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How rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr.’s versatility could land him playing the SAM or WILL position in 2020

With the Chiefs Super Bowl 54 victory now a thing of the past, the personnel department led by general manager Brett Veach took a deep look at the team’s roster heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. After doing so, the organization should have realized that the team’s LB group was one of the worst in the league in 2020 and had to be improved in the off-season. So, Veach went out and addressed one of the roster’s biggest needs by selecting LB Willie Gay Jr. out of Mississippi State. The LB position for this team last year struggled in multiple areas, such as stopping the run and pass coverage. Luckily for the Chiefs, Gay Jr. has the versatility to bolster the position in both phases of the game. The real question becomes, what spot will Willie Gay Jr play for this team in 2020? He has the tools to play both the weak side (WILL) or the strong side (SAM) LB in this system. So, let’s take a look at how he is capable of playing both positions, and decide where he can help the team the most in 2020.  

The intriguing part of having a player of Gay Jr’s versatility is that it makes it tough to decide where to play him. As the SAM, in a 4-3 base scheme, you must be a versatile run and pass coverage backer. He needs to provide strong run support and fill his gap on the run, but he also is required to drop in short zones in cover 2 and cover 3 looks to help in the passing game. The SAM also plays close to the line of scrimmage and can be utilized as a pass rusher as well. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, last year the position was held primarily by Damien Wilson who was solid in run stoppage but limited in coverage and offered little to no production in the pass rush game. The exciting part is that Willie Gay has the speed to cover, the size to play the run, and showed flashes as a blitzer in pass-rush situations that yielded five sacks his sophomore year in college. However, the concern with Gay Jr. is that he played only five games last year due to issues off of the field. In a full twelve games through his sophomore year, he was productive in all three responsibilities of a SAM LB in this system. So the dilemma now becomes, who plays where for this LB group in 2020? The WILL or weak side player last year was Anthony Hitchens or Ben Niemann. So does the team feel the need to plug a hole with Gay Jr that would be otherwise held by Damien Wilson or Ben Niemann? 

To get a better idea of how to answer this question, let’s take a look at the responsibilities of a WILL linebacker in this 4-3 under defensive scheme. The WILL requires the least size of all three LBs. He should be unblocked and must flow to the ball carrier if his gap is not being immediately threatened. The defense tries to force running plays to the WILL because he is unblocked. He will typically be the best cover LB, being the smallest and the quickest of the three, He has a shallow zone, or the flat, to his side of the field in zone, or the RB out of the backfield. This role also would suit Willie Gay Jr. well because of his blazing 4.46 speed and athletic fluidity throughout his large frame. 

  • Via Matt McMullen Chiefs Community and Digital Media Producer

He has the athleticism to play the pass coverage at a much-improved level than we saw from Ben Niemann in 2019 and is also more capable of playing freely in the run game, allowing him to be a playmaker. Based on the definition of the WILL LB in this system, you need a player that is athletic enough to move at an elite level but also be a playmaker who understands his responsibility in the run game. I think with Hitchens having to move inside in 2020, the team would benefit from a guy with Gay Jr.’s athleticism on the weak side. I think he has the tools to play either the SAM or the WILL, and it will be interesting to see where he is being played come training camp. I would bet that he is the full time WILL, being that it allows him to lock down the middle in pass coverage, but also play freely and use his speed and size to lay the lumber to people and make big plays. 

In conclusion, the team has a question they must answer. Who would you rather have opposite of Gay Jr.? Ben Niemann or Damien Wilson? If I was Steve Spagnuolo, I would leave Wilson, who is the better of the two, in his SAM spot. This is because he played at a better level last year than I feel Niemann did at the WILL. To be able to field the best group in 2020, and improve the defense, even more, the team should play Damien Wilson at his most natural position, the SAM, Anthony Hitchens at what I believe to be his best fit, the MIKE, and Willie Gay Jr. at his best positional fit, the WILL. If the coaching staff follows this plan and utilizes it’s talent the best way possible, I expect the addition of Willie Gay to improve this group by filling the team’s biggest defensive weakness from 2019. Last year the team was missing a true pass coverage LB that had sideline to sideline ability in the run game but could stay on the field and thrive in coverage on third down. Add Willie into the defense last year, the run defense is much improved, and the pass coverage on running backs would not be a weakness early on in the year. Without an elite WILL LB in 2019, the Chiefs were still able to win the Super Bowl. So, it can be done either way, but things are looking up for this position group with Gay Jr. in the fold on the weak side heading into the 2020 season. The versatility of Gay Jr is a real strength, and knowing the aggressive nature of Coach Spagnuolo, I would not be surprised if later in the year they move Willie Gay Jr. around depending on the situation. Either way, he is a steal in the second round, and his athleticism improves the way that this group can play. By filling the team’s biggest defensive hole and allowing Hitchens and Wilson to play their natural position without sacrificing anything in the process, I expect big things from Willie Gay Jr in 2020 for the Kansas City Chiefs.

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