Linebacker Nico Johnson never imagined he’d go from the Chiefs’ fourth-round pick to the waiver wire only a year later.
But come late August, around the time of the NFL’s final cutdown day, that was exactly the situation he found himself in. NFL teams then had 24 hours to claim him — which no one did — and just like that, he found himself on the Chiefs’ practice squad, which essentially guaranteed him a spot on the scout team running the opponents’ plays every week.
To say it’s been humbling for Johnson, a three-time national champion at Alabama, would be an understatement.
“I hate it happened, me being cut,” Johnson said. “But everything happens for a reason. I’ve had to take my game to another level on the practice squad, and coach says I’m getting better every day, so that’s all I can do, just get better at my craft and work on technique and those things.”
Not that it’s been easy. While Johnson has toiled on the scout team, he’s watched a bunch of other second-year Chiefs take off. Tight end Travis Kelce, a third-round pick last year, is turning into a star, while another third-round pick, Knile Davis, is carving out a path as a productive NFL running back.
First-round pick Eric Fisher is a starter at left tackle, and two undrafted free agents from last year — tight end Demetrius Harris and receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. — have earned playing time this season.
“When Kelce was hurt, we kept each other motivated,” Johnson said. “Seeing him progress, even Knile and D. Harris and Frankie, they’re all in my class, so it’s like dang, now I’ve got to be a part of that.”
That’s not to say Johnson isn’t handling this well. Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs said Johnson’s character is one of his best strengths.
“He works hard in the classroom and on the practice squad,” Gibbs said. “At the end of the day, you’ve just got to continue to improve that skill set.”
Since Johnson’s arrival, the Chiefs essentially promoted four linebackers they brought in off the street — Josh Mauga, James-Michael Johnson, Joe Mays and Jerry Franklin — over him, so it’s safe to say he has several areas he needs to work on.
But Gibbs says Johnson is improving.
“He had a better camp this year defensively, and I think (special-teams coach) Dave Toub would tell you he did a better job on special teams,” Gibbs said. “He’s doing a better job in the weight room. This is a process he’s going through to improve his skill set, learn the game and put himself in a position where he can be a part of the 53 some day.”
One area in which Johnson knows he needs to improve is his coverage ability. Johnson, who is listed at 6 feet 2 and 249 pounds, was touted as a run-stopper in college.
“Certainly his ability to move and be an asset from the coverage standpoint is critical, especially in today’s game,” Gibbs said. “Most guys come in at times a little bit heavy, you know, their body composition isn’t where it needs to be. But he’s working hard in the weight room, trying to get leaner and he’s moving quicker. And to be honest, I think he’s more focused on what he’s got to do to become a better player. And that’s positive.”
Johnson, who said he weighs between 240 and 245 pounds, said his goal for next year is to get down to 235 pounds. However, he said he’s already down 10 pounds from last season, thanks to a disciplined diet.
“Honestly, just staying away from fast food, greasy food, and really, my bad thing was eating late at night and going straight to bed,” Johnson said. “I had to cut that out.”
Now, Johnson says he rarely eats after 9:30. And when he does, it’s fruit.
“It’s a big-time difference,” Johnson said. “When I started off, probably about a month in, I slipped up and got a cheeseburger and my body felt different. Right then, I knew the difference. I’ve been staying on it.”
Johnson understands he needs to stay on this path to shed some weight, make more plays and earn the coaches’ trust. Otherwise, he’ll likely fall short of his goal of joining several other Chiefs from his rookie draft class as contributors.
“Honestly, it comes down to playing fast,” Johnson said. “If I want to play fast, I’ve got to lose some weight. That’s that. I know now.”
Barden added to practice squad
The Chiefs signed tight end Brandon Barden to the practice squad Tuesday.
Barden, who is listed at 6 feet 5 and 246 pounds, was signed by the Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt. He spent last season on the Jaguars' practice squad before he was released in August.