Chiefs linebacker Nico Johnson cites one play, in particular, that he hopes signifies his improvement since a disappointing rookie year.
On Saturday, during the Chiefs’ first padded practice of training camp, Johnson quickly realized he would be tasked with man-to-man coverage on do-everything star Jamaal Charles, who ran a wheel route down the sideline.
“I was pretty much trying to stay with him, and when I saw his eyes get bigger, I knew I had to get in his face,” Johnson said with a grin. “He ended up not catching the ball.”
That will never be an ideal matchup, because Charles will almost always torch a linebacker in the passing game. But the fact Johnson managed to stick with Charles is a win — a year ago, it might have been ugly.
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A noted run-stopper at Alabama, the 6-foot-2 Johnson — who was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft — says he played at his college weight of 250 pounds last season and quickly realized that he needed to get quicker and better in coverage.
The NFL is a passing league, more than ever, and the old-school thumpers at linebacker are becoming an endangered species. This is just one of the reasons Johnson only played in six games and logged only seven tackles, all of which came in the Chiefs’ regular-season finale against San Diego in which backups primarily played.
“From talking to position coaches and everybody else, one thing they wanted me to do was lose weight and just try to play faster,” Johnson said. “Now I’m 240, 241 pounds and I feel lighter, I feel faster and combined with knowing the defense now, it’s just so much easier.
Injuries, however, also played a role in Johnson’s disappointing rookie season. He was expected to compete with veteran Akeem Jordan last year for the starting inside linebacker spot next to Derrick Johnson, but a high ankle sprain bothered him since the preseason, and Jordan won the job outright.
“It wasn’t a good year for me,” Nico Johnson said. “I was devastated.”
What’s more, third-year pro James-Michael Johnson — a fourth-round pick by Cleveland in 2012 who was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs before the regular-season opener — seemed to overtake him on the depth chart at inside linebacker and also logged far more special teams snaps, the latter of which is a significant way that backups can hold on to a precious spot on the 53-man roster.
This trend seemed to continue throughout organized team activities in June, though Saturday’s practice offered a bit of a breakthrough. When Joe Mays — one of two projected starters at inside linebacker in the base defense — left practice with a sore knee, it was Nico Johnson, not James-Michael Johnson, who stepped in and took some first-team reps.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, however, cautioned that they trying to develop competition, and it’s also worth noting that when Mays missed Sunday’s practice, newly-signed veteran Josh Mauga took a lot of those same first-team reps.
“Competition at the inside and outside linebacker position is very good the way it is stacking up right now, and as you saw (Sunday), we are going to roll guys through there, get everyone a look in there,” Sutton said. “We have talked to everybody about it. If you are running out there with the first group, you better be pushing because there is somebody right behind you.”
Sutton, however, also had some nice words for his young linebacker.
“Nico came back in really good shape, as you see,” Sutton said. “That helps you in everything, I think. It helps in your endurance. It helps in your range. It allows you to play at the same speed maybe for quarters one through four instead of just quarter one … I think this is the lightest he has been in quite a while. Again, hat’s off to him for recognizing, ‘Hey, this is the way maybe I can help me.’”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid also praised Johnson’s conditioning, though he hinted he still needs to improve against the pass.
“He came back in phenomenal shape, and you’re looking at a big, strong linebacker,” Reid said. “Right now he’s better against the run than against the pass, but he’s working like crazy on the pass. You can see the strides that he’s made over the last year. It’s a good thing.”
For his part, Johnson said he was humbled by his struggles last season, and hopes to show enough overall improvement this preseason to prove he can make more of a contribution in 2014 than he did in 2013.
Because this is the NFL, after all, and nothing is guaranteed, not even a roster spot for a recent fourth round pick.
“The competition (at inside linebacker) is high,” Johnson said. “I was thinking over the summer that my game has to be at its best right now. I wasn’t thinking about my career, just this moment, this time. I’ve got to do my best. That’s what I’ve got to do.”