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What Willie Gay Jr. revealed about the Chiefs’ linebacker rotation

The Chiefs rookie linebacker is lining up at backup SAM in camp — what does that mean for the defense?

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Since the moment that the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Willie Gay Jr., fans have wanted to know where the athletic rookie would line up in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. He has the size to play all three spots in the base but the athletic ability to be an impact defender at the Chiefs’ most coveted position on the second level: the WILL linebacker role.

Naturally, each time Gay takes the podium in front of the Chiefs media, he gets questions about his transition to the pros, adjustments he’s needing to make and where Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Matt House have him lining up. Monday’s presser brought about an update to Gay’s offseason, with a little more detail into the Chiefs’ plans for him.

GAY: “Really, I’m just playing two spots right now: SAM in the base package, and I’m the BUCK linebacker in nickel/Buffalo package. I really am just trying to get better at each. I’m watching Damien Wilson — somebody I’m playing behind at both spots — and just trying to get better every day. Just seeing how he does everything, and the details from big to small — I’m just trying to get better at both of those.”

For such a small quote, there is a lot to unpack here — and more questions than answers.

The BUCK position

First of all, Gay referred to the “BUCK linebacker” role in the Chiefs’ nickel defense. The BUCK in this case refers to the “backside” linebacker in a four-down nickel, away from the strength of the formation — which most are familiar being referred to as the WILL. That’s a positive step for those hoping to see Gay used in space to improve the Chiefs coverage responsibilities at the second level.

Wilson held this role full-time after Darron Lee was benched in 2019. The Chiefs opted to stay in their Buffalo package — what Spagnuolo, Sean McDermott and other Jim Johnson disciples call their “big nickel” — for 37% of their snaps last year, the highest percentage of any formation that they ran on the season.

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Backup SAM

It shouldn’t raise alarm that Gay is backing up Wilson to this point. An odd offseason while learning a brand new playbook at the NFL level is not easy. Spagnuolo had plenty of praise for Gay’s football character in Monday’s presser, so fans shouldn’t be worried about where he stands on this defense.

However, it was where Gay was backing up Wilson that raised questions about the defense. Wilson played the base SAM linebacker role early in 2019, with Lee lined up at the WILL. That position is more of an on-the-line, stand-up, edge-setting player that can defend the run well. Wilson does those things well and is probably the best version of himself in that spot.

That said, when Lee was removed from the lineup after the regular-season matchup against the Houston Texans, Wilson was moved to the base WILL linebacker role with Reggie Ragland coming in at the SAM. If Wilson is moving back to his original base SAM role for 2020 — and the Chiefs only major addition to the linebacking corps is backing him up at the same position — then who is playing the base WILL?

The base WILL position

The easy solution would be to move one of Wilson or Gay to the WILL role, with the other staying put at SAM. But if we are to believe these early camp rotations, that likely leaves the trio of Ben Niemann, Dorian O’Daniel and Darius Harris to compete for that spot.

Niemann likely has the inside track at the position, as Spagnuolo and House trusted him as the dime linebacker and backup MIKE in 2019. Of the three, O’Daniel is the best athlete, but he lacks the typical size for Spagnuolo’s base linebackers. Harris has a nice combination of size and agility but is a complete unknown at the NFL level.

If the Chiefs aren’t playing Gay or Wilson as a base WILL linebacker currently, then I would expect Niemann to be getting the bulk of the first-team reps.

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That first-team linebacker grouping raises the final question: why isn’t the base WILL staying on the field for the big nickel defense? If a heavier nickel BUCK linebacker is trusted against lighter, more dynamic personnel, then why wouldn’t he be trusted with those responsibilities in the base defense?

This phenomenon isn’t out of the ordinary for Spagnuolo. Wilson started the 2019 season as the first-choice base SAM and nickel BUCK. As Lee became more integrated into the rotation, he started claiming earlier and earlier BUCK snaps — until the Houston game saw him replaced entirely. It’s highly possible that a similar start to the season occurs in 2020, but with a player like Niemann in the spot that Lee occupied.

The bottom line

There are still plenty of camp reps and early season rotation to get a guy like Gay Jr. up to speed. We may see him carve out an early role as the starting base SAM linebacker, knowing that Wilson knows the WILL responsibilities from the 2019 season. Perhaps there is even an avenue to win the base WILL for Gay — similar to 2019 — where he isn’t relied upon in the nickel immediately.

Gay’s quotes gave us more to ponder in the lead-up to the 2020 season opener. The lack of a live training camp or preseason games means that we don’t get to see who is lined up at what spots and with which groups. However, the path Gay described was in place early in the 2019 season for Wilson, who ended up playing a significant role for Spagnuolo. It’s not out of the question for Gay to progress and have a similar impact at those spots for 2020 and beyond.