KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rookie linebacker Ben Niemann announced his bid for a spot on the Chiefs' opening weekend roster with a powerful statement in first preseason game, plugging the gap in stopping Houston Texans running back Lavon Coleman for no gain on a fourth-and-1 run.
“It just kind of opened up and I hit it,” Niemann said after the game. “The coaches always talk to us about having depth on the goal line so you come down and hit hard at the point of contact, now you're driving back. I was kind of able to do that, I just saw it open and shot the gap.”
That attitude is what put Niemann on the map with the Chiefs. He's a coach's son and part of a football family – his dad Jay currently serves as defensive coordinator for Rutgers. His brother Nick expects to start at linebacker for the Iowa Hawkeyes this season.
The Chiefs had Niemann in for one of the pre-draft visits, and he immediately hit it off inside linebacker's coach Mark DeLeone.
“Ben's super coachable,” DeLeone said. “He walked in the door as a rookie and had a lot of veteran qualities.”
DeLeone knows about Niemann's college upbringing better than most. He started his coaching career as a defensive student assistant under Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz. Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens also played for Ferentz at Iowa in college.
“He comes from a program in Iowa where coach Ferentz and (defensive coordinator) Phil Parker and (strength coach) Chris Doyle, they get guys ready for the NFL and do a great job of that.”
Getting Niemann ready for the NFL started with a change of heart. The high school wide receiver originally committed to Northern Illinois, where his father then served as defensive coordinator and safeties coach. The Huskies won back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles under head coach Dave Doeren in 2011-12, including an Orange Bowl bid. That success, coincidentally, led to Niemann flipping his allegiance to Iowa.
“I kind of saw it to where my dad wasn't going to be there probably my whole four years, which he ended up leaving my sophomore year of college,” Niemann said. “Both were great programs but in the long if my dad wasn't going to be there, I would rather have been at Iowa than NIU.”
Niemann left high school in Sycamore, Ill., as a 6-foot-3, 185-pound first-team all-state wide receiver who dabbled a bit at safety. But Iowa envisioned him as a linebacker, a rangy athlete who could add muscle and weight and play across the field at the Leo outside linebacker role in the Hawkeyes defense.
“I kind of knew that was a scenario I was going into and also if I played wideout in college, I probably would have been a more marginal athlete there,” Niemann said, “whereas if I transitioned to linebacker I would have a chance to be a better athlete for movement skill-wise at that position.”
He played 13 games as a true freshman, recording five tackles, a blocked punt and a touchdown return. Playing outside linebacker took some adjustment, he explained.
“In high school I played a little safety but I had never been in the box or reading guards and backs and doing all that,” Niemann said. “It was definitely different.”
He credits Doyle for helping grow into the role, emerging as a 235-pound chiseled specimen in the Chiefs' linebacker crew now.
“They do a good job just molding guys into the player they want them to be, whether it's adding weight,” Niemann said. “Coach Doyle in the weight room is big there. He changes people's bodies, does crazy thing. He did that with me.”
Emerging as a starter his sophomore season, Niemann left Iowa with 201 total career tackles along with 17 tackles for loss and 13 passes defended.
Despite that college success, Niemann didn't hear his name called on draft day. Some NFL coaches told him they could see him adding more weight and playing at outside linebacker. But most, like the Chiefs, envisioned him moving to inside position.
He did play one game at Mike linebacker his senior season. Josey Jewell, a fourth-round pick for the Broncos in this year's draft, went down with an injury. Niemann stepped in for Jewell and tallied 11 tackles with a career-high seven solo tackles and four assists along with broken up pass.
Niemann greatly enjoyed his visit with the Chiefs, meeting DeLeone, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
“I kind of stayed in touch with Mark especially throughout the process,” Niemann said. “The opportunity to make the roster here, it was just appealing to me. I felt comfortable, I liked the staff, I liked Kansas City.”
Niemann said the most difficult part of the transition to the NFL comes with learning the playbook and the complexities of the defensive scheme. But yet again, he finds himself pulling from his experience at Iowa to persevere.
“We always talked about being brilliant at the basics, whether that's your footwork, your first step, where your eyes are, all the little details, what it takes to be a good linebacker,” Niemann said. “I played outside in college and whether I'm playing outside or in the middle, that stuff is the same at both position, just the little details.”
Niemann has seen extensive playing time in this first three preseason games. He's tied with safety Eric Murray with 11 total tackles to lead the team during the preseason. He also picked up a tackle for a loss along with an interception and a pass defended.
DeLeone appreciates Niemann's flexibility and understanding of multiple positions as a potential utility player.
“He does a great job of doing what we ask him to do,” DeLeone said. “I can put him in there at any position, he knows what to do. He's just a football guy, high football IQ and knows how to play the game.”
He expects to see more opportunities to make his roster case in the finale Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, according to head coach Andy Reid.
“He has had a nice camp,” Reid said. “This is an important game for him. This is one of those games that he has to play well and he will have some extended time in there to do so. He has jumped out at us so far.”
Sutton agrees with Reid's assessment of Niemann's performance thus far.
“I think he's done a really good job,” Sutton said. “Really a smart guy, football guy. Good awareness on the field. I think he's got a chance to be a good football player.