One of the more underrated positional battles at Chiefs training camp has been at inside linebacker. Coming off of injury Derrick Johnson has been somewhat limited at camp. But even if he isn’t at 100% yet, he is assured one of the starting spots. As for the second, that role could come down to four or five contenders.
The incumbent, and projected starter is two year veteran Ramik Wilson. In 2016 Wilson started 11 games for the Chiefs, racking up 76 combined tackles with one interception and one forced fumble.
While Wilson exceeded expectations in 2016, he is by no means guaranteed the starting role in 2017. Defensive Coordinator wants to see competition for the second ILB spot during training camp.
“You try to [move] guys up sometimes with different groups to see how they’re going to play against really good competition, but also how they respond to the other guys around them. We’ve got some good competition at that position. We obviously have a long way to go at camp so we’re going to get a lot of different guys reps in here. I think that will be good for us.” – Bob sutton
Wilson may be considered the starter for now, but by no means is he guaranteed the starting role come Week One. With a strong training camp he could look up the position, but multiple young linebackers are going to be gunning for his spot.
Pierre-Louis was just acquired in the deal that sent former Pro-Bowler D.J. Alexander to Seattle. Just a few days into his run with the Chiefs the former Seahawk has begun making noise.
“I remember he was an explosive guy coming out of college. I remember him well. In the time he has been here, he has demonstrated he has really good suddenness and quickness. Good instincts. I think he is going to be a physical guy. He is not the biggest guy in the world, but he plays very physical and we are excited to have him.” – Sutton on Pierre-Louis
At the time of the trade most fans were shocked as Alexander was coming off a Pro Bowl season whereas Pierre-Louis was relatively unknown. However the Chiefs knew exactly what Alexander was, a special-teamer. They’re hoping that Pierre-Louis could be a focal point on defense, a role Sutton thinks he could strive in.
“Obviously, I think so. We made that trade. I hope that’s it. He is a good football player. I remember evaluating him when he came out. I think he is going to be fine and he is going to be a good addition for us if he keeps going.”
Pierre-Louis spent three years in Seattle, appearing in 34 games and starting one. He managed 36 combined tackles with one fumble recovery and one pass defended.
Pierre-Louis absolutely dominated the combine, earning top performer in five of the six events. He was described as a player with great instincts but one that could bulk up and as a bit of a tweener. But he was productive in college and has the athleticism to succeed in the role.
Kansas City was known to like Kevin Pierre-Louis coming out of the draft. Now that they have traded for him, he is going to get an opportunity to earn a starting role on defense.
Mauga was actually one of the Chiefs’ starters at ILB in 2014 and 2015 before an injury sidelined him for all of 2016. Now healthy he is looking to reclaim the spot that was once his.
During his two year span in Kansas City Mauga started 30 games. He eclipsed 160 total tackles with 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and six passes defended. His 82 non-assisted tackles in 2014 ranked him 17th best in the NFL.
Mauga understands that he isn’t going to just walk in and reclaim his starting spot. With increased depth at linebacker he is going to have to prove that he is the same player he was in 2014-15.
“Our depth in our linebacking room, I mean we’re running out of chairs in the room we’ve got so many guys in there,” Mauga said. “But it’s good because the competition raises everybody’s level.”
Mauga will need to prove that he is fully recovered following his season ending injury in 2016. But he has held the starting role before and knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level. While he would be one of the best backups on the roster, Josh Mauga is hoping to earn a much bigger role in training camp.
Eligwe was drafted by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Being in the same class as players like Patrick Mahomes and Kareem Hunt has dampened some of the hype around Eligwe. However he has proven to be an important commodity and already has one Chiefs coach on his side.
Dave Toub just praised rookie LB Ukeme Eligwe about as much as I've seen him talk about any young player before.
— BJ Kissel (@ChiefsReporter) July 31, 2017
Even if Eligwe starts his career on Special Teams, it’s clear the coaching staff has taken a liking to him. In turn he has begun receiving some first team snaps on defense during Training Camp. His potential is at an all time high, and Eligwe will now try to turn that into meaningful snaps.
Before being drafted, Eligwe spent four years at Georgia Southern, appearing in 21 games. He racked up 121 total tackles, 10.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
Going into the draft, the former Florida State transfer was described as an athletic linebacker who needed to work on his fundamentals. He passed the eyeball test but struggled to change direction and keep players in front of him. If he can bulk up and fix some technical issues while keeping his athleticism, Eligwe could be a diamond in the rough for the Chiefs.
There’s a chance he starts out on Special Teams, but sooner rather than later Ukeme Eligwe will get his shot an inside linebacker.
There’s a few other inside linebackers currently on the roster. These two players might have potential, but they aren’t going to start over the four players listed above. Regardless, they could be players to watch during training camp and the preseason.
Terrance Smith was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft. He has managed just three tackles in his career. Smith has a solid build at 6’2″ 235 lbs but average speed, running a 4.7 40. He ended 2016 on the Chiefs active roster, but is struggling to find hype in the team’s newfound depth. Smith did win the BCS National Championship with the Florida State Seminoles in 2013.
Justin March-Lilard signed with the Chiefs following the 2015 NFL Draft. He has racked up 22 tackles during his NFL career. Like Smith he has yet to generate much hype, however he made a few big plays during Day Five of Chiefs training camp. March Lilard is a bit undersized at 6’0″ 222, but he did have an impressive college career which included 245 tackles.
If I had to rank the four potential starters at inside linebacker, it would go:
1.) Ramik Wilson
2.) Josh Mauga
3.) Kevin Pierre-Louis
4.) Ukeme Eligwe
Of course that could all change by the time Week One rolls around. Perhaps an injury happens or one of the four blows up the preseason.
Wilson may come in as the incumbent but it doesn’t mean he is locked in. Mauga is looking to prove he still has the chops whereas Pierre-Louis and Eligwe are looking to prove they’re much more than young studs.
The Kansas City Chiefs have some of the best depth at inside linebacker in teh league. But one player is going to emerge and atleast start the 2017 season next to Derrick Johnson.
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