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Damien Wilson and Darron Lee are battling to be Chiefs’ WILL linebacker

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The Chiefs went to free agency to find a WILL for Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, and two players are fighting to take the position

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs defense generated a lot of discussion because they had difficulty stopping almost any team’s offense — and the Chiefs linebackers caught as much of the blame as any other unit.

Since then, players have been vocal about the confusion they faced in the 3-4 scheme used by former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton — as well as how excited they are to play in new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s more aggressive (and simplified) 4-3 scheme.

Each week last season, there were plenty of examples how Sutton’s scheme might have been slowing down the play of the linebackers — but there were also questions about their skill sets. The linebackers lacked sideline-to-sideline range — along with the athleticism needed to hang with running backs and tight ends in coverage; even when playing zone, the Chiefs could be exploited over the middle or in the flats.

In Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense, these skills will become even more important — especially for the WILL (weak-side) linebacker. So rather than entrusting this role to a player already on the roster, the Chiefs have endeavored to find a new one.

In the first two preseason games, the first-team WILL position has mostly been manned by former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson. Former New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee has had most of the second-team snaps. Since these have been exhibition games, it’s hard to be certain of the final plan at any position — but there are some trends to be observed and skills to evaluate.

So this week in the AP Laboratory, let’s take a look at these two players playing the WILL position against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday.

Damien Wilson

It’s been a bit of a surprise that Wilson has taken the majority of the first-team snaps as the WILL linebacker. For the Cowboys, Wilson had the reputation of being a relatively limited athlete who played a part-time, thumping role as a SAM (strong-side) linebacker.

In Spagnuolo’s previous stints with the New York Giants, the WILL was a bigger, stronger player rather than a traditional WILL; in his base defense, Spagnuolo has tended to use better run defenders across all three linebacker positions. So we of the AP Nerd Squad had been projecting Anthony Hitchens as the WILL. During his offseason interviews, Hitchens himself spoke as if this was the most likely plan — but that hasn’t been what’s happened through two preseason games.

But with Wilson as the WILL in both the base and nickel defense, you are definitely getting what you would expect: improved run defense. With Wilson, the Chiefs have another player on the field with a skill set similar to Hitchens’. He sees the field cleanly, has enough vertical burst to fill gaps quickly, and plays with the power to disrupt blocks from any player.

Running plays are where Wilson will shine as a defender. His premier trait is his ability to identify and deconstruct blocks.

Here, Wilson reads the play flat-footed — in case of play-action or a run-pass option — but as soon as the offensive linemen get downfield, he’s working toward the line of scrimmage. He navigates the traffic — looking to shut down the B-gap — before tracking the running back and working back inside to assist with the stop.

The biggest concern with Wilson is in pass coverage. In Dallas, he had relatively limited usage against the pass — and his athletic profile isn’t that of a typical NFL coverage linebacker. In one-on-ones against running backs and tight ends during training camp, Wilson had as many flash plays as any other linebacker — but had his struggles, too.

Wilson is an intelligent player that has a solid natural feel for his zone drops and how to flow into passing windows.

On this play, he does a good job carrying the tight end up the seam while opening up to run if he is forced vertically. He prepares to get his hands on the tight end if he tries to continue vertically or break inside — but the tight end makes an outside cut, and Wilson passes him off to the safety.

What Wilson does best on this play is continuing to keep his eyes on the other receivers to his side. The number one receiver — the wide receiver furthest to the outside on his side of the field — runs an in-breaking route. Wilson is quick to snap off from the tight end and close downhill. If the route drifted further upfield — or was completed in space — he was prepared to be in position to make the play.

Darron Lee

Darron Lee is on the other end of the spectrum from Damien Wilson: an extremely athletic linebacker who likes to fly around the field — and one who has some elite-level flashes in coverage. Since his skill set is nearly perfect for the role, many thought he would be the starting WILL — or at the very least, a linebacker used heavily in the nickel.

That hasn’t yet come with the first-team defense — but through two preseason games, Lee has had a lot of reps with the second unit and has been one of the Chiefs’ top performers.

For Lee, the expectations have been that as a fast player, he would be able to get to the sidelines, shoot through gaps and perhaps create some tackles for loss. One of the more exciting parts of his film from last year — and early this preseason — have been the number of physical plays he’s made near the line of scrimmage.

This is the second game in as many weeks where he’s been involved in a run-stuff where he used not only his speed but some physicality, too.

In this play, after identifying the run, Lee explodes into the gap — meeting the fullback’s outside shoulder to maintain his leverage. As Lee works back across him, the fullback is able to get his hands inside and tries to drive Lee to the ground. Lee’s speed into the gap and power at the block squeeze the fullback’s options down to a single inside gap. The play results in a nice tackle for loss.

While Lee isn’t the same kind of block-eater that Wilson or Hitchens are, he’s more than willing to take on blockers — and shows the ability to slip or shed them. Still, Lee’s bread and butter is going to be his ability in coverage.

On this third-down play, Lee is showing blitz on a “dog assignment” alongside Ben Niemann. This means that if the tight end stays in to block, Lee is coming with the pressure. But if the tight end releases into a route, he is Lee’s man.

The tight end releases off the line of scrimmage, giving Lee a clean read. But because of the defensive alignment, Lee has to drop wide to avoid Niemann. Lee’s natural ability to work through space around multiple players is evident as Lee makes up ground on the drag route. Lee turns on the jets — easily closing the distance — but ensures he stays on the tight end’s upfield shoulder. This way, if the pass is completed, Lee is in position to keep his helmet and body upfield of the tight end to prevent yards after catch.

The bottom line

Damien Wilson is not the prototypical WILL linebacker — nor does he add a high level of athletic upside to a linebacking corps that often needed it last season. He is, however, a smart football player who is going to make plays in the run game, get to the right spot in coverage and add a little more toughness to the defense.

In both the base and nickel defenses, his speed and athleticism make Darron Lee a very good fit as a WILL linebacker. Given his reputation and traits, he plays with more physicality than one may expect — while still excelling in coverage. When he’s on the field, Lee increases the athletic floor and ceiling of the linebacker group — and adds a level of explosiveness that has otherwise been lacking.

The Chiefs find themselves in an interesting position about their starting WILL. Both Wilson and Lee likely get snaps during 2019. The question will be how the Chiefs decide to divvy up those snaps.

So something to watch as the Chiefs play the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night — the team’s dress rehearsal for the coming season — will be which player is getting these snaps at WILL in both the base and nickel defenses. Hopefully, Lee starts to get some reps with the first team — at least in the nickel — to see how he works out. But with a strong performance on Saturday, Wilson could easily close the door.