The Kansas City Chiefs have prioritized the linebacker position in each of the last two drafts, investing second round picks on Willie Gay Jr. (No. 63 overall in 2020) and Nick Bolton (No. 58 overall) in an effort to develop some young and dynamic talent in the middle of their defense for years to come.
Gay Jr. could earn a sizable role in 2021 following the departure of fellow linebacker Damien Wilson in free agency, and while Bolton's fit as a rookie is yet to be determined, the University of Missouri product will have his chance to demonstrate his skills during training camp.
Both players will join veterans Anthony Hitchens, Ben Niemann and Dorian O'Daniel – plus some additional young players in Darius Harris, Emmanuel Smith, Omari Cobb and Riley Cole – to round out the Chiefs' linebacker corps up in St. Joseph.
Here's a look at all nine players headed into training camp.
Hitchens is the anchor and the air traffic control man of this group, utilizing his seven years of NFL experience (and two seasons in Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme) to lead an otherwise youthful bunch.
His 602 defensive snaps in 2020 led all Chiefs' linebackers by a wide margin, and his 78 tackles ranked second on the team behind only safety Daniel Sorensen. In fact, Hitchens missed just four tackles all of last season.
A textbook example of how under-the-radar players can carve out a career in the NFL when given a chance, Niemann enters his fourth season in Kansas City after earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2018.
The University of Iowa product was primarily a special teamer during his rookie season - earning the second-best special teams grade of any player in the league by Pro Football Focus that year - and has served as a frequent contributor on defense in the two years since, logging 876 snaps at linebacker since 2019.
He recorded 43 tackles last season with three quarterback hits, three tackles-for-loss, one sack and a forced fumble while still contributing on special teams, tallying 246 snaps – the fourth-most on the team.
Willie Gay Jr.
The No. 63 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, Gay Jr. didn't see a ton of action defensively as a rookie – recording 268 snaps – but when given his opportunity, the former Mississippi State standout often delivered.
For example, Gay Jr.'s potential was on full display during the Chiefs' late-season bout with the Atlanta Falcons. He was on the field for 72 percent of Kansas City's defensive snaps in that game, tallying a team-leading nine tackles without a single miss. Among linebackers with at least 40 snaps played that week, PFF graded Gay Jr.'s performance as the fourth best in the NFL behind only the 49ers' Fred Warner, the Bears' Roquan Smith and the Buccaneers' Lavonte David.
Gay Jr. suffered a pair of injuries (an ankle sprain in Week 17 and a knee injury in practice prior to Super Bowl LV) that kept him off the field for virtually the remainder of the campaign following his breakout performance against Atlanta, but that game should serve as an exciting reminder of what the 23-year-old can do on the football field. The Chiefs will need to fill the void left by Damien Wilson, who accounted for 529 defensive snaps at linebacker last season, and Gay Jr. has an opportunity in camp to show that he can do it.
Kansas City selected Bolton, who played his college ball at Mizzou, with the No. 58 overall pick in this year's draft. The six-foot-tall, 232-pound Bolton was a star for the Tigers, starting 22 games over the last two seasons while notching 16.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks in that time, establishing himself as an energetic playmaker who always seemed to be around the ball.
Bolton led Missouri in tackles in each of the last two seasons - racking up 202 total tackles since 2019 while averaging more than nine tackles-per-game - but his production went beyond just the record books in Columbia. In fact, Bolton recorded the most defensive stops of any linebacker in SEC play in each of the last two seasons.
Those performances earned him First-Team All-SEC honors in each of the last two years and garnered Second-Team All-America recognition in 2020. Additionally, here's how Pro Football Focus described Bolton in their pre-draft analysis:
"Brick wall. Opposition will be the one moving backward on contact."
Bolton joins a linebacker corps that includes a pair of established veterans in Hitchens and Niemann, plus an emerging player in Gay Jr., but he'll have his chance to earn playing time – whether that be on defense or special teams – during camp.
A former third-round pick, O'Daniel has served almost exclusively as a special teamer during his three years with the Chiefs. He's been on the field for at least 70 percent of Kansas City's special teams snaps in each of the last two years, and his performance in 2020 was graded by PFF as the Chiefs' best among frequent special teamers (at least 50% of snaps played).
The Chiefs originally signed Harris as an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State back in 2019. The six-foot-two, 238-pound Harris spent his entire rookie campaign on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list, but he impressed enough in camp last year to earn a spot on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late September.
Harris went on to appear in four games, including two starts, while tallying 11 tackles and a pass defensed. He also contributed to one of the biggest defensive plays of the year, recovering a fumble against the Falcons that ultimately helped Kansas City win the game.
He played 79 percent of the Chiefs' defensive snaps that game and didn't miss a single snap the following week against the Chargers, amassing some valuable experience heading into his second season on the field.
Smith joined the Chiefs' practice squad early in the 2019 season after spending time with the Falcons and Buccaneers. He earned a promotion to the active roster for Kansas City's Week 15 matchup against New Orleans, and while he didn't get in the game defensively, Smith tallied his first snaps as a professional with 16 plays on special teams.
He suffered a hamstring injury in the contest, however, and was placed on the practice squad injured list a few days later. Smith signed a Reserve/Futures contract following the campaign.
Another young player to know at camp this year is Omari Cobb, who signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent last offseason. The 24-year-old Cobb spent the bulk of his rookie campaign on Kansas City's practice squad, but he earned a promotion prior to the Chiefs' matchup with Atlanta in Week 16 and played 10 defensive snaps, recording one tackle.
Cobb – who stands at six-foot-four and 223 pounds – recorded a 4.74 40-yard dash, a 120-inch broad jump and a 37-inch vertical jump at his pro day last year, with his vertical jump ranking seventh when compared to linebackers at the Combine (Cobb was not invited). He recorded at least 7.5 tackles-for-loss in each of his final three seasons at Marshall University.
Here's what Cobb had to say about joining the Chiefs last offseason.
An undrafted free agent signee this offseason, Cole was a First-Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2020 after tallying 96 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss in 10 games at South Alabama last season. Injuries kept Cole off the field for the bulk of the 2016 and 2018 campaigns, but he came on strong in 2019 with 59 tackles and 9.0 tackles-for-loss across 11 starts before putting together his breakout season last year. In total, Cole recorded 28 pressures over the last two seasons.
Multiple draft experts pegged Cole as a possible sixth-round (PFF) or seventh-round (The Athletic) selection, so he was certainly a value addition as an undrafted free agent.
The Bottom Line
The most intriguing storyline at camp this year as far as the linebackers are concerned will undoubtedly be the development of Kansas City's young, highly-drafted duo of Gay Jr. and Bolton.
Gay Jr. showed what he could do with his impressive performance against Atlanta last season and will now have an opportunity to compete for the snaps left by Damien Wilson, who ranked second among Chiefs' linebackers in defensive plays last season after leading the group in snaps two years ago. Bolton, meanwhile, had the chance to construct a foundation for his future during Kansas City's offseason training program and will now look to build on that further in St. Joseph.
Outside of those two players, the competition between Harris, Smith, Cobb and Cole – all young linebackers fighting to make the team - will be fun to watch. Whether it be on the initial roster or as a member of the practice squad to begin the season, history tells us that at least one of those players will likely be given an opportunity at some point in 2021.