You can’t take everything that happens in the preseason as a sure thing. Offenses and defenses are vanilla, and there’s plenty of experimentation.
But what you can do — especially when it comes to inside linebackers — is watch them closely and study how quickly they diagnose and attack simple running plays. If you see a young player hesitate, chances are he has more work to do in recognizing plays.
One player who used to fit this description is Chiefs inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, a third-year pro who went from being hesitant to aggressive last year. Wilson was cut by the Chiefs last September, a year after he was drafted in the fourth round, but bounced back to the 53-man roster after a rash of injuries and reestablished himself as one of the team’s better inside linebackers.
Wilson, 25, has built on that improvement with a strong training camp and preseason, flowing to the football quickly and decisively in both of the Chiefs’ preseason games, and even earning some praise from coach Andy Reid.
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“Ramik Wilson, I think, has stepped it up a notch even from last year,” Reid said. “He had good experience last year and I like what we’ve seen. You asked about the diagnosing of plays, and being able to do that as a linebacker becomes very important, along with having good instincts. He’s shown that he has both of those.”
Wilson realized the importance of those traits during his stint on the practice squad last season, which humbled him after his release. He credits star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson for helping him learn how to watch tape.
“(The difference) is just knowing what type of plays I’ll get — (it’s) play recognition,” Wilson said. “I’ve been doing my film study with D.J., who has been helping me out a lot.”
As the strong-side “mike” linebacker, aggression is necessary. Wilson is charged with diagnosing quickly, taking on blocks and filling gaps to bounce the ball outside and also free up Johnson, the weak-side inside linebacker, who has a lot more freedom to run and hit.
“I can play more downhill,” Wilson said.
Wilson has received no shortage of motivation to keep improving. For one, the Chiefs’ porous run defense down the stretch a year ago crested with Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell’s 30-carry, 170-yard performance in the Chiefs’ 18-16 home loss to the Steelers in the AFC playoffs, a defeat that remains with Wilson, who was the primary inside linebacker in the game.
“We’ve watched film on it, talked about where we could improve,” Wilson said. “Our communication is better — there were times where we weren’t all on the same page in the defensive front, but it’s much better now.”
There is no shortage of players competing with Wilson for the starting job. While Johnson is a lock to make the roster, Wilson is competing with four other inside linebackers who have earned meaningful NFL snaps in Terrance Smith, Josh Mauga, Justin March-Lillard and Kevin Pierre-Louis. There’s also a fifth-round rookie (Ukeme Eligwe) in the mix who the coaches have raved about.
“That’s what you want, you want to keep upgrading at each position — that’s only gonna make everybody better,” Wilson said, when explaining why the offseason additions of Mauga, Pierre-Louis and Eligwe did not effect him.
All of the inside linebackers, of course, cannot make the team, though it’s telling that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton seemed to hint Tuesday that the decision for the job next to job is between Wilson and Mauga, a starter in 2014.
“(Ramik) is in the hunt — I think that’s been a great competition between him and Josh, and we’re fortunate to have two guys who have played and started,” Sutton said. “I know both of them have worked hard and are certainly worthy of the position. The next two weeks is going to determine what happens there.”
Wilson has earned the start in the Chiefs’ first two preseason games, and it will be interesting to see if that remains the case Friday at Seattle.
But at the end of the day, Wilson knows that the competition will come down to a few simple categories. Who knows the playbook best? Who knows how to set the fronts and make the calls? Who’s accountable and reliable? Who’s gonna make plays and do their job?
He feels good about his standing on all those matters, but after being released only a year ago, he also knows better than to dare get comfortable.
“Best guy’s gonna win,” Wilson said. “That’s reality — they’re gonna want somebody better than you, so you’ve got to raise your level — that’s how it is.”