KANSAS CITY, Mo. – From the outside to inside positions, the Chiefs linebackers were viewed as a strength entering the 2014 season.
The outside linebackers, anchored by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, flourished last season. Houston earned All-Pro honors and a third straight Pro Bowl selection after leading the league with 22 sacks, while Hali earned a fourth straight Pro Bowl trip.
But the inside positions were dealt a major setback when Derrick Johnson ruptured an Achilles tendon in the first regular season game. Joe Mays, who projected to start alongside Johnson, began the season on injured reserve with a designation for return after sustaining a wrist injury during preseason action.
While the run defense suffered without Johnson, ranking a woeful 28th in the league (127.2 yards rushing allowed per game), the Chiefs boast arguably one of the NFL’s top linebacker corps when intact and 100 percent healthy.
And that’s exactly what linebackers coach Gary Gibbs hopes is in store for the 2015 regular season with Johnson back in the mix.
“He’s a playmaker, he’s experienced, he’s a competitor, he’s smart, he’s got great leadership skills,” Gibbs said Wednesday. “When you describe D.J., that’s what you missed and that’s what you hope you get back this fall.”
Johnson practiced without limitations the first three days of organized team activities before missing the last two practices with an inflamed knee.
The injury, however, doesn’t appear serious, and Johnson was present at practice Tuesday and Wednesday observing the action from the sidelines without his helmet.
Johnson projects to pair with Josh Mauga, who started all 16 games in 2014 after signing with the Chiefs shortly before the start of training camp, as the starting inside linebackers in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defensive scheme.
Mauga, who led the Chiefs with 103 total tackles (82 solo) in 2014, has practiced alongside Johnson with the first-team defense during OTAs.
“Obviously, having both those guys on the field at the same time has been a positive,” Gibbs said.
Meanwhile, Houston continues to miss OTAs without a new contract.
The Chiefs used the non-exclusive franchise designation on Houston in early March, and his absence has allowed Dee Ford, last season’s first-round pick, to receive valuable repetitions with the first-team defense.
Gibbs pointed out Ford didn’t have the benefit of a full offseason in 2014 when considering the pre-draft process.
“He was traveling, doing a variety of interviews and so forth,” Gibbs said, “and then he got drafted, got thrust into OTAs without having any kind of background of what we’re doing.”
But with a full NFL offseason in the books without distractions, Ford focused on his job and the difference from the first year to the second has been noticed by the coaching staff.
“He’s had a good offseason,” Gibbs said. “He’s worked hard in the weight room. He’s bigger, stronger and this is a good experience for him as far as establishing a really good foundation as far as our system, our scheme and he’s competing well for us.”
The 6-2, 252-pound Ford transitioned from defensive end in college and had to learn how to play his current position last season.
While there was an obvious learning curve and growing pains, Gibbs left no doubt what he now sees in Ford.
“He’s an outside linebacker,” Gibbs emphatically said. “Tamba was a defensive end forever and now he’s an outside linebacker. But you always have to work through that process – coverage, working in a variety of coverage schemes, adjustments you have to make. They always have to be on top of it and that’s part of the learning curve that Dee is going through and Tamba is still going through.”
Ford played on just 22 total snaps on defense and finished the year with seven tackles (three solo) and 1 ½ sacks.
But if he shows improvement, Ford could fit in well with Hali and Houston in generating a fierce pass rush.
“It’s a long season and if you have three of those guys – three or four of them – that can rush the passer like they do, I think that’s a plus,” coach Andy Reid said on Day Three of OTAs. “And Dee had to learn that position as far as a drop game goes. This is why this is great for him here. It’s all these reps, opportunity to learn the pass game part of it.”
The Chiefs currently have 11 linebackers on the roster for OTAs.
Houston, Hali, Ford, Josh Martin, Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses and rookie Sage Harold comprise the outside linebacker corps, while the inside linebackers consist of Johnson, Mauga, James-Michael Johnson and rookies Ramik Wilson, D.J. Alexander and Justin March.
Johnson turns 33 in November and enters the final year of his contract, and Mauga turns 28 on June 20.
The Chiefs may have had the future in mind with the selections of Wilson in the third round and Alexander in the fifth round.
Wilson and Alexander are still learning the scheme, but Gibbs likes what he has seen so far from both rookies.
“They’re good athletes,” Gibbs said. “They run well, they’ve acclimated well to this process. They’re learning from the veterans and they’re picking up the system, and they’re out there competing. So far they’ve done a nice job for us.”