The Kansas City Chiefs' defense saw a serious overhaul this offseason, and the youth movement is fully underway — specifically at the linebacker position.
Kansas City has been preparing for this moment for longer than just a few months, though. It was assumed by many that 2021 second-round pick Nick Bolton would be taking the job of linebacker Anthony Hitchens the following year despite him being under contract for the 2022 campaign, and Willie Gay Jr. was already in the fold at the position from the year before. The Chiefs, while good at being reactive, attempt to be proactive under general manager Brett Veach. They're bearing the fruits of their labor right now.
The Chiefs have completed Organized Team Activities (OTAs) for the 2022 offseason, and head coach Andy Reid recently spoke with the media about various topics. Among them was his duo of young linebackers, Bolton and Gay (2020's second-round pick). Reid praised the two players, citing OTAs as "productive" and beneficial for the present and future of Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
“They’ve got a bond," Reid said. "They’ve known each other a long time, so they’ve got that natural thing that’s going on there. And they work at it, so I’ve liked what I’ve seen. I think both of them are much more comfortable with what we’re doing right now than what they were at the beginning of last year. It’s been so far so good. Productive. It’s been good. This camp has been good for those guys.”
While Gay's athleticism, range and ability to make splash plays can't be denied, it was Bolton's debut season that stuck out last year for Spagnuolo's linebacker unit. Fresh out of the University of Missouri, Bolton made a significant impact on Kansas City's defense in year one. He recorded an eye-popping 112 total tackles (11 for loss), three quarterback hits and even won the team's Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year Award for his efforts. When asked about his expectations for Bolton this season, Reid said a jump of sorts could be in the cards.
“I think the more understanding he has and the more he does it, it even becomes more friendly to his instincts," Reid said. "So, where you saw him in the run game really be effective, now he’s able to work on the pass game. That’s what these camps are. So that’s where you see linebackers make a little jump from their first year into their second and third year. They get all these reps with the pass game, and I think that’ll help him down the road rounding off his game. And he’s attacking it like crazy right now. He’s really put a lot of effort into that.”
That aforementioned effort will have to be a major theme of the Chiefs' offseason if they want it to translate to in-season success. In addition to losing Hitchens, the Chiefs let cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Mathieu walk via free agency. Mathieu's departure came as a shock to many, but the Chiefs made it clear before the 2021 season even began that they weren't going to offer him an extension. He leaves big shoes to fill — as does Hitchens, despite his up-and-down play during his tenure in Kansas City — and Bolton recognizes that. The 22-year-old linebacker had a simple message regarding himself and his peers: it's time to step up.
"I feel like it’s our time, our young guys, not just me," Bolton said. "Willie (Gay), Justin Reid, Juan (Thornhill), young guys on the D-Line. It’s our time to step up and lead as a group. Nobody will replace Hitch (Anthony Hitchens), Tyrann Mathieu, those guys are special guys. There is a reason why they wore Cs. It’s up to us to come in as a group and get guys in the best position possible to play.”
There will undoubtedly be growing pains for Spagnuolo's defense this year. That comes with the territory of investing and having faith in young players, after all. With that said, early reports on Spagnuolo's linebackers are quite positive. Bolton and Gay are two totally different players, although that's what could make them one of the best duos in the league. They're ready for takeoff in 2022, and the rest of the defense is trying to keep up.