KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Josh Mauga experienced a lot of career-firsts during the 2014 regular season.
The Chiefs inside linebacker signed a one-year deal before training camp and went on to start all 16 games, the most in his six-year career; he led the team with 103 tackles (82 solo), both marking the most in a single season of his career; he recorded his first career sack; and more importantly he was healthy for a full season for the first time since 2011.
Perhaps those areas contributed to why Mauga had no doubt where he wanted to play even with free agency approaching on March 11.
“It was always the Chiefs,” Mauga said. “I told my agent that I wanted to keep pushing the Chiefs, keep pushing the Chiefs. If it doesn’t work out, then we can look elsewhere. But he understood this was the place where I was happy and I wanted to be.”
Still, there were anxious moments during negotiations.
The Chiefs and Mauga’s representative met in February at the NFL Scouting Combine, where the parties expressed mutual interest in a return, as previously reported by ChiefsDigest.com.
The sides eventually agreed to a three-year, $8 million deal on March 6 before the start of free agency, and that proved a relief for Mauga, who signed the contract on March 10.
“It was crazy because I really wanted to come back here,” Mauga said. “And if we couldn’t get something done – I was hoping to get it done quicker – but I was just patient and knew it was going to work out. I’m just excited now that I’m back here and ready to play.”
The 6-1, 245-pound Mauga experienced another first in recent months when compared to the previous two offseasons, which he spent rehabilitating a torn pectoral from 2012 and a back injury from 2013.
A fully healthy Mauga now concentrated on training and conditioning while working out in his hometown of Reno, Nev.
And the conditioning proved an important factor leading to organized team activities.
“Just having the experience from last year coming straight into training camp, it was a little tough trying to get through those practices,” Mauga said. “This past year I was healthy, so I was able to focus on the conditioning and the strength training to prepare me for this year.”
Chiefs linebackers coach Gary Gibbs agreed.
“I know this offseason has been important for Josh, physically, because he went a couple of years without a good offseason with back injuries and so forth,” Gibbs said. “So this has been a plus for him.”
Mauga, who turns 28 on June 20, entered the league in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of Nevada with the New York Jets.
His arrival in Kansas City reunited him with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who previously coached linebackers in New York before joining the Chiefs in 2013.
Sutton was happy to have Mauga.
“He’s always been a really smart football player, being able to play multiple positions and do a really good job that way,” Sutton said. “And I think he’s just going to get better and better like anybody with the more playing time you have. That experience and how you deal with just the little things out there, how you deal with this block, that block, your recognition, all of those things become honed and sharp and better, so I think we’re looking for him to kind of continue that rise forward.”
Mauga’s familiarity with Sutton’s scheme proved invaluable in 2014 after linebacker Derrick Johnson went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in the first game of the season, and with linebacker Joe Mays on injured reserve to start the year with a wrist injury.
While Mauga saw plenty of action and was trusted as the “green dot” linebacker – the player with the radio helmet responsible for communicating with the sideline – he said the biggest takeaway from last season surrounded the repetitions.
“Being in this defense for as long as I have been, those first couple of years I really didn’t get those reps because I was a backup,” Mauga said. “But last year being able to play a whole year and feeling comfortable, knowing where I got to go, knowing the tendencies of the offenses, and it’s just been tremendous.”
The Chiefs project to roll with Johnson and Mauga as the two starting inside linebackers in Sutton’s 3-4 base defense if the first-team unit through eight OTAs offers a preview.
That scenario allows another career first for Mauga in the form of playing alongside Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and arguably the heart and soul of the Chiefs’ interior defense.
“It’s good to get D.J. back on the field,” Gibbs said. “Obviously having both those guys on the field at the same time has been a positive.”
Johnson, who has missed recent practices with inflammation to his right knee, resumes the “green dot” role, and Mauga looks forward to working with him.
“With Derrick coming back, that actually takes a little weight off my shoulders,” Mauga said. “Having a veteran like him, a playmaker, it helps out. It makes our defense a lot stronger and guys rally around him and make plays.”
In the meantime, Mauga is delighted to return to a team that gave him an opportunity in 2014 and hopes to continue making contributions in the coming years.
He is also highly appreciative the Chiefs wanted him.
“It meant a lot,” Mauga said. “The coaches here are very excellent in picking up players that fit this defense. For them to bring me back here, to want me back here, it’s just a great feeling and honor. I’m going to do everything I can to do my job.”