The linebackers roles aren’t set yet
During my two days at Chiefs training camp, I saw five different linebackers get snaps with the first string defense and most of those guys got snaps at different spots too.
During the first day at camp, the top three guys appeared to be the expected trio of Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, and Damien Wilson. All three guys looked energized and moved better than I expected them to. I was especially impressed with Wilson, who I was expecting to only be a run-stopping linebacker in the base defense with little upside to do much beyond that roll. However, Wilson even got a little time in the nickel defense, which I wasn’t expecting, and looked much better in coverage (in one practice) than advertised.
Hitchens and Ragland look motivated and I was also pleasantly surprised by Ragland’s ability to drop into coverage in practice. With Wilson out on Saturday with a sore knee, Ragland even got a few reps in the sub package and at one point snagged an interception in the red zone. I went into the start of camp wondering if Ragland was a lock to make this team but after what I saw at camp I think he is.
The other two guys that were rotated in with the ones the days I was at camp were Darron Lee and Ben Niemann. Both players move well and seem to be doing everything they can to earn their way onto the field when the regular season starts. Lee, as advertised, flashed in pass coverage, and I have to imagine we’ll see him in the sub package on clear passing downs during the season.
Niemann is a really instinctive and smart player. While Hitchens is the guy calling the plays in with the first string, it’s Niemann that does it with the second string and the coaching staff appears to have a lot of trust in him for a second year undrafted guy.
With Wilson out on Saturday, the Chiefs tried a couple of different groupings in the base defense that I saw. The first moved Ragland over to Wilson’s Sam, or strong side, linebacker spot and had Niemann playing in the middle in Ragland’s original spot. The second grouping also had Ragland at the Sam, but slid Hitchens into the middle and then Darron Lee moved into Hitchens spot at the Will, or weak side, linebacker. I think the Chiefs feel comfortable with all five of those guys out there and I’m guessing they will all be locks to make the final roster.
A guy I was hoping to see get some first string reps, Dorian O’Daniel, worked pretty much exclusively with the second team. I still think O’Daniel makes this team but the fact that an undrafted guy like Niemann appears to be higher in the pecking order than he is doesn’t bode well for O’Daniel making a big impact this season. At the end of last year, he was the guy I was most excited about in the linebacker group.
I still feel like a pairing of O’Daniel and Lee in the sub package could be really effective but it just didn’t happen while I was there. Hopefully O’Daniel can flash enough in the preseason to earn more of a real shot at playing time. Even if he doesn’t, it appears the Chiefs feel pretty good about the linebackers that they do have and feel like they give them some versatility in how they use them.
This is a group that I’ll be keeping a close eye on in the preseason games to see if the change in scheme really can make a huge difference for a position group that struggled last season. Next let’s talk a second about the defensive line rotation.