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Chiefs UDFA Breakdown: Riley Cole

The Chiefs have struck gold on undrafted free agents before. Could the South Alabama linebacker be next?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 ULM at South Alabama Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve broken down every member of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2021 draft class. Now we turn our attention to their group of undrafted free agents, looking at how each player fits into the team’s scheme — and how much of a chance they have to make the 53-man roster. I started with a look at DiCaprio Bootle. Now let’s continue with South Alabama linebacker Riley Cole.

Team fit

Cole played as an off-ball linebacker in his final collegiate season. At 6-feet-2 and 240 pounds, he has the versatility and athleticism to play all three linebacker positions in base formations: SAM, MIKE, and WILL.

As an off-ball defender, Cole flies around the field — throwing his body at ball carriers and making plays. In 10 games, Cole totaled 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

It’s easy to tell that he is an instinctual player. He processes running plays quickly, slips around blocks and still gets into a good position. There is risk to relying on slipping under the wrong side of a block and recovering in time to still be in a good position, but he does appear to save it for the right situations.

In the 2019 season, South Alabama asked Cole to play closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a pass-rushing role, which was similar to the SAM position in the Chiefs’ base defense.

He finished the year with three sacks and nine tackles for loss — including this powerful bull-rush move against Appalachian State. He doesn’t appear to have the frame to be a full-time edge defender — but at his size, he has the burst and raw power to find ways to win on the edge.

In his off-ball linebacker reps, he looked comfortable sinking back in zone coverage and reading the quarterback’s eyes — but in college, he had little ball production: one pass defended and no interceptions.

Cole’s glaring negative is bad tackling in the open field. He attempts ankle tackles more than a linebacker should — and it sometimes results in complete whiffs. His 240-pound weight suggests he should have the density to square up with a ball carrier, but he prioritizes diving at ankles. This will need to be coached out of him.

Cole is a raw prospect — but a fun one who will give good effort and make plays that other linebackers might not. He was originally committed to the University of Alabama — but decommitted five days before signing day and signed with South Alabama. He’s a talented, instinctual player.

Chances at making the active roster

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Georgia Southern at South Alabama Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cole fits into the Chiefs’ linebacker group — and should give the unit’s fringes a push. Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the team has kept five or six linebackers on the roster. For 2021, I believe Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay Jr., and Nick Bolton are locks to make the team. That leaves a competitive reserve group with Ben Niemann, Dorian O’Daniel, Darius Harris and offseason signing Kamalei Correa — who could be considered an edge defender as well.

With back-to-back second-round picks used on linebackers, the Chiefs have the flexibility to experiment with their depth. Niemann has presumably earned playing time for knowing the defensive system, but there’s nothing else about his game that feels important enough to keep him around. On the opposite end, O’Daniel pops as an athlete — but for unknnown reasons, just can’t get himself on the field.

With his skills, size and playing style, Cole should be a playmaker on special teams. If so, he could find himself as the team’s fifth or sixth linebacker — a cheaper, more raw prospect than other players who may have already hit their ceilings.

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