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Identifying who starts at linebacker for the Chiefs in 2021

On Wednesday’s Out of Structure podcast, we evaluated how each linebacker position could be filled this season.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday’s mailbag edition of the Arrowhead Pride Out of Structure podcast, Matt Stagner and I took a deeper look at the state of the Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker position. There are various ways each linebacker can contribute, and each role in the unit asks for something different from the player filling it.

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We discussed each position and which players make sense to compete for those spots:

MIKE linebacker: Anthony Hitchens

Veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens should be a lock to captain the Chiefs defense from the central position, calling plays and making pre-snap adjustments to put the run defense in an advantageous position. In the past, linebacker Ben Niemann has been plugged in at MIKE if Hitchens was unable to play.

His familiarity will likely give him the advantage to be the immediate backup, but rookie Nick Bolton played this role for the Missouri Tigers in the SEC. He should be in line to play MIKE in the future.

WILL linebacker: Willie Gay Jr.

The loss of linebacker Damien Wilson will be a blow to a few positions. We’ve seen him play the SAM in the base defense, but he eventually earned the WILL role in nickel personnel alongside Hitchens. The WILL has weak-side run responsibility in the base defense and needs to cover the flat or a slot receiver.

Wilson filled into his best ability, but the player in this role is ideally more athletic — meaning the logical replacement is second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. He should play the position in the base and nickel formations.

SAM linebacker: Nick Bolton

This is where Bolton could make an impact as a first-year player. Like the two players previously mentioned, the position isn’t relied upon; the SAM plays roughly a quarter of the defense’s snaps because the base, three-linebacker sets are not frequently appropriate in the modern NFL.

The SAM plays to the strength of the offense formation, usually up on the line of scrimmage opposing a tight end. Run defense is the main responsibility, being able to take on blockers and fill a gap. It's pretty simple, and it’s why a rookie like Bolton can get snaps and get NFL experience before needing to know all the intricacies of the position. Gay played it like last season.

Dime linebacker: Willie Gay Jr.

Niemann has occupied this role in recent seasons, playing the sole linebacker in formations that require six defensive backs on the field. Safety Daniel Sorensen usually steps in as a box safety alongside Niemann when needed. Dorian O’Daniel has also seen time in this role in spurts over the last two seasons.

We believe Gay needs to occupy this position to justify the draft capital. Dime personnel is used constantly against the Chiefs because teams try to pass and keep up with Kansas City’s offense. Therefore, the team needs Gay’s athleticism on the field as much as possible, and the Dime role is on the field a lot of the time — and requires athleticism to excel at.


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