KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Inside linebacker Justin March was a low-key offseason addition in 2015.
The Chiefs used two draft picks on Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander, after all, before signing March as an undrafted free agent out of Akron.
March’s emergence in training camp, however, provided numerous moments of excitement and proved he wasn’t going to remain under the radar then and even now.
“Justin came in here last year, he did a great job and the one thing he did is he was around the ball a lot,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He tipped the ball, he got the ball, he recovered the ball, he was near the ball and that’s a really great trait to have if you’re on defense.”
March showed he could transfer practice performances to live action in the preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, playing on 41 defensive snaps (61 percent) and totaling four tackles.
Unfortunately, he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during the game and March wasn’t fully aware of the severity of the injury when it occurred.
“I actually didn’t,” March said. “The adrenaline was going, that was my first NFL game. So my adrenaline was going and I just kind of played.”
Kansas City placed March on injured reserve, stalling a promising start to his career before it officially began, and he eventually underwent microfracture surgery.
The time away from football was a new experience for March, who said he has never missed a full season of playing.
But he had help from the training staff to get through the recovery.
“The rehab process, I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than it actually was,” March said. “That’s a credit to (head athletic trainer) Rick (Burkholder) and (athletic trainer) Aaron (Borgmann), everyone in the training room. They made it an easy process.”
When it came to staying up to speed on the football side, March leaned on the heart and soul of the Chiefs defense – linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“He’s a great guy, on and off the field,” March said. “Within the film room, he helps me out a lot with everything. He’s always there. If I need a question, I can text him just about anything. Off the field, he’s there talking to me about my injury, making sure I’m focused on being in the film room.”
The 6-0 March is back healthy and currently tips the scales at 238 pounds, a 16-pound increase from the 222 pounds the Chiefs list him as.
The added bulk hasn’t slowed him down and he has picked up where he left off in 2015, often flying to the ball throughout the recently-concluded 10 days of organized team activities (OTAs) and three days of minicamp.
And it is March’s playmaking skills and instincts that have the Chiefs coaching staff enthusiastic for more in the defensive scheme.
“We’re excited to see him come back from his injury, see what he can do and every indication is he hasn’t lost anything,” Sutton said. “I think he’s going to be like any guy in his second year, he’s going to be more comfortable in the system even though he didn’t get to play.
Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs agreed.
“He was having a good camp last year before he got hurt,” Gibbs said. “He’s a great young man, studious, works hard, loves the game, wants to compete and does a great job on special teams.”
The coaching staff’s trust has resulted in March rotating between the first- and second-team units during OTAs and minicamp. And he hasn’t disappointed, displaying the athleticism that commanded attention in 2015.
One area where March has consistently stood out during team-related drills is dropping back in pass coverage, a skill he honed at Akron where he appeared in 46 games, totaling 250 tackles (125 solo), 3 ½ sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
“I did a lot of it in college, being man-on-man on tight ends, being out in space,” March said. “I played the SAM linebacker (strongside) in a 4-3, so I was outside always in space. I’m kind of comfortable with that.”
The early returns offer high optimism, but March falls back on the advice from the coaching staff following his first NFL preseason action almost a year ago to stay grounded.
“They told me I played well,” March said, “and they also told me that there’s still a long way to go.”
The Chiefs linebackers coach echoed March.
“This is all new to him, he missed all of last year,” Gibbs said. “So even though he had that camp, he really has to start from Ground Zero.”
Nevertheless, watching the young inside linebacker and understanding the potential hasn’t tempered Gibbs’ outlook.
“We’re excited that he’s out here and anxious to see him play,” Gibbs said.
Meanwhile, the competition at inside linebacker will heat up in training camp when considering March isn’t the only player vying for playing time.
Johnson and Josh Mauga, last year’s staring inside linebackers, return along with second-year pros Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander.
But March is no longer one of the Chiefs’ best-kept secrets and he embraces whatever role comes his way leading to the regular season.
“Anything they want me to do,” March said. “Special teams, that’s a huge part of the game. I feel like I can play special teams, all phases. My role is just whatever they want me to do.”