Rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks comes into his first NFL offseason with a lot to learn.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of playing at the highest level of football, he must learn how to do things on the field he hasn't necessarily been asked to do before. Speaks, who played on the defensive line at Ole Miss, is making the transition to linebacker to fill the Chiefs' needs after the team released longtime edge rusher Tamba Hali and middle linebacker Derrick Johnson following last season.
Probably the biggest change this season is that the Chiefs will rely on him to drop back into pass coverage from time to time.
“I’m getting comfortable with it," Speaks said during a news conference Sunday. "I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it. Still got to make sure I stay disciplined and go through my reads, my pre-snap reads, seeing backfield sets, seeing wide receivers, stuff like that. Overall, I feel like I’m finally getting it.”
Luckily, Speaks has some veterans on the defense, such as longtime Chiefs star Justin Houston, who can help him learn the ropes at his new position and how to be successful at this level of competition for the long haul.
“Definitely take care of your body," Speaks said of the lessons he's learned from the veterans. "It’s going to be a long season, that’s what they keep reminding me of. They like what I’m doing so far but they just keep reminding me, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to play a lot of games so,’ it’s just making sure you take care of your body to be able to do that within a span of time.”
While it may appear he's going all-out in training camp, Speaks said that he has another gear in him for once the real games begin.
“I feel like me, regular, and me, on the field, are two different people," Speaks said. "I’m definitely out there having fun, that’s one thing I like to do is make sure I have fun. I’ve heard you got to be a little crazy to play defense, so I’m a little throwed off.
“I think it’s just the heat of the battle. One man versus another. Not allowing somebody else to beat me. I feel like if somebody beats me, they beat me as a man, and that can’t happen.”
Another young Chiefs linebacker went through some similar developments last season. Ukeme Eligwe is in his second year and still vividly remembers what it was like to enter the league as a rookie. He's had the chance to run the defense with the starting unit this season because of injuries and is capitalizing off of the experience.
"Last year, I didn’t really know what to expect — Coach (Andy) Reid had one of the hardest camps," Eligwe said. "Last year, I wasn’t getting many reps, so it wasn’t that hard for me. This year, I’m getting more reps, I’m getting to run with the starters, and I’m definitely more comfortable.”
During Week 17 of last season, Eligwe was asked to play out of position at the outside linebacker spot, and he said that stepping outside of his comfort zone has helped him develop his game even more this offseason.
“Yeah, last year at the ‘Mile High’ — the Denver Broncos, getting to play outside linebacker is something I’ll never forget," Eligwe said. "I’ll literally never forget that game — I had my first sack, I made some good plays on defense, had to play some on special teams and I almost died (laughs). It was a great experience.”
Another adjustment Speaks will need to make is learning how to play within the confines of new rules put in place this season — one of which deals with "tackling with the helmet." He said that, because of the targeting rule in place during his college days, this rookie class is perhaps a bit more prepared to deal with the rule change, and the techniques he's learned from his coaches so far have only helped improve his tackling form.
“I think so," Speaks said. "We go through a whole lot more better tackling techniques. Not really using your head, putting your head across the body, not really trying to hit him with the helmet. I feel like the awareness, for now, is at an all-time high, and our coaches definitely make sure that we’re doing it the right way.”
Speaks will have his first chance to put his tackling techniques into practice during a game situation at 7:30 p.m. Thursday when the Chiefs host the Houston Texans in their first preseason game of the season.