The Kansas City Chiefs have been lacking athleticism to go with their desired linebacker size since Derrick Johnson’s injury in the 2016 season. Oddly enough, the Chiefs haven’t attempted to really add to that group with rangier linebackers outside of 2018 third-round pick Dorian O’Daniel. O’Daniel doesn’t fit Steve Spagnuolo’s typical linebacker criteria of a bigger, stronger player that can cover an interior gap, so the Chiefs went with a less-rangy group once again in 2019.
They won’t be suffering for athleticism in 2020.
Willie Gay Jr. is a 243-pound linebacker with 4.51 speed and eye-popping explosion numbers — and it all shows up on the field. Let’s take a look at what Gay does best and break down where he’ll fit in Spagnuolo’s scheme, as well as what to expect in 2020 and beyond.
Willie Gay Jr - Mississippi St LB— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) March 2, 2020
6'1", 243 lbs
BLEW UP the combine with his athleticism, and it shows up in a big way when defending the run. Quick play ID and trigger, beats the climbing blocker to the spot, then shows off range to the sideline and lays the wood. pic.twitter.com/CPg1TzFLR1
It all begins with Gay’s athletic profile and the range he’ll have at the next level. The Scouting Combine numbers are great, but too often. those numbers don’t translate to the field. That’s not the case at all for Gay, and the plays that he does make are typically due to his athleticism.
Gay regularly gets to the sideline to come up with the stop on running backs in space, like the play shown above. His bowl game against Louisville is littered with plays like the one shown above, as he made 11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and forced a fumble. Gay’s athleticism allows him to be a playmaker for the front seven.
The Chiefs haven’t had a presence at the second level that has displayed the sideline-to-sideline range and the hitting ability that Gay possesses for a few years now. He’ll be a massive upgrade and should allow Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Matt House a little more flexibility with their defense, as they now have someone with Gay’s range in pursuit.
Willie Gay played all over the second level for Mississippi St, and they trusted him to play man as an overhang because of his athleticism.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 25, 2020
He moves incredibly fluidly for a man his size, and it shows on the tape. pic.twitter.com/OjoCYfTR0j
Gay’s range isn’t the only part of his athletic profile that shows up on the field. He is a very fluid athlete that Mississippi State trusted in man coverage. Gay isn’t just a big body in the middle of the field; he’s capable of lining up as an overhang and tracking a running back throughout the route.
He’s an effective defender between the tackles from an overhang alignment as well and doesn’t look out of place defending a bubble screen in space, as the above clip shows. This comfort level and fluidity in space could afford Spagnuolo the ability to keep some heavier personnel on the field, knowing that Gay’s athletic traits can help cover at the hashes.
Gay with another example of "Do Your Job PLUS".— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 3, 2020
Gets forward quickly to cover the A gap at the LoS. Good body control and hands to stay at half man while covering the gap -- keeping the front whole. When backside A is covered, RB bounces playside, and Gay sheds to make the TFL. pic.twitter.com/NSk49CrLgv
Gay’s fluidity also shows up when deconstructing blocks, which led to my player comparison in the KC Draft Guide of Derrick Johnson. Gay showcases fantastic body control to get to an advantageous position when attacking blockers, allowing him to knife into the backfield to make the play.
Gay is particularly good when he’s asked to shoot a single gap in the scheme, helping to build the wall at the line of scrimmage and keep the front gap sound, as shown in the above clip. He is able to accelerate to the gap, keep the blocker at half-man through good body control and hand work, then disengage and attack the back as he crosses in front of Gay.
Spagnuolo requires his linebackers to be able to fill interior gaps and take on blockers, even from the typically-lighter WILL linebacker position. Gay’s ability to defend in space and between the tackles should afford the Chiefs a happy medium between a hybrid front of LB/S overhangs and the more traditional thumpers that Spagnuolo likes to play.
Gay's athleticism is the selling point, but quick ID helps him to use it well.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 25, 2020
Jet motion/RB in the flat are supposed to slow Gay down and allow the pulling guard to get backside to pick up the rush. Picks up the read, triggers quick and beats the block, forcing the incompletion pic.twitter.com/fDDKlvCki3
As with the rest of his athletic attributes, Gay’s burst also shows up on film — especially as a blitzer. His first step gives blockers trouble, but his ability to change directions and redirect the explosion is top notch as well.
Gay will need work on his play identification at the next level, but when it goes well, you can see the reasons why this coaching staff loved the selection. The simple quick pass to the flat should have been an easy throw, particularly with the jet motion fake. However, Gay not only beats the pulling blocker, but he also flashes with the motion to make absolutely sure the ball isn’t there.
Gay is able to create pressure here off of a blitz, but it’s the stop-start nature of the pressure that makes it even more impressive. The quick play ID on this particular rep — coupled with his athleticism — make it very hard to keep Gay from making an impact.
Willie Gay can green dog with the best of 'em.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 25, 2020
Moves toward the flat, sees the RB staying in for protection, loops around and gets upfield to come up with the sack. pic.twitter.com/xC0EgiWo9P
Spagnuolo loves to blitz his linebackers. He also loves to dial up “green dog” rushes — blitzing the linebacker if the running back stays in to pass protect. While Spagnuolo was able to create pressure through these rushes in 2019 with Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, Gay’s athletic profile should make them even more effective in 2020.
Gay has a tight cornering radius to stay behind the defensive line and flash at the last minute — making it difficult for the blocker to pick him up. His superior change of direction ability also makes it easier for him to corral the quarterback in the pocket.
Quite simply, Spagnuolo is going to love using Gay as a blitzing linebacker in his defense, wherever he will line up — and it’s likely one of the most translatable attributes from his collegiate game.
Willie Gay's fluidity and athleticism could help to unlock some of Spagnuolo's blitz schemes, knowing he's got range to cover for a blitzing LB.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 3, 2020
MIKE is blitzing w/ SAM cin the flat. Gay moves laterally to cover the blitz w/ eyes in backfield. Jumps the route and houses it. pic.twitter.com/3QalVzkDfF
Gay has the athleticism to play in man coverage, but some of his most successful plays came in zone — despite not having the most consistent route feel in zone. He has reps with excellent zone eyes, reading the quarterback and feeling the route break, much like the play above.
This play really demonstrates Gay’s lateral agility and loose hips to cross the formation with his eyes in the backfield. The quarterback definitely didn’t expect Gay to get all the way to the out route, since he was coming from the backside of the formation. Good read, good jump and great hands to bring the ball in for a pick-six here.
One of my favorite reps from this game is this sim pressure by Gay. I wrote in the guide that he has the athleticism to show pressure/spy the QB and still drop into coverage.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 25, 2020
Sells the blitz, then drops into the throwing lane. QB has to adjust the throw, and throws an INT. pic.twitter.com/b9WUpxXGbQ
My favorite part about Gay’s game might be his ability to simulate pressure or spy a quarterback to keep him in the pocket, yet still drop to a successful shallow zone coverage. It’s not an attribute most linebackers possess, and yet it’s one that Gay performed well on a regular basis.
Spagnuolo’s blitz packages can get far more sophisticated with a linebacker capable of successfully covering the amount of ground that Gay can. As shown above, Gay fakes the pressure, then drops hard into the throwing lane. This causes the quarterback to adjust the throw and puts the ball where the cornerback can come up with the throw.
Gay needs a little bit of development in coverage, but he shows a natural ability in some aspects of coverage that can make him functional early in his career. Coming from the SEC, House is very familiar with developing athletes at the linebacker position. If he can unlock Gay’s coverage ability consistently, he’s got more than enough athletic ability to be an impact player against the pass.
The discussion surrounding Gay isn’t all athleticism, as he has plenty of off-field questions. He was suspended for eight games in 2019 due to NCAA violations stemming from an academic scandal. A tutor submitted chemistry schoolwork for 10 players at Mississippi State, including Gay.
Gay was also ejected from a game in 2018 after multiple personal foul penalties, and once again in 2019 against Kentucky — a game I highlighted up above. Finally, Gay broke a quarterback’s jaw before a bowl game, ruling the quarterback out.
These are not small concerns. We know that Spagnuolo will give players a chance, but they can quickly fall out of favor like Darron Lee in 2019. Gay is coming into a locker room that can help keep him in line, and Andy Reid mentioned both Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark as players that could help him grow.
Gay’s teammates and coaches at Mississippi State have spoken very highly of him, and he reportedly aced the interview process at the NFL Combine. The Chiefs have spoken about their vetting process and believed in Gay enough to draft him in the second round.
The bottom line
The Chiefs have needed an athletic linebacker to help round out their second level, and I believe they’ve found one in Willie Gay.
He adds range, coverage potential, blitzing and impact play ability to arguably the Chiefs weakest position group. House gets a moldable player to develop into what Steve Spagnuolo searched for — and couldn’t find — last offseason.
I believe that Gay has the potential to be a day-one starting WILL linebacker for this defense. His athletic traits would be a major upgrade if he has the playbook down. However, if Spagnuolo and House want to get him some on-field development, I could see the Chiefs utilizing him at SAM linebacker early on. That would move Wilson back to WILL linebacker, where he played after Lee’s demotion. It could gain Gay the necessary reps to learn the system and speed of the game at the NFL level while still keeping the athleticism on the field.
If Gay can keep himself on the field, I believe this coaching staff can get the most out of him. Considering he has an insanely high ceiling as a player, the Chiefs may have just netted themselves a real steal in the second round.