ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — After 11 seasons in the NFL and more than a thousand tackles in his career, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson still doesn’t get tired of teaching the new kids how it’s done.
“’How do you know that play?’ It’s always like, ‘D.J., why did you move that way?’ Well, I’m like, ‘I’ve been playing it for a hundred years now’,” Johnson joked after practice Tuesday.
Johnson’s leadership has never been more valuable to the Chiefs. With Justin Houston and Tamba Hali still working their way back from injuries, Johnson is the undisputed leader of a linebacking corps loaded with young talent, fresh faces and veterans in new roles.
“Those young guys look up to me so we talk all the time mentally about the game, what plays about to come up, anticipation, trying to make plays,” Johnson said. “They make me young. I see them running around, I try to do the same thing. They try to take my mental aspect of the game to help their’s.”
One of the young players looking to Johnson is Justin March. The second-year linebacker from Akron lined up alongside Johnson with the starting defense on Tuesday as the team searches for the right lineup with incumbent Josh Mauga nursing a groin injury.
“He’s used to playing my position, where you can back up and roam a little bit,” Johnson said of March. “Now he’s playing Mike, which is kind of head on stuff. He’s doing pretty good, he’s smart.”
March impressed last season in training camp as an undrafted college free agent before a knee injury ended his season before it began. He continues to work his way up the depth chart, and Johnson notices.
“Justin’s doing well,” he said. “He’s got a knack for the ball, he’s a young that has a nose for the ball.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton agreed.
“He’s got some of that natural feel for the ball and that’s a great trait to have, particularly as an inside player,” Sutton said. “You can’t tell where the ball is going all the time — whether it’s staying inside or bouncing back out. He’s always had that sense of nature since he’s been here.
“He’s got great energy, he plays really hard and he gets his hands on a lot of footballs. If he just keeps coming, he’s going to be a real plus for us.”
Another young climber is outside linebacker Dadi Nicolas, the sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech. The rookie impressed in his debut against the Seahawks on Saturday, totaling three tackles including two for a loss of yardage to go along with a sack and two quarterback hurries.
“Dadi’s got a motor on him,” Johnson said. “He’s our smallest outside backer, he’s like 230, but he’s a guy that we know has a lot of speed. Young, relentless, guy that’s got a motor. He’s still learning the whole mental aspect of the game but it’s good for him to get some production.”
The best wisdom Johnson shares with March, Nicolas and other young players is the importance of anticipation.
“Certain formations, certain looks that the offense gives you, it’s teed off on what you need to anticipate,” he explained. “To make plays you have to anticipate, because if you don’t you’ll be a step slow every time.”
With the first preseason game out of the way, Johnson said he hopes his youthful teammates also gain an understanding of the urgency to get better before the season begins.
“Preseason is never as good as you think it is and never as bad as you think it is,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to have that mindset to just kind of keep getting better.”