With most of Kansas City Chiefs training camp taking place behind closed doors, the normal flow of information has been absent. That leads to greater focus than usual on the information we do receive via press conferences with the coaching staff and players.
One name that has come up repeatedly in pressers is third-year linebacker Ben Niemann. Primarily deployed as a dime linebacker in 2018 and 2019, Niemann is looking to carve out a bigger role for himself in 2020. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens recognized a shift in Niemann’s approach and contribution thus far in camp as well.
HITCHENS: “He’s improving every day. He’s smart. He knows the defense. He knows multiple positions. He has the opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it right now. He’s been making plays all over during camp. He had a pick-six today in camp. He’s had some TFLs. He’s been in his books studying and growing as a player. He’s still young. He’s only going into year three, but he’s making a huge jump this year already.”
The Iowa Hawkeye bond is certainly strong between Hitchens and Niemann, but that level of praise should not go unnoticed. Hitchens is the leader of that linebacker group and one of the key voices in the locker room for the Chiefs defense.
Public praise and discussion of a “huge jump” out of Niemann certainly drew the attention of those on the call, resulting in a question asked of head coach Andy Reid as well.
REID: “I think Ben’s put on strength over the year, and I thought that was big for him. So, Ben has a great football mind—a coach’s kid, that whole thing—but with the physical strength, I think he’s added to that. I think he’s probably more familiar with the scheme, obviously—I think all the defensive players are. But for him personally, I think he’s gotten a little bit stronger.”
Niemann’s role as a dime linebacker doesn’t often require him to take on blocks or anchor to stop a running back in his tracks. However, lining up on base downs or Steve Spagnuolo’s Buffalo nickel package require the linebackers to be stout between the tackles. Niemann getting stronger only helps him to truly line up in the multiple position Hitchens discussed as well.
Niemann himself discussed where he believe his biggest jump has taken place when he sat down with the media on Friday.
NIEMANN: “Yeah, I think just being in the second year in the Spags system I feel more comfortable. In college I didn’t play in the box, I wasn’t an in the box linebacker, my rookie year we ran a 3-4 scheme which was totally different, night and day than what we’re in now. Last year and this year have kind of been my first two years in my experience as a true inside 4-3 linebacker, so I think just being more comfortable in the scheme. With Coach Spags I think being in year two of the scheme now, we’re just trying to dive deeper, you know, understanding the full call. Last year, year one, you’re kind of getting your assignment down, trying to be in the right place and get a line right and make a play. Now, just having a full grasp of everything, knowing what guys around you are doing, knowing why he’s calling these calls in certain situations and what the strengths and weaknesses are of these calls, who you have around you and how you use other guys.”
While Niemann’s understanding of the playbook should help him to play faster, the same goes for all the returning members of the Chiefs linebacking corps. Even a player like Hitchens — who was responsible for getting everyone in the front on the same page last year — is certainly going to play faster in 2020 by having the foundation to work off of from 2019.
That understanding has also afforded Niemann the ability to rotate in all over the second level for Spagnuolo’s defense in the camp. Niemann has maintained his dime linebacker reps, but got some WILL linebacker reps early with Damien Wilson at the SAM. An early look at the Chiefs first team defense came during Saturday’s open-to-the-public practice, and Niemann maintained that WILL linebacker role with Willie Gay Jr. at the SAM spot.
The Chiefs’ 1st-team defense today:— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) August 22, 2020
Willie Gay Jr.
It remains to be seen how the Chiefs line up Week 1 against the Houston Texans. Wilson missed Saturday’s practice, and Gay has been incredibly impressive in his limited reps. Niemann understands that this all could change — and quickly — as he explained on Friday.
NIEMANN: “I’m mean just getting into my book, learn as many spots as possible, so I can plug in and play wherever they need me to. You know, line-ups shuffle, things change, guys come in, guys leave, guys get hurt so just being able to plug and play kind of wherever and this offseason just tried to attack everything in terms of working out the playbook and all that.”
That versatility at linebacker may make Niemann even more important in an uncertain NFL season. If Wilson, Hitchens or Gay have to miss time, having a linebacker that knows the spots and keeps the communication strong is incredibly valuable.
It’s clear that Niemann has worked very hard this offseason to keep his role on the team — and maybe claim a starting spot. If the comments from Reid and Hitchens are more than just typical “camp hype,” there’s reason to be optimistic about Niemann in 2020. If he truly has taken a huge leap, Steve Spagnuolo may end up having some tough — but good — decisions to make in his linebacker rotation.