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2020 Chiefs positional preview: Linebackers

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Arrowhead Pride’s 2020 positional previews continue with a look at the Chiefs linebackers for this season.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The first press conferences of Kansas City Chiefs training camp are in the books. The full complement of players will be in the building soon — albeit under different circumstances than normal.

Meanwhile, we of the AP Nerd Squad continue to churn through positional previews for the 2020 season. We’re taking a look at the stars and the up-and-coming contributors — and making a sleeper pick for each group.

Today’s offering is one that could see a significant jump in production in 2020: the linebackers!

Linebackers

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Chiefs linebacker group has had some old faces depart — and a couple new ones added — but by and large, we could see most of the usual players in 2020.

Anthony Hitchens is expected to be the MIKE linebacker, while Damien Wilson is likely to return in a WILL or SAM role. Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel remain the front runners to catch dime linebacker snaps in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.

As a second-round pick in the 2020 draft, Willie Gay Jr. is the biggest name added to the group. He’s expected to start opposite of Wilson at one of the outside linebacker spots. Darius Harris had a redshirt year in his rookie season last year, while Emmanuel Smith was on the Chiefs practice squad. 2020 undrafted free agents Omari Cobb and Bryan Wright round out the linebacker group.

“The guy”

Whether you like it or not, Hitchens is “the guy” in the linebacking corps. In 2019, Spagnuolo tasked him with setting the fronts in the team’s base and nickel packages — and he handled that role better and better as the season went along. With Hitchens on the field, the defense was much more organized — see the first game against the Houston Texans for an example without him — and his pre-snap calls were a part of the mid-season turnaround.

Hitchens is neither fleet of foot or a particularly fluid athlete, which some fans criticize — criticism that extends further when his contract becomes part of the discussion. However, Hitchens is a key cog in Spagnuolo’s machine — one whose pre-snap work has a ripple effect throughout the defense.

New kid on the block

There are very few Chiefs players that are carrying more hype into this season than Willie Gay Jr. Chiefs fans love athletic linebackers — and Gay is exactly that kind of player. An explosive athlete, Gay should be an impact defender who can immediately collect tackles for loss, forced fumbles and sacks.

Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Matt House have spoken about his ability to play both outside linebacker roles — with Gay getting the early nod as the SAM linebacker. Gay himself spoke to his comfort level playing both spots — and more recently, openly campaigned to be a blitzer for Spagnuolo.

While Gay will likely be brought along slowly — especially in this truncated offseason — he could still make an early impact on the Chiefs defense. His athleticism and impact plays will likely be too important to dismiss in a linebacking corps lacking in both. I think it’s just a matter of time before he claims the Chiefs’ WILL linebacker position.

Sleeper candidate

Darius Harris is a deep sleeper in the Chiefs linebacker corps — one who could not only end up making the squad but playing a significant role on special teams and in the dime defense. Harris spent the entire 2019 season on the NFI list with a shoulder injury but is coming into 2020 healthy — and with a better understanding of the scheme.

He is a fluid mover with good flexibility, which is key for some of the looping blitzes that Spagnuolo likes to execute from the second level. He’s comfortable rushing off the edge and has heavy hands to stack the edge and swipe through to disengage blockers.

In the future, Harris could be a SAM linebacker. But in the short term, I would look for him in some of the dime amoeba fronts from which Spagnuolo could blitz in 2020.

Best battle

The best battle in this position group might not happen in camp, but later in the year. Niemann is currently the de facto dime linebacker next to Daniel Sorensen. At the start of the year, that’s not likely to change.

However, as Willie Gay Jr. learns the scheme a bit more — and adjusts to the speed of the game — by late in the year, he could end up being the team’s first choice as a coverage linebacker. He’s definitely more athletic than the rest of the position group, he’s comfortable in man coverage and he’s a terrific blitzer. All of that makes him a pretty obvious choice to eventually take over the role.

Meanwhile, O’Daniel has received some praise this offseason; Matt House said that he expects a “next step” from the third year-player. O’Daniel is also well-suited for the dime linebacker role but has never been able to consistently find a spot on the field.

I don’t expect Niemann to go anywhere before the season begins; aside from him, the Chiefs don’t have a backup MIKE linebacker. With the shortened (and unique) offseason, I’d expect Niemann to get the nod in the dime. But as the season goes along, I could see Gay or O’Daniel progressing enough to warrant putting their athletic traits on the field.

Poll

Who will be the dime linebacker by the end of 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Ben Niemann
    (147 votes)
  • 67%
    Willie Gay Jr
    (708 votes)
  • 19%
    Dorian O’Daniel
    (201 votes)
1056 votes total Vote Now