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Film review: Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr.

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The Chiefs added some much-needed athleticism to the linebacking corps in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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.

Range

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.

Fluidity

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’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.

Blitzing

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.

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.

Coverage

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.

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.

Character

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.