In the season-opening win for the Kansas City Chiefs, rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. did not play a single defensive snap. The team had made it clear that Gay wasn’t a starter, but it was still surprising that he had no role at all on a defense that struggled at the linebacker position more than any other spot in 2019.
Fast forward to Week 4, when Gay started at WILL linebacker in the base package and played 25 snaps — the highest number he’s seen this year so far. His involvement in the defense has increased with each game, and Gay is working to continue that steady progression.
“Each and every week is a growing point for me,” Gay told reporters during his press conference on Thursday. “From practices to games to meetings. The way I’m planning for it to go for myself, personal goals for every week is to continue to build and get better and continue to see more time as the season goes, so those first three games were just time for me to learn more and each week try to improve.”
Gay was limited to his role in the base defense — which resulted in him only seeing 33% of possible defensive snaps. Nickel and dime formations are naturally used more with the modern NFL passing game. Gay has not cracked the lineup for those formations, which contradicts the fact that pass coverage was a strength of his in college.
But just because that was his sole responsibility in Week 4 doesn’t mean it will be for the rest of the year.
“My role right now is just to play against big personnel groupings, and wherever coach wants me other than that.” Gay explained. “With the Patriots game, it was a perfect scheme to just be in the box and playing the run a lot, because they wanted to run the ball obviously. Each and every week it might change a little bit, so we’ll just see what happens going into next week and the weeks after that.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo explained that it’s another checkmark in Gay’s development.
“We try to play as many guys on defense in the course of the game as we can,” Spagnuolo shared with reporters on Thursday. “I think it keeps everybody involved in the game plan. So that’s just another step, Willie steps in there, Ben gets a lot of his reps in our sub-packages, I think [Gay]’s helped us inside in the base stuff, we’ll see where the count number goes based on the packages we put out there.”
Professional athletes are also professional competitors. No player wants to sit on the sideline and not be involved in his team’s on-field performance. That being said, Gay understands his current inexperience is a factor in his playing time.
“Sometimes you just have to wait your turn,” Gay recognized. “I’m coming onto a team that’s loaded, stacked. Guys already in positions that have been here for awhile. You got people playing positions that have been here six or seven years. I’m a rookie, I’m just waiting on my turn, and hopefully one day I’ll get that opportunity. I know I will but I’m just playing my role for right now.”
It’s not just that he’s a rookie; he is a part of an unprecedented class of drafted NFL players that were not able to attend in-person Organized Team Activities (OTAs), witness a complete training camp or play any preseason games.
“For any rookie, the chin to the hairline mental reps are the most important thing,” Spagnuolo noted. “That just comes from getting out there and playing. We missed that with not having preseason games and the same, normal training camp. He’s getting better every week, that’s the important thing.”
As Gay works to make up for lost time, he expresses his recognition that becoming the player he wants to be won’t happen overnight.
“You can’t pick it all up at once,” Gay admitted. “If you can, you’re super human or something, but I know I can’t. Every week is something new, I’m learning my plays more, I’m learning my assignment more, I’m learning why I have to do this, I’m learning what they do on the offensive side of the ball that will help me play faster. Mentally, just getting smarter with the game, trying to build every week with that.”
Once he gets comfortable, Gay should be one of the team’s best linebackers.
The Chiefs drafted him in the second round — higher than any other off-ball linebacker the team has picked since Derrick Johnson in 2005. His athleticism and explosiveness are traits that his teammates at linebacker lack, and something that the defense needs more of.
We obviously don’t know when he’ll reach that point — but the patience he expressed in his development shows he has confidence that his talent will eventually propel him into a bigger role.