With free agency scheduled to officially open on March 17, it’s a good time to take a closer look at positions of need on the Kansas City Chiefs. I have looked at the offensive tackles, defensive ends, wide receivers, centers, cornerbacks, and guards. In this article, I’ll examine the linebackers.
Who they have
As the defense’s signal-caller, Hitchens started 14 games and played 56% of the total regular-season snaps in 2020. In the postseason run, he was on the field for 73% of the defensive snaps. He was the team’s second-leading tackler with 78 total in the regular season, then totaled 12 tackles in the playoffs. For the entire 19-game season, Hitchens was the team leader in stops — a PFF statistic that specifies tackles resulting in a “failure” for the offense.
In his third season as a Chief, Hitchens put together his most consistent, reliable campaign. His value to the defense as the MIKE linebacker can’t be understated — and it never is when defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo speaks. Hitchens’ intelligence and communication skills get the front seven in the right positions; now that he’s more comfortable in the scheme, you can see him getting to his responsibilities quicker than in previous years.
Barring a catastrophic drop-off in play, Hitchens is likely to finish out his current deal through 2022. It’s fair to critique parts of his game, but an already-weak position group would look a lot worse without him.
My opinion: Set it and forget it. Hitchens is the MIKE.
Willie Gay Jr.
During the 2020 regular season, Gay appeared in all 16 games and played 25% of the total defensive snaps — and also 55% of the special teams. He ended the season with 39 total tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and one sack. Unfortunately, he sprained his ankle in Week 17, didn’t play in the first two playoff games, then tore his meniscus in a pre-Super Bowl practice that resulted in surgery.
That’s a discouraging way for a promising rookie to end his season. Gay went from zero snaps in Week 1 to the starting WILL linebacker in base formations and started racking up big plays — both in the run and pass game. He might have made a difference in Super Bowl LV. His athleticism and explosiveness are what the rest of the linebackers on this list lack.
It’s hard to speculate how an injury can affect someone. If the Gay we saw from Week 13 on can continue to grow as a player, he should be trusted into more significant roles in 2021.
My opinion: Trust him to be the second linebacker with Hitchens in Nickel formations.
O’Daniel only saw the field defensively on nine snaps in the 14 total games he appeared in. That’s the lowest number among his three NFL seasons. He was a pillar on the special teams unit as usual, but he missed the final five regular-season games with an ankle injury. He returned for the postseason and led the special teams unit in snaps. He was also the only Chiefs player with multiple special teams tackles in the postseason.
After being selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, the expectation was not to be a special teams-only player. He used to get snaps at the dime linebacker position, but Ben Niemann came in as an undrafted free agent and won that spot. He hits free agency after 2021 and releasing O’Daniel now only saves the Chiefs $1 million against the cap. I think he survives for a fourth season.
My opinion: Make him earn the right to finish out his rookie contract.
Harris was activated from the Chiefs’ practice squad leading up to Week 14 and ended up playing at least four snaps in each of the final seven games. He played 79% of the defensive snaps in Week 16 when Hitchens and Damien Wilson both missed, then took 100% of the Week 17 defensive snaps. For the postseason, he played 16 total special teams snaps.
He finished his first season of NFL action earning 11 total tackles, 1 pass defended, and a 15-yard fumble return.
General manager Brett Veach was high on Harris as an undrafted free agent a few years ago. He’s a fringe roster player that’s worth keeping around to see his development through.
My opinion: Let him compete for an active roster spot.
Omari Cobb and Emmanuel Smith
Both players were signed to reserve/future deals following the season. An undrafted free agent in 2020, Cobb was thrown into the fire in Week 16 when injuries forced him to debut as an NFL player. He took 10 defensive snaps, one special teams snap and recorded a tackle. Smith will be entering his fourth season in 2021 and played 16 special teams snaps in Week 15 in a pinch.
The Chiefs have tried hanging with Smith forever, but Cobb is new. I’d say cut bait with at least one of them, but it doesn’t hurt to have them around through training camp.
My opinion: Cut or designate to practice squad after training camp.
Who they could sign
The Chiefs have the option to bring back restricted free agent Ben Niemann. If they choose not to, they should be adding someone capable of playing a good amount of defensive snaps.
Who they could draft
With the investment in Hitchens and Gay, I don’t believe a linebacker should be selected in the first two rounds. Some intriguing names possibly available after that are: Alabama’s Dylan Moses, Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, Georgia’s Monty Rice or TCU’s Garret Wallow.