The Kansas City Chiefs entered the offseason expecting big things from second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr., who had the misfortune to come into the NFL during a year without full opportunities for offseason preparation.
Still, Gay managed to show us something during his limited snaps during 2020. He was just starting to come into his own when he suffered a high-ankle sprain during the Week 17 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, in which Kansas City rested its starters. That injury kept him out of the first two postseason games, and a meniscus tear in February spoiled any opportunity to play in Super Bowl LV.
However, back to 100% during training camp, Gay’s name was on everyone’s lips. The former second-round pick was making plays all over the field, showing promise that he could be a real force during the coming season. But in another meaningless game — this one the final preseason contest against the Minnesota Vikings — Gay suffered a toe injury that sent him to the Reserve/Injured list for at least the first three games of the regular season.
So as the team continues its preparations for its season opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, another second-round rookie is going to get a chance for significant snaps: former Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton. And according to starting MIKE linebacker Anthony Hitchens, Bolton is fully up to the task.
“He’s definitely ready,” Hitchens declared to reporters during a virtual press conference on Friday. “I mean, you guys saw him in preseason and throughout camp. The guy is a ballplayer. He’s a natural. He’s smart. He doesn’t make the same mistakes twice. He owns up to his mistakes. A guy like that [is one] you can count on.”
Hitchens — himself now entering his eighth NFL season — went on to say that in Bolton, he sees qualities that make him someone who can have a long NFL career.
“He doesn’t get too high [and] he doesn’t get too low; he just stays in the moment. Guys like that can play long in this league — never too down on himself and never too high; he’s even-keel when he comes to work every day.
“It’s all good things for him. He’s smart — plays multiple positions — and he should have multiple years in this league. All I have to do now is just teach him the ropes — doing what I’ve been doing these last couple of months.”
Hitchens said there was just one more element that he and fellow Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann will have to work out to make sure Bolton can have an impact during Gay’s absence: keep everyone on the same page.
“With him and Ben and the guys we’ve got in there, we’ve just got to communicate with each other and keep it rolling,” said Hitchens. “We’ve got Willie out for a couple of weeks, so it’s a ‘next man up’ mentality. We’ll keep it moving.”