Chiefs great in DJ, his contract will prove a bargain.

Chess Piece: Dorian O’Daniel

Possibly my favorite Chiefs draft pick, but I admit, only after I watched his film after the draft. O’Daniel may be part of a new trend in the NFL: a hybrid linebacker/safety that can literally line up anywhere on the defense and act as an enforcer.

O’Daniel says the Chiefs have a good plan for him at “Will linebacker,” but he reportedly has been working with the outside linebackers in the offseason, perhaps just to work on his coverage skills.

Expect O’Daniel to dominate on special teams and show up in various positions when the Chiefs go to nickel and dime sets.

Compared to 2017: improved, perhaps dramatically.

Ragland was just getting healthy at this time last season, and DJ was declining. Going into 2018, Ragland has established himself as a leader and a tone-setter. With Ragland and Hitchens, the team has unquestioned starters and potential stars on the weak side and strong side.

Depth is still a big question, but with the versatile O’Daniel on board, the top three have the potential to change the way the team plays defense. Bob Sutton can be more unpredictable with a pair of three-down ILBs and O’Daniel.

Just being able to have two linebackers on the field, instead of one ILB and Sorensen/Murray could change everything. The defense, especially in sub-packages, just might be very stout against the run.

If that’s the only area of improvement, it’s a significant development for this team to be able to stop the run and get off of the field. Any improvement from the passing game, whether coverage or pass rush, is a bonus. Expect big things from this often-overlooked position group in 2018.