The linebacker core was one of the weakest links on the Chiefs last year. But this season, two of the youngest players on the team are ready to change the narrative around the position.
Last season’s crew of linebackers for the Chiefs was not their best and made fans reminisce about the days of old when players like Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston, and Tamba Hali brought fear to opponents on a weekly basis, but this offseason brought new hope to the position for #ChiefsKingdom.
The addition of Nick Bolton in the draft and the return of a healthy Willie Gay Jr. looking more and more likely has Chiefs fans fiending for the season to start, and for good reason because these two players are hyper-athletic and bring a different level of physicality to the position that nobody else on the team could.
Both second-round picks are ready to make the impact that we hoped would be made last year, especially in the Super Bowl when Tom Brady was barely pressured, and solidify their future as the Chiefs’ deadly starting duo in the middle of the field.
Bolton was one of the best linebacker prospects in the 2021 draft despite his size (5’11”, 232 lbs), as was Gay Jr. in 2020, but Bolton flew off the page with his adaptability and instincts that pair well with his explosiveness and ability to chase ball carriers utilizing his speed–he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash.
Pair those playmaking abilities with Gay Jr.’s size (6’1″, 243 lbs) and deadly strength, and BOOM! Now there is a lethal force that could be simmering on every play, the type of lethality that keeps the ball from crossing the line of scrimmage (both players had double-digit tackles for losses in their three years at their respective schools), and the type of instincts that keep the ball from leaving the pocket (Bolton had 12 passes deflected at Mizzou, Gay Jr. had 4 but also 2 forced fumbles).
Although Gay Jr.’s season got cut short right before the playoffs last year he still showed promise in the limited snaps he was receiving beforehand, even though it seemed Ben Niemann was being favored by Spagnuolo on a weekly basis.
Gay Jr. had three pass deflections on the season to go along with his three tackles for a loss and 39 total tackles, but he really shined when he was able to play a significant amount of defensive snaps like Week 16 against Atlanta when he forced a fumble (below) which helped lift the depleted defense to a 17-14 victory.
With the promise that Gay Jr. showed it’s likely that this could mark soon-to-be-26-year-old Niemann’s last season with the Chiefs as they prepare to go in a younger direction with rookie Bolton (21 years old) and 2nd-year Gay Jr. (23) who both will be on rookie deals until at least the 2023 season.
Whether or not either of these young studs works out right away it would still be in the Chiefs’ best interest to move on from the aging Anthony Hitchens and the unreliable Niemann, especially considering how well DC Spagnuolo calls plays for other defensive players like CB L’Jarius Sneed or S Tyrann Mathieu to blitz the QB.
If healthy all season there is no reason why these two linebackers shouldn’t combine for at least 9-10 sacks, 15-18 pass deflections, and at least an interception or two, but time will tell and hopefully the Chiefs young, new linebacker core is willing to step up to the challenge and bring the position back to the glory days.