In retrospect, Justin March’s season-ending meniscus injury in August looks like one of the more interesting “what ifs” for the Chiefs’ 2015 season.
March, who was signed as an undrafted inside linebacker out of Akron last May, earned rave reviews last preseason from everyone ranging from general manager John Dorsey to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
Now March, who returned to practice as a full participant this month during offseason workouts, is earning strong praise from another key voice — head coach Andy Reid.
“Very, very intelligent and instinctive,” Reid said of March, who has earned some first-team reps throughout organized team activities. “You look at him and you go, ‘He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s a good football player.’
“We didn’t get a chance to see enough of him last year, but from what we have seen, we felt that way then. So we’re giving him some reps here to just see what he’s about, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Most importantly, March says he doesn’t feel any pain in the knee where he had surgery — he suffered the injury in the Chiefs’ first preseason game a year ago — and there’s no swelling, either. He’d never missed a season of football before, but the rehab process was easier than he thought it would be, for which he credits trainer Rick Burkholder and assistant Aaron Borgmann.
“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than it actually was,” March said.
March said he didn’t even know the injury was serious when it first happened. It was his first NFL game (he finished with four tackles), the adrenaline was flowing, and afterward, he’d been told he did well, despite the injury.
“They told me I played well,” March said. “They also told me that there’s still a long way to go.”
One area where March shined last year — and has continued to shine in offseason workouts this month — is in pass coverage. He’s had multiple pass breakups in coverage in practices, and he shows good athleticism and change-of-direction skills for a linebacker, a boon in today’s pass-happy NFL.
“I did a lot of it in college,” March said, when asked to explain why he’s so comfortable in coverage. “Being man-to-man on tight ends, playing out in space. Played a Sam linebacker in 4-3 so I was outside, always in space. I’m comfortable with that.”
In that way, he’s similar to the Chiefs’ alpha dog at the inside linebacker position, Derrick Johnson. Johnson, 33, is a four-time Pro Bowler, and March — who calls him “Uncle D.J.” — credits him for being a helpful mentor.
“Great guy, on and off the field,” March said. “Within the film room, he helps me out a lot. He’s always there if I have a question. I can text him about anything. Off the field, he was there talking about my injury, making sure I’m focused.”
March, who is listed at 6 feet and says he now weighs 238 pounds — 8 pounds more than his listed weight — says he feels comfortable playing either linebacker spot. Many teams that play a 3-4 defense like the Chiefs do prefer to pair a power inside linebacker, someone who takes on blocks (like Josh Mauga), with a finesse guy, someone who runs around blocks (like Johnson), but in what appears to be a positive sign for March — especially with several young players vying for backup jobs there, including 2015 fourth-round pick Ramik Wilson and 2015 fifth-round pick D.J. Alexander — Reid thinks March can do both.
“He’s a very powerful kid with tremendous strength, so I think he can do either side,” Reid said.
March agrees, adding that he can even use his size to an advantage on running plays, when heavy-footed (and heavy) offensive linemen seek to swallow him up.
“I’m lower than those guys, I’m shorter, so it’s easier to get underneath them,” March said. “I’m also using my speed a lot, going backdoor and kind of learning from D.J. and learning from Josh.”
March, however, noted that he can’t get away with some of the tricks Johnson — who has a knack for briefly abandoning his gap responsibility to run under a block and make the play — uses to play the run.
“Well, you really can’t do it (too) fancy like Johnson does,” March said “That’s his game, and everyone plays a little different style. But like D.J says, if you think you can make the play, you should try to make the play. That’s how I’ve always been. But nine times out of 10, I’m sticking with my assignment.”
And when training camp starts in late July, March hopes to prove the latter, too.
“I just want to show I’m a year old, mentally, so I’m not making the same mistakes I did last year,” March said.