Countdown to Chiefs Camp: Inside Linebackers

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Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) tackles Oakland Raiders fullback Jamize Olawale (49) during a NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) tackles Oakland Raiders fullback Jamize Olawale (49) during a NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The countdown to Chiefs camp begins now. Over the next two weeks, cover32 Chiefs will have in depth analysis at every position heading into training camp. Jake Schyvinck and Braden Holecek dive into every battle and roster spot up for grabs.

Who wants to be the cogs in the middle of the Chiefs defense? Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will have to watch the middle linebacker group just as closely as any defensive group during camp. The players’ abilities in this group are scattered and the middle linebacker position is usually occupied by some of the top leaders of an NFL defense.


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Tighten Up

Over the last few seasons, the Chiefs defense has been known as a bend-don’t-break defense. They may give up some yards, but when their backs are against the wall they can hold opponents out of the endzone. One part of the defense’s game that could improve is stopping the run. Last season, the defense ranked twenty-sixth in run defense, allowing 121.1 yards per game.

The playoff game against Le’Veon Bell of Pittsburgh was probably the biggest test last season. People started noticing the patience that Bell uses before beginning his burst. Coaches across the nation may start teaching that to high school running backs. In that playoff game, Bell had 170 yards on 30 attempts, good for 5.7 yards per carry. If the Chiefs can figure out how to stop the run, then that could possibly lead them deeper into the playoffs.

Back In The Saddle

Derrick Johnson, one of the longest tenured Chiefs, is returning for his thirteenth NFL season. The biggest question with Johnson is how long he can keep playing. For anyone to play more than at least a decade in the NFL is huge, but Johnson will be going into the season coming off his second torn achilles in three years. Johnson comes into the year as one of the two starters at inside linebacker. He is regarded by many other NFL players as one of the best formed tacklers in the league. As long as Johnson is playing the middle, the Chiefs will be a tough defense to get by. He will go down as one of the best defensive players in Chiefs history, and hopes to bring this team farther in the playoffs.

Who’s Number Two

Ramik Wilson: Wilson got his first shot at playing a lot at the NFL level last year. Sometimes he is hesitant hitting the open hole, but he is still learning the game. Wilson can play pass defense well and has great size for a linebacker. Wilson goes into camp as the other starter in the middle, but he needs to show consistency to keep that job.

Josh Mauga: Mauga was a starter week in and week out for the Chiefs in 2015. But last season, Mauga was out all year with nagging injuries. He has an aggressive mindset and will go into camp trying to regain what he missed out on last season.

Justin March-Lillard: March-Lillard is a nice addition to Johnson, with his size and speed combining well with Johnson. He got injured early last season, in what was his first real season as a starter. He reads the quarterback’s eyes well on pass plays and can be a lethal blitzer from the middle of the defense.

D.J. Alexander: Alexander is a top special teams player for the Chiefs. His blocking can open some holes for Tyreek Hill for years to come. He can also step up to the plate, when called upon to fill a hole in the middle of the defense. With his energy on the field and a good showing at camp, he could see an uptick in snaps on defense this season.

Terrance Smith: Smith is a player who has not seen much action in the NFL, and is another player who could see most of his playing time come on special teams. His size is an attribute that could set him up well, though, in a position battle.

Ukeme Eligwe: Eligwe was drafted by the Chiefs this spring out of Georgia Southern. Chiefs scouts saw his tape and was impressed with what they saw. He is a bit smaller, but his speed will serve him well. Eligwe could be a decent cover man as well.

All players have a great chance to play meaningful snaps in 2017. Andy Reid and new general manager Brett Veach will have big decisions to make with this group before the season gets underway. This training camp battle will be one of the biggest ones to watch in Kansas City.

Braden Holecek is a writer for cover32 Chiefs. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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