The Kansas City Chiefs have activated second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. off of the injured reserve list, clearing the path for Gay's return from a toe injury that has caused him to miss the season to this point.
On Monday, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was asked about the possibility of Gay being activated in time for Sunday night's primetime matchup against the Buffalo Bills, and Reid struck a somewhat optimistic tone.
"Yeah, there’s a chance," Reid said. "He was kind of getting there last week so we'll see on this piece, see where he's at as we go forward here. I think he's starting to feel a little bit better for sure."
On Tuesday, the Chiefs opened the practice window for Gay, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, opening the door for Gay's return. Gay practiced but did not receive an injury designation because he was still on the injured reserve, as noted by Herbie Teope of The Kansas City Star.
Gay could have been designated to return as early as Week 4, ahead of the Chiefs' matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, but his injury kept him out beyond the three-week minimum.
Gay did not practice on Friday, with Reid noting that he was off for personal reasons. Later Friday, Gay tweeted that he was struggling with his mental heath.
What does this mean for the Chiefs' defense?
Gay's return doesn't come a moment too soon for Kansas City as he joins a linebacker unit that has struggled through the first four games of the season. After a significant amount of hype built around Gay through training camp and the preseason, he projected to be the Chiefs' second linebacker in terms of snap count and role, only behind veteran Anthony Hitchens. With Hitchens as the Chiefs' defensive signal-caller, Gay spent time in camp alongside Hitchens when the Chiefs used just two linebackers in sub-packages and was on the field consistently in base personnel.
Gay's return should allow the Chiefs to decrease the roles of Ben Niemann and rookie Nick Bolton, who have both had their ups and downs through 2021 so far. Niemann is the least athletically gifted of the four, but Bolton has struggled mightily in coverage despite flashing in the run game. Gay has the best athletic traits of the entire group, providing some much-needed speed and physicality for the Chiefs' defense before Josh Allen and the Bills come to town.