The series continues, this time we’re covering linebackers.
2019 Linebackers: Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Reggie Ragland, Darron Lee, Dorian O’Daniel, Ben Niemann
Stats: 18 of 19 games, 99 tackles (57 solo), 4 TFLs, 2 sacks, 5 QB hits, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble, 0 recovered.
Hitchens was asked to play MIKE linebacker this year. He was trusted to get the fronts aligned, and call out the plays for the defense. For the most part, he was excellent there. When Hitchens was hurt for most of the Colts and first Houston game, our fronts and gap discipline were awful. Hitchens helped there. Pre-snap wise, he’s a great contributor. The problem is, he isn’t good the second the ball is snapped.
Hitchens missed a lot of tackles this year, due to really poor leverage. He would either get too far upfield on a gap, or overrun a hole, letting the running back plant and get up field. He was in really poor position a lot, which caused him to miss a ton of plays. His lack of speed to the sideline was evident a lot, as teams only would run stretch plays against Kansas City, taking advantage of their slow linebackers. That starts with Hitchens.
In coverage, Hitchens wasn’t asked to do much. He mainly just stood in the hook/curl zone, re-routing #3 receivers and tight ends. Spagnuolo didn’t trust him with a lot of complex assignments, which makes sense. He wasn’t glaringly bad, but he wasn’t really good. The main issue with Hitchens in coverage was giving up plays against play action over the middle, due to biting on the run so hard. His eye discipline against play action was pretty bad this year.
For improvement, he was to work on leverage. I don’t understand how Hitchens is so good at aligning the front to the formation, but he can’t get into the proper spots. If he doesn’t improve his leverage, he’s going to continue to struggle. In coverage, he can’t really do much to help himself. He’ll never be good there.
Hitchens shouldn’t be on this team in 2020. Unfortunately, they restructured his contract to the point that they can’t cut him until 2022. We just have to hope Hitchens slightly improves his play. We can hide one bad linebacker, and if he continues to be good pre-snap, he can maybe be worth something. I’m not holding out hope though.
Status: Keep as MIKE LB, look for replacement in draft
Stats: 19 of 19 games, 103 tackles (65 solo), 4 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 4 QB hits, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble, 0 recovered.
When Wilson was signed last offseason, my initial thought was that he would play SAM linebacker. When the season started though, he was playing WILL linebacker. Darron Lee was playing more SAM linebacker reps than Wilson, and Wilson was playing in the nickel. It didn’t make sense. Still, Wilson wasn’t terrible.
As a run defender, Wilson wasn’t terrible. His discipline was inconsistent, but still better than Hitchens. He didn’t stack blocks the best, which left him not able to get contact on the block. Like Hitchens, the problem with having a slow WILL linebacker is that they struggle against stretch runs. Wilson doesn’t have the sideline speed to help against these runs, which left us very vulnerable.
In coverage, Wilson was pretty bad. Being tasked to be the WILL linebacker was a terrible idea all around. He lacks the speed or coverage skills to really cover anyone. He’s a fine blitzer, but as a hook/curl defender, he allowed too many quick yards over the middle. Like Hitchens, his eye discipline against play action was also pretty horrendous. Part of it was just put in the wrong roll as the WILL, but he didn’t leave any mark as a coverage guy.
The only way I really want Wilson back is if he plays the SAM. I prefer Reggie Ragland to him, but if Ragland leaves, then move Wilson to SAM. He’s would be a fine SAM linebacker. If they keep Ragland though, cut Wilson. We can save about 3 million by cutting him. I use that money, and pay Ragland to stay if he wants.
Status: Dependent on Ragland. Either move to SAM or cut and save 3 million
Stats: 17 of 19 games, 37 tackles (29 solo), 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 0 passes defended, 0 forced fumble, 1 recovered.
Ragland, after being benched for 6 weeks, finally started week 7, and made an impact. After having a sack and a touchdown, he kept the role as the SAM linebacker. Overall, I was very happy by Ragland. He made his presence felt, playing many different roles as the SAM.
As a run defender, Ragland is really good. His responsibilities were pretty simple, which were to key runs, stack blocks, and instantly find the ball and hit it. He wasn’t asked to read runs as much, but just track the ball. That’s why he had so many solo tackles. He’s not a guy that stretches to the sideline well, but as a tackler and a guy to take on blocks, Ragland sets a very physical tone in the run game. Once he was inserted in with Mike Pennel, the run defense got so much better.
In coverage, Ragland was surprisingly not bad. His job was pretty simple, which was to re-route #2 receivers in 2X2 sets, or just to sit in a zone and rob any crossing routes over the middle. Ragland had quite a few plays walling up receivers, making himself feel known. Like the other linebackers, Ragland struggled in vacating his zone in play action, but besides that, for a SAM linebacker, he was pretty good in coverage.
As a pass rusher, Ragland is really talented. He was used a lot in Spagnuolo’s 3-2-6 dime package, due to his ability to rush against guards. He mainly used a bull rush or a simple rip move, but his speed was sometimes an issue for guards. I’m not saying he’s a great pass rusher, but for a guy who doesn’t do it often, he’s not bad.
If Ragland stays, I would love to see him improve as a pass rusher. He could provide some serious value there. Besides that, he needs to be better at not vacating his zone so easily against play action. Besides that, in his role, he doesn’t have much to improve on.
Like I said, if he’s cheap and wants to be back, I love him as my SAM linebacker. Ragland may price himself out of Kansas City, but with less SAM linebackers in the league now, he may not get too much money. I wouldn’t mind him being back next year.
Status: Keep him at SAM for 3-4 million
Stats: 19 of 19 games, 56 tackles (33 solo), 1 TFLs, 0 sacks, 2 QB hits, 1 pass defended, 0 forced fumble, 1 recovered.
Niemann was asked to play dime linebacker for the Chiefs this year. While Niemann has the trust of this coaching staff, he wasn’t good at the job. In fact, he was the main glaring weakness of this Chiefs defense.
Against the run, he wasn’t asked to do much. Like I said, he mainly played in the dime, on 3rd and long. He was only asked to play MIKE linebacker for a full game once all year, against Houston in week 6. That game was quite possibly the worst game we played against the run all year. The fronts were erratic, and our gap discipline was poor. Niemann was getting blown off the ball by their center and guards, and Carlos Hyde ran for 150 yards against us. Niemann is just too small to play MIKE liinebacker consistently, and lacks the speed to play WILL linebacker.
In coverage, Niemann was awful. Due to Spagnuolo’s blitzing tendencies on 3rd down, Niemann was asked to play a lot of man coverage. His lack of foot speed to the sideline was a massive issue. Our defense was excellent against wide receivers, and good against tight ends. Running backs? We weren’t good. I blame Niemann mainly for that.
We need a new coverage linebacker. If we want to continue to blitz all the time, which we should, we need someone reliable in coverage. Darron Lee and Dorian O’Daniel never earned that trust. This is why we need to draft a linebacker. Let’s keep Niemann on special teams, but he should never reach the field next season.
Status: Keep, but bench him
Stats: 16 of 19 games, 23 tackles (16 solo), 0 TFLs, 0 sacks, 0 QB hits, 0 pass defended, 0 forced fumble, 0 recovered.
Lee was asked to play some SAM and WILL to start the season. Lee put on extra weight in camp, which caused him to lose trust in the coaching room. He didn’t play any snaps in the nickel this year, which was due to trust. His run stopping ability was poor, he couldn’t tackle, and his supposed strong-suit, coverage, wasn’t good.
I highly doubt Lee is back next season, which is why I won’t talk about him. He wasn’t active for one playoff game. This coaching staff doesn’t trust him at all. Therefore, no need to talk about improvement. Sucks we traded a 6th for him, and we couldn’t get more for him. Wish him nothing but luck.
Status: Let Walk
O’Daniel didn’t get much playing time, also due to a lack of trust. DOD has speed, but there was just a lack of confidence in him. Yes, he played some QB spy against Deshaun Watson, but he only played 5 snaps the rest of the season. When it mattered, and we needed speed, DOD wasn’t used. While we can criticize that, given how successful Spagnuolo was this year, we have to trust that something wasn’t clicking for this staff.
I hope he gets more time to show off more coverage ability. He’ll never be good against the run, but maybe he gets better in coverage. I wouldn’t mind seeing DOD play as the coverage guy next year. We need to see him gain more trust though. I think he’ll be on the roster next year, but there’s no guarantee. He has to win the job.
Status: Keep, Test him at dime linebacker