With a burst of seamless acceleration, Dadi Nicolas zoomed around the left tackle, nearly untouched.
He took one more step, reached his arms to the sky and leapt, showing off a vertical jump that was the best of any linebacker or defensive lineman at February’s NFL Scouting Combine. Quarterback Kevin Hogan’s pass spun out of the air and fell to the ground.
A Haitian-born sixth-round pick, Nicolas showed on that one play the skill-set that has made him an interesting prospect for the Chiefs. Granted, it came on the first day of mandatory minicamp, against the Chiefs’ scout team, but a fierce pass-rush has been Nicolas’ calling card since he started playing football during his senior year of high school in Delray Beach, Fla.
Nicolas’ sleek, 6-foot-3 build with speed off the edge is what landed him at Virginia Tech for four years as a 4-3 defensive end. But as a stand-up outside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense, he’ll need to do much more than just pass-rush if he wants to be able to hang with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
Nicolas realizes that, and he’s adjusting accordingly.
“Am I being asked to do a lot of different things? Of course,” Nicolas said. “But, there are also the same things — pass-rush, rushing the passer. Overall, I’m just growing as a player, becoming a better football player.”
Through organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, Nicolas has been getting tips from Houston and Hali. Both veteran linebackers have been sidelined through the Chiefs’ practices so far, but they are helping him learn everything from hand movements to angles to the ball.
“These guys just have it down like a book,” Nicolas said. “To these guys, it’s actually their craft, and they just really know how to break it down from A to Z, things that you really couldn’t see. And it’s stuff I didn’t even know about.”
Coming out of Virginia Tech, it was widely accepted that Nicolas was too small to be a lateral, hand-on-the-ground defensive end in the NFL. Even with the Hokies, he seemed out of place in a 4-3 scheme where he would sometimes be overpowered by offensive linemen.
Nicolas noticed this, too. So when he started training for the scouting combine and his Pro Day, he prioritized becoming the long, 3-4 outside linebacker he is today. And that’s where he wants to stay.
“I definitely feel like I am naturally a stand-up linebacker, and I have a high ceiling to grow here,” Nicolas said. “When the opportunity presents itself, I do get my hands in the ground, but I’m just mastering how to do everything out of the standup stance.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has noticed Nicolas’ speed. It’s hard to miss. But Reid, too, acknowledged how much room Nicolas has to grow.
First, he still needs to improve how he plays in non-passing situations. Second, he has to prove his worth with pads on.
“He’s a hundred miles an hour, and I’ll tell you he’s better in the pass game right now than the run game,” Reid said. “His strength right now is pass-rush. He’s going to need some fundamentals with the run game.”
This is natural for a player making the transition from one position to another.
“I’ve got to work harder than I’ve ever worked before just to maintain this opportunity and keep growing from this position,” Nicolas said. “This is something I’ve looked forward to doing. That’s why it’s so exciting for me.”