Willie Gay Jr. is Already the Chiefs' Best Linebacker
There has been one position group that has been a major problem for the Kansas City Chiefs in each of the last three seasons: linebacker. The Chiefs' linebackers have been quite a mess since Derrick Johnson wasn't Derrick Johnson anymore in his final season in KC and then left for the team whose name shall not be spoken.
Since then, the group has been a mess. The most glaring example of this has been the big-money player of the group, Anthony Hitchens. Hitchens signed a five year, $45 million contract with the Chiefs prior to the 2018 season, and he frankly hasn't lived up to that contract with his on-field production. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), in his two seasons on the Chiefs, Hitchens has been the Chiefs' worst defensive player and he has been among the worst linebackers in the NFL. In 2018, Hitchens received a 37.5 PFF grade, ranking 94th out of 95 qualifying linebackers in the NFL and ranking last among Chiefs defenders with 200+ snaps played. In 2019, Hitchens got his PFF grade up to 44.4, but that still ranked 94th out of 103 qualifying linebackers in the NFL and still ranked last among Chiefs defenders with 200+ snaps played.
Even with the Dallas Cowboys, where his best production has been to this point, Hitchens was not playing like a $9 million-per-season linebacker. In two of his four seasons in Dallas, Hitchens had a PFF grade below 50 and he never reached a PFF grade of 75 or higher in the other two. You can name a few moves that Brett Veach has flubbed in his tenure, notably the drafting of Breeland Speaks, but to me, this signing is the worst move of Veach's tenure so far, and I think it will stay that way for years, both because Veach is an excellent GM and because this decision was very poor.
As for the rest of the linebacker room, the primary names already in place are Damien Wilson, Ben Niemann and Dorian O'Daniel. In 2019, Wilson was an up-and-down player, having four games with a 75+ PFF grade and five games with a sub-45 PFF grade. In some circumstances, Wilson fell flat or was merely unremarkable. In others, such as goal-to-go scenarios, he made great plays. Niemann was the Chiefs' best coverage linebacker last season according to PFF. Unfortunately, his PFF coverage grade was merely a 64.2. O'Daniel clearly has talent, but he played just 20 defensive snaps in the 2019 season.
Clearly, the Chiefs had to address the linebacker position in this past offseason, especially after losing Reggie Ragland, who had been their best linebacker in the last three seasons. This is where the 2020 NFL Draft came into play.
With the 63rd pick, the Chiefs took Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. This was the highest the Chiefs have drafted a linebacker since selecting Derrick Johnson with the 15th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and it is no coincidence that Gay received comparisons to Johnson prior to and following the Chiefs' selection of him.
Gay's potential is very high with his coverage abilities, closing speed, physical traits and tackling reliability. In coverage, Gay was a force at Mississippi State. As a Bulldog, Gay had the highest career PFF coverage grade among all linebackers in the 2020 draft class, including Isaiah Simmons and Patrick Queen. While his sample size in all three seasons was limited due to suspensions and injuries, Gay still had a PFF coverage grade of 87 or higher in all three seasons, a stunning accomplishment.
Gay's speed and physical traits are also quite special. Gay ran a 4.46 40-yard-dash, which was second-fastest among linebackers, trailing only Isaiah Simmons. His Relative Athletic Score (RAS) was 9.71, putting him deep into the elite tier for linebackers. Also just watch this thread of plays:
The Chiefs have a special talent on their hands.
Gay is also not just an athlete, and he is certainly not afraid to tackle. Look at this hit!
According to PFF, Gay missed nine out of 99 attempted tackles in his college career. In all three college seasons, Gay had a PFF tackling grade north of 70. This shows that Gay is not just a big hitter, but he's also a relatively reliable one too.
If Gay can carry his coverage, athleticism and tackling production over to the NFL, he will be one of the better linebackers in the NFL, and he will certainly be the best linebacker on a Chiefs team that sorely lacks good linebacker production.