Losing a talented young player due to injury is never easy for NFL teams. The Kansas City Chiefs are currently going through that with linebacker Willie Gay Jr. this week.
On Thursday, the team placed Gay on the injured reserve list because of a toe injury. Luckily, this could mean that the second-year man is only out for the first three games of the 2021 season. He'll be eligible to return after three weeks, per league rules.
The Chiefs invested heavily at the linebacker position this year, opting to go with six — Anthony Hitchens, Gay, Ben Niemann, Nick Bolton, Darrius Harris and Dorian O'Daniel — rather than five. Keeping five on the final 53-man roster would have opened a spot for someone else (defensive end Tim Ward comes to mind), but the team had other plans. Conner Christopherson of Arrowhead Report joined me on today's Roughing the Kicker podcast to assess the state of the Chiefs' linebackers without Gay.
Simply put, the Chiefs have a ton of cooks in the kitchen — almost too many to handle. That's with Gay injured. The top four was always going to consist of Hitchens, Gay, Niemann and Bolton. No surprise there; bringing both Harris and O'Daniel into the season is the shocker. While O'Daniel is a special teams standout and a possible Dave Toub selection, Harris' odds of avoiding roster cuts didn't seem great. Even with Gay on the shelf, it doesn't seem that he'll receive a decent share of on-field snaps.
Without an athletic linebacker like Gay on the field, the Chiefs' defense will be tested over the first few weeks of this season. Niemann is all but guaranteed to see an uptick in overall snaps, while Bolton's base snaps should remain the same. Gay's feature was likely to come in sub-package situations (when the team takes a linebacker off the field in favor of an additional defensive back). This is where the roster construction gets puzzling.
Harris doesn't appear to be a suitable option in base, nor sub-packages such as the dime. O'Daniel has never been a focal point on defense and will almost surely maintain a heavy special teams role. Hitchens, Niemann and Bolton will be relied upon to weather the storm until Gay returns. That could have been the case without two more linebackers behind them.
Of course, depth is never a bad thing. Sure. With that said, even with one of their more promising young players slated to miss time, the Chiefs have at least one linebacker who may not see the field. Would that roster spot have been better used at another position? A case can certainly be made. Perhaps the team values Harris as an insurance policy with potential. At the end of the day, there are plenty of linebackers for Steve Spagnuolo to work with.
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