KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs took another step toward filling the void left by the absence of linebacker Derrick Johnson with Justin March-Lillard returning from injured reserve and resuming practice with the team, but the move also closes the door on the potential return of running back Jamaal Charles.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said March-Lillard looked fine in his first practice. But he and coach Andy Reid need to see more from the linebacker before making the judgement returning him to the lineup.
“I think’d you have to wait and see him in these last two practices to really say that,” Sutton said. “I don’t know what Andy’s thought is on that yet, he just started. We’d have to wait and kind of see, and balance it with everybody.”
March-Lillard underwent surgery for a broken bone in his hand following the team’s 26-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders in week six.
The Chiefs can designate one player per season to return from injured reserve. That means March-Lillard’s return spells the end of the season for running back Jamaal Charles.
The team placed Charles on injured reserve Nov. 2 following exploratory surgery on his right knee to address issues causing inflammation. Surgeon James Andrews performed a meniscus trim in the same knee Charles sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in October 2015. Charles later underwent a second exploratory surgery to resolve inflammation in his left knee.
The running back initially remained at the Alabama clinic of orthopedic surgeon James Andrews for his rehabilitation. He recently returned to the team, and chatted with teammates in the locker room Thursday. He appeared in good spirits.
Leaving Charles on injured reserve commits the team to staying the course with running backs Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis. The team also carries Darrin Reaves on the practice squad.
But perhaps no position group on the Chiefs roster required more shuffling this season than inside linebacker. The team anticipated a starting tandem of Johnson and veteran Josh Mauga at the start of training camp.
But Mauga required season-ending hip surgery, which opened up a fierce battle between March-Lillard and Ramik Wilson for the role alongside Johnson. March-Lillard won the job, and the team placed Wilson on waivers. The team re-signed Wilson to the practice squad Sept. 6.
Wilson returned to the active roster Oct. 18 following March-Lillard’s injury and quickly took over the Mike linebacker role. Johnson’s season-ending torn Achilles injury against Oakland Dec. 8 required another lineup shuffle. D.J. Alexander worked alongside Wilson on Sunday against Tennessee.
Sutton said the lineup shuffle throughout the season required the team’s young linebackers to step up in tough situations.
“I say kiddingly all the time, ‘They don’t give you discounts in this league for guys that are starting for the first time or whatever,'” Sutton said. “You just got to play.”
Accordingly Sutton stands pleased with how his squad responded to injuries throughout the season.
“I’ve been really happy with the guys that have stepped up and played,” Sutton said, “and also very happy with the other players in just say, ‘staying focused, keep working, keep pushing, get myself better,’ and maybe we can offset some of these setbacks that we’ve had from an injury stand point.”
The return of March-Lillard provides the Chiefs with much-needed depth at inside linebacker. He brings valuable experience at the weak side linebacker position vacated by Johnson.
But Sutton does not necessarily expect March-Lillard ready for Sunday’s game against Denver. He said the linebacker needs time to acclimate himself back to being on the field after a prolonged absence.
“I think it’s just going to be a process over the next couple days, week, whatever it is and see where he’s at,” Sutton said, “if he’s going to be able to contribute and how fast he can contribute.”