The past few seasons have been rough for the Kansas City Chiefs at the linebacker position. After losing longtime franchise pillar Derrick Johnson, things simply haven’t been the same. Anthony Hitchens, who carried a positive reputation with him as he came over from Dallas, has failed to live up to the five-year, $45 million contract he signed before the 2018 campaign. Athleticism, aggression and coverage prowess at linebacker has been sorely missed.
Enter Willie Gay Jr.
Gay, a three-year linebacker for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, was the Chiefs’ second-round pick in this year’s draft. His off-field issues led to a highly inconsistent draft stock. Mocks had him going anywhere ranging from the end of round two to the beginning of round five. Although I liked Gay as a mid-round fit for the Chiefs, his athletic profile makes him a much-needed fit in this year’s Chiefs defense.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo did a tremendous job making do with what he had in 2019. His pass rush and secondary were both adequate, but the talent at linebacker was limited. With Gay now in the fold, he’ll immediately be the best at his position from an athleticism and coverage standpoint. His PFF coverage grade was the best in this year’s draft class, for crying out loud. Gay’s ability to keep up with several opposing running backs as a weakside linebacker will be a fresh breath of air for the Chiefs.
As with any prospect, Gay still has some things he can work on. While he’s a more-than-willing tackler, he can overcommit at times. As he gets consistent reps at the NFL level, his football IQ and feel for the game should improve. The fact that he’s already playing at this level while relying mostly on explosiveness and aggression is impressive. The potential is there for Gay to become a really good player.
In terms of Gay’s short-term role with the team, it all comes down to what Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Matt House have in store for him. Should Gay turn heads at camp, stay out of trouble and demonstrate a solid understanding of the defense, he could step in at the weakside spot and instantly inject speed, range and intensity into the surrounding unit. If not, his physical traits allow him to be used in a variety of roles — subpackage pass-rusher, potential strongside linebacker — until he’s ready to be a full-time player.
In the coming years, Gay should lead the middle of the Chiefs’ defense. He may one day remind fans of Johnson, who spent 13 years headlining the linebacking corps. The two have similar athletic profiles and, although Gay has some character concerns, he’s done his best to put those worries to rest in recent months. His ceiling alone makes the value at pick No. 63 worth it, and it could end up being even greater if he develops as planned.