The Chiefs finished the 2017 season with a far-different lineup at inside linebacker than it started with in training camp. In July, the club remained uncertain of the recovery of Derrick Johnson and re-signed veteran Josh Mauga as a potential starter.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton mixed and matched his inside linebackers through training camp and into the regular season. It wasn’t until the last six games of the year the club settled on a rotation with Johnson, Reggie Ragland and Kevin Pierre-Louis that brought stability inside, especially in the run game.
The biggest development in the team’s interior linebacker group came with Ragland’s acquisition last July. One of general manager Brett Veach’s first moves looks like a winner. Veach sent a 2019 fourth-round pick to Buffalo for Ragland, who appears ready to solidify the Mike linebacker role once and for all.
71 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
845 defensive snaps (76.75 percent)
Johnson turned in his lowest production in full season since 2009 but showed he remains an explosive player in a niche role rather than as an every-down player. Johnson’s play seemed to pick up late in the season as he shared time with Kevin Pierre-Louis and with Ragland picking up a greater share of the work load alongside him. The 36-year-old Johnson says he wants to continue playing, and he has a year remaining on his contract that carries a $10.25 million salary cap hit in 2018. The club could save $8 million in cap space parting ways with Johnson, but the veteran did accept a pay cut last season that trimmed $4.75 million off his cap hit.
322 defensive snaps (29.25 percent)
Ragland arguably turned in one of the team’s most productive seasons, squeezing 44 tackles in fewer than a third of the team’s defensive snaps. The team brought the 24-year-old linebacker along slowly upon his arrival from Buffalo as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in August 2016. But the team unleashed Ragland in Week 11 against the New York Giants, and consistent playing time revealed his enormous upside. The 6-foot-2, 252 linebacker brings a physical presence as the team’s only true Mike linebacker, and his rise in playing time coincided with a more stingy overall run defense. Ragland remains under contract through 2019, and expect him to play a key role in Sutton’s defense in 2018.
Kevin Pierre-Louis (unrestricted free agent)
41 tackles, 2 passes defended
251 defensive snaps (22.8 percent), 249 special teams snaps (53.9 percent)
Veach acquired the four-year veteran from Seattle during training camp in exchange for linebacker D.J. Alexander. Pierre-Louis illustrated at times why the Chiefs held the 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker in high esteem. He turned in a career-best 41 tackles, most of them in the second half of the season when he began sharing time with Johnson at Will linebacker. The club values his versatility, making him a priority among the team’s unrestricted free agents. It’s unclear what impact his recent arrest for marijuana possession may have on his free agent value, but the Chiefs likely remain interested in returning him to the fold for 2018.
Ramik Wilson (restricted rights free agent)
16 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
125 defensive snaps (11.35 percent), 76 special teams snaps (16.45 percent)
Wilson remains an enigma in the Chiefs defense. He has appeared at times over the last two seasons both an essential and expendable. The team placed Wilson on waivers beginning the 2016 season, yet he returned to start 11 games and turned in 76 tackles. He started the 2017 season as a starter before Ragland emerged as the team’s nickel and later Mike linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound Wilson projects as a run-and-chase Will defender, and it was the arrival of Pierre-Louis as much as Ragland that pushed Wilson down the depth chart. He’s a restricted rights free agent for one more season, which means the Chiefs can keep him at an affordable price for 2018.
Terrance Smith (exclusive rights free agent)
11 tackles, 1 interception, 2 passes defended
65 defensive snaps (5.9 percent), 306 special teams snaps (66.23 percent)
Smith turned in a quietly efficient season on special teams, turning himself into an essential special teams player. Only fullback Anthony Sherman (343) played more special teams snaps than Smith for the Chiefs this season. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Smith shows plenty of speed and athleticism, making him a reliable backup. He’s an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, giving the Chiefs two more years of control on his contract.
5 tackles, 1 sack
65 defensive snaps (5.9 percent), 211 special teams snaps (45.67 percent)
The rookie Eligwe forced his way into key roles on special times, and despite a few mistakes and he earned praise from special teams coordinator Dave Toub. Eligwe picked up all 65 of his defensive snaps in the season finale against Denver, and received high marks from head coach Andy Reid for his contribution. Eligwe played outside linebacker in that game for the first time in his career, and the results might tempt the Chiefs to explore using him on the edge. At 6-foot-2, 239 pounds, he’s a bit undersized for the role, and adding bulk to his muscular but slender frame might zap him of his quickness. But the season finale could also give a glimpse at the run-and-chase capabilities Eligwe can bring the Will position.
The Chiefs seem in very good shape at inside linebacker heading to 2018 if Johnson or Pierre-Louis stay with the team. If Veach can keep both, this shapes up as one of the team’s strongest and deepest position groups.
The depth and youth of this position gives the Chiefs plenty of offseason options heading to 2018. Keeping six inside linebackers next season seems doubtful, however, so expect someone to not return. With as much depth as the team has and spending a fifth-round pick on Eligwe in 2016, this isn’t a likely position to target in the draft.
If the Chiefs can retain their own free agents, there is no need to look elsewhere for answers. The club does lack depth for a true Mike linebacker behind Ragland, but the Chiefs feel comfortable using dime and nickel packages to make up for the deficiency.
BIGGEST DECISION TO MAKE
The biggest decision facing Veach rests with the contract of Johnson. No doubt the team and Johnson would like to stay together, but the $10.25 million cap hit for 2018 poses a challenge for the cap-strapped Chiefs. Johnson gave the team a discount a year ago — could he the same again this year? Johnson signed his renegotiated contract March 15 last year, just days after re-signing safety Daniel Sorenson and picking up free agent defensive lineman Bennie Logan.
The biggest surprise would likely be all six players returning next season, but it’s possible. Pierre-Louis is the only player not under team control for 2018, but indications are the team would like him back. That might make someone else expendable, perhaps even trade bait for Veach to reclaim a draft pick. The team has young talent that needs to develop, and that’s difficult to accomplish with a full house.