Kansas City Chiefs fans have long sought improvements at the linebacker position even before Derrick Johnson left the franchise in 2018.
For whatever reason, finding consistency at the position has been a struggle for Kansas City over recent years. When the team added LB Willie Gay Jr. in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, there was a lot of optimism that the tides had shifted for the team. He had a standout offseason despite minimal on-field opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rookie ultimately wouldn’t beat out Damien Wilson, the incumbent starter at the SAM linebacker spot in base and the BUCK linebacker spot in sub-packages. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the coaching staff would give the veteran the benefit of the doubt after the team’s first Super Bowl win in 50 seasons. But this upcoming season, it’s a whole different story for Gay.
All signs point to the second-year linebacker getting an opportunity to start alongside Anthony Hitchens in base and sub-packages. Despite late-season injuries, Gay finished his rookie season strong, contributing on defense and special teams. He recorded 39 total tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, three passes defended and one forced fumble on the year.
What would a breakout season actually look like for the Chiefs’ young linebacker? First, he’ll need more opportunity in the way of snaps. Despite appearing in all 16 regular-season games in 2020, starting in eight of them, Gay only played 25% of the Chiefs’ total defensive snaps on the year. Compare that against Wilson, who played nearly 50% of the defensive snaps for Kansas City in 2020 and nearly 65% during the Super Bowl-winning 2019 season.
Beyond the snaps, obviously, the production needs to match for Gay’s year to be considered a breakout. Would matching Wilson’s best season in Kansas City qualify as a breakout? Probably not. Would a 100-tackle season get the job done? It’d be a start considering only 42 players in the NFL had 100 or more combined tackles last season. A good baseline might be what Chargers rookie Kenneth Murray was able to accomplish in 2020.
Last season, Murray posted 107 combined tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and three passes defended. He did so while starting all 16 games for Los Angeles. If Gay can match or exceed those numbers in his second year, he’ll be looking good.
Gay also needs to pass the eye test if he’s to notch what is considered a breakout season. One of the most glaring deficiencies in Kansas City has been a lack of speed and coverage ability at the linebacker position. He needs to play fast, make big hits and cover ground in the passing game if he’s to pass the eye test.
We know that Gay’s goal for this offseason is to improve little by little each and every day. Unlike his rookie season, he’s mastered the playbook and knows his assignments. Now he can really focus on improving his technique, which will go a long way toward helping his breakout in 2021.
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