KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Draft picks aren’t guaranteed to make an NFL active roster.
Chiefs linebacker Nico Johnson discovered that harsh reality on Aug. 30 when the team waived him as part of the roster trimmings to meet the 53-man roster.
“It was surprising,” Johnson said. “It made me understand the business side more because it’s more of a personnel thing than anything.”
Johnson experienced a roller coaster ride since the Chiefs selected him as a fourth-round pick (99th overall) out of Alabama in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The native of Andalusia, Ala., was a member of three NCAA National Championship teams and joined the Chiefs with high hopes.
An ankle injury, however, sidelined Johnson the first three games of the 2013 regular season and effectively eliminated the chance to compete for playing time.
And getting waived in late August proved an eye opener.
“After last year,” Johnson said, “I was like, ‘Damn. I’m humbled. God humbled me. I’m more humble than I used to be.’ And then this happened, me getting cut just humbled me a lot. It let me know I’m not where I need to be. I’m good, but if I want to get great I have to take it to a whole another level. That’s where I got to go with it.”
Johnson was inactive eight games in 2013, but started Week 17 against the San Diego Chargers in a contest where the Chiefs rested starters. He totaled seven tackles (five solo) against the Chargers first-team offense.
The 6-2, 249-pound Johnson, a 2011 recipient of the Derrick Thomas Community Service Award at Alabama, said he committed himself during the offseason to improve, which included losing weight to get faster.
His dedication appeared to pay off, as Johnson led the Chiefs defense during the preseason with 18 total tackles (13 solo), and chipped in on special teams with three tackles (two solo).
But the production wasn’t enough to save Johnson a spot on the active roster.
Still, the Chiefs thought enough of Johnson to sign him to the practice squad on Aug. 31 after he cleared waivers.
“I think everybody here appreciated the effort and energy he put in during the offseason to get this opportunity and was really an improved player,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “We were excited it worked out. We got him back and he can have a great future if he just keeps working at it.”
Without naming teams, Johnson admitted he had choices before signing with the Chiefs practice squad.
But the 24-year-old Johnson said he’s happy for the opportunity to stay in Kansas City, and the Chiefs proved their interest by offering a spot.
“I’m familiar with the playbook here,” Johnson said. “That was one big thing. I didn’t want to start over as far as going into the season. And the coaching staff, these are the people that drafted me.”
The Chiefs defensive coordinator agreed.
“I think obviously Nico was disappointed initially,” Sutton said. “But I think he also saw the opportunity when you stay here is we all know him. He knows the system, so his growth I think potentially could be better here than somewhere else just because of his familiarity and our familiarity with him. I think that was a big bonus and I think when he sat back and looked at it and said, ‘This is a good route for me to travel right now.’”
While Johnson may still deal with the lingering shock of starting over, he now has an old acquaintance to lean on.
Defensive lineman Damion Square, whom the Chiefs claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles on Aug. 31, and Johnson were teammates at Alabama.
Johnson said Square always pushed him in college and was there for him during the tough times. And that role apparently hasn’t changed.
“He was one of the guys I was real close with and to have him here it means a lot,” Johnson said. “I’m glad he’s here. It’s a blessing to have someone on my team now that I had back then that was just there for me through it all.”
Of course, Square also offers insight since he recently went through the waiver process with the Eagles.
Square said he’s seen Johnson at his best and worst at Alabama, and that bond ensures Square will offer Johnson daily motivation.
“Every day I see him,” Square said, “I tell him to get your head up, let him know he’s blessed. He could be doing something else. He could be waking up working 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day trying to make a check that’s not close to what he makes here in football.”
As to why he always encourages Johnson, Square offered a simple explanation.
“Whenever I see potential in a guy or I see greatness in a guy,” Square said, “I’m always going to push him there because I want them to push me there.”
In the meantime, Johnson understands he has room to grow and he’s willing to put in the hard work to improve in order to have another shot at the active 53-man roster.
He had a taste of it in 2013 and said he’s fine starting from the practice squad.
Ultimately, the former draft pick remains motivated knowing he still gets to put on pads on a team offering an opportunity to do something he is passionate about.
“I’m blessed to continue to play the game I love,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to get back to where I used to be and earn my way back up the ladder.”