All signs are pointing to this being a big season for third-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr.
Gay was quite an intriguing player in the 2020 NFL Draft. He was an uber-athletic linebacker prospect out of Mississippi State who posted a 4.46 40-yard dash time and a 9.71 Relative Athletic Score. Daniel Jeremiah ranked Gay as the 62nd-best player in 2020, one slot ahead of where the Chiefs would actually take him at pick No. 63.
The knock on Gay coming out of Mississippi State was immaturity issues and the lack of production over his three years in college. He was suspended a total of eight games during his final year of college football, with part of the suspension being due to academic reasons. This led to Gay finishing his college career with less than 100 total tackles over his three years of playing time. So what the Chiefs, and any team in the 2020 draft, had to weigh was the off-field issues against Gay’s excellent athletic ability.
Gay’s player profile heading into the 2020 draft informed the reality that he would need time and a great direction in order to succeed in the NFL. Pairing Gay with Andy Reid and a steady Chiefs organization, therefore, seemed like a match made in heaven.
It hasn't always been easy for Gay. While it seemed that the uber-athletic linebacker would fit in well as a weakside linebacker — the position that's focused more on playing off the line of scrimmage and moving sideline to sideline — Gay was given the role as SAM linebacker instead. SAM linebackers operate more at the line of scrimmage and dictate in-run defense. It was an odd fit for Gay, who seemed like a great coverage linebacker in college.
After finishing his rookie year playing only 25% of the defensive snaps for the Chiefs, Gay seemed primed to have a bigger role on defense in 2021. The results were mixed.
While Gay did indeed play more snaps in 2021 (57%), he played a bit of everything in a still reduced role. While many expected him to beat out incumbent starting weakside linebacker Ben Niemann, that didn't happen. Thus, Gay was relegated to more of a “fill in where possible” role. He was solid for the most part of the season and flashed his talents on occasion, which reminded Chiefs fans and coaches alike how high his ceiling is.
Now in year three, playing a defined role next to second-year linebacker Nick Bolton, Gay seems primed for a breakout campaign.
On a defense with very young talent and new pieces littering the secondary, a linebacker with coverage skills like Gay will be vital to the Chiefs' success on defense. In addition to his play, Gay also provides a noticeable enthusiasm that every team in the NFL needs. It's also one that the Chiefs' defense might need with safety Tyrann Mathieu leaving in the offseason.
The Gay draft pick and how he turns out as a player will be an interesting plot point in the grand scheme of general manager Brett Veach’s draft strategy. He's one of the rawest players Veach has taken in the first two days of the draft so far. He was a high-risk, high-reward pick not only because of a lack of production, but because of off-the-field issues as well. If Gay does indeed break out this year and becomes a Pro Bowl-level linebacker, Veach could look at that success and take more risks with projects in the future while being confident that the Chiefs can coach the player up.
All signs are pointing to a statement year for Gay. He’s talking the talk in press conferences, walking the walk so far in practice and has already shown flashes of great play in the past.
This is the year of Willie Gay Jr.