Editor’s note: We produced this article prior to Willie Gay Jr. being placed on the injured reserve list, ruling him out for the next three weeks (more on that here). The news translates to Nick Bolton having a greater role in the Chiefs’ defense — at least until Gay is recovered.
Willie Gay Jr. (the 23-year-old 2020 second-round pick) and Nick Bolton (the 21-year-old 2021 second-round pick) make up the future of the linebacker position for the Kansas City Chiefs. Although they currently are developing at their own unique pace, and veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens aims to have the best season of his career at a lighter weight, the long-term picture includes both Gay and Bolton patrolling the middle of the defense together.
This week, we will examine what both players put on film against the Minnesota Vikings during the Chiefs’ third preseason game last Friday night.
Willie Gay Jr.
First, we took note that Gay Jr. played just 10 defensive snaps against Minnesota. Also, it sounds as though the toe injury he suffered during the game may have impacted his play before exiting the contest.
In terms of alignment, Gay executed reps as the SAM (strong-side) linebacker in the base defense and then played the BUCK (back-side) position for the nickel package (which replaces one linebacker with a fifth defensive back).
The quickness and overall foot speed Gay possesses means he can sometimes make up for small mistakes on the fly in a way few linebackers can. It isn’t even always his mistakes he makes up for either — sometimes, it can also help cover up negative plays by fellow teammates. One could call it “recovery speed,” much like some cornerbacks have.
Gay Jr. is responsible for the cutback here and initially over pursues slightly to the frontside, but his high level quickness and explosion allows him to correct fast and then secure the tackle for a small gain. pic.twitter.com/heGiiHu2eR— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
MIN gets called for a hold here on the backside, but they get a good surge frontside which impacts Gay Jr’s path to the ball carrier. Has to fight over top of the DT, then makes a secure tackle to limit it at just a 3-4 yard gain. pic.twitter.com/vIJXnjJnru— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
There are still moments when Gay shows the tendencies of a young, inexperienced player trying to mentally process the game quicker than he ever has. Between the mental side on and off the field, it is the primary reason we did not see a ton of defensive snaps from him in 2020.
Blown assignment here - #Chiefs lined up in man coverage. Sorensen follows his man, TE across from Sneed shoots to the other side post-snap and it looks as if he is expecting help to pick up the TE in the opposite flat. Play action holds Gay Jr.’s attention in the box (1/2) pic.twitter.com/KRZmwbl61O— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
In limited snaps, Gay really popped with some physicality and power, which comes as no surprise to those who saw him play during his rookie season. He is an impact linebacker who has Pro Bowl potential and the physical skill to create game-changing plays at any moment.
Gay Jr.’s development as he garners more and more live game reps will be an exciting thing to watch for Chiefs fans.
Willie Gay is going to strike the player across from him when lined up as the SAM along the line of scrimmage. Good display of physicality, strength, and leverage to win his gap against the TE. pic.twitter.com/qyvoimXNQS— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
Play of the night for Gay Jr. - 2nd & goal. Identifies pass, sinks into his curl/flat zone. Sees no immediate threats outside, whips his head back in, sees Cousins eyeing the fullback and displays excellent acceleration to physically dislodge the ball from the receiver. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/Bh7RZJXXyN— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
The rookie from the University of Missouri played 14 defensive snaps with the second-team defense. Those reps positioned Bolton at the WILL (weak-side) linebacker position in base, and then both the MIKE (middle) and BUCK (back-side) for the nickel defense.
Bolton is at his best working downhill, as he is a smart football player who plays with anticipation.
Nick Bolton got off to a tremendous start Friday with a very strong first series. Can't fill front side much more explosively than this, then sheds the center + makes the TFL within a split second.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 1, 2021
54 needs talked about more and I am genuinely excited to detail that this week. pic.twitter.com/cNVetnjYSy
Bolton has also appeared more comfortable dropping into zone coverage than anticipated coming out of the NFL Draft. His football IQ is going to earn him early reps with the first-team defense — if nothing else.
Play 2 for Bolton - not overaggressive, keys play action, open hips and shuffles right into the hip pocket of the TE running a crosser. Excellent work taking away a potential target for Cousins to throw to. pic.twitter.com/A4Motk05ux— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
Its 3rd-and-5, formation indicates potential for pick routes. Bolton gets his eyes underneath, see the drag routes developing. Collisions the WR to take an option from Cousins, then finishes play with good closing speed and leverage discipline forcing the QB out of bounds. PUNT! pic.twitter.com/3t8XLWZxqW— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
Bolton’s functional strength and hand use at the point of attack are not to the point where he will shed blocks easily or quickly once an offensive lineman has latched his hands on.
On a couple of snaps here, an offensive linemen was able to get their hands inside first to control Bolton and he wasn't able to shed the block (albeit a really tough ask with the 2nd clip after showing blitz pre-snap). pic.twitter.com/5qh6qiRwDh— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
It isn’t totally unexpected based on his pre-draft profile, but shifty running backs who possess excellent lateral quickness would not be an ideal matchup for Bolton’s skill set if asked to cover them one-on-one.
Here we get a man coverage rep from Bolton on 3rd-and-4 against the RB. Would love to have the end zone angle, but still can tell there's some handsy, lunging action as the back breaks off the route. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/WmZcYwvxvY— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
Below, we see one example of how Bolton and Gay’s abilities could work really well together in the future. We can see Bolton processing the play, then closing off the frontside to force the cutback as he does. This is where we can envision Gay then leveraging his tremendous athleticism and physical toughness to close from the backside and finish the play (if he were out there).
Bolton processes the game really well and is so decisive - beats the OL to the spot here, forcing the RB to cut back into pursuit (unfortunately the backside of the defense was late to clean up on this particular play). pic.twitter.com/onXxkvJJH8— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) September 2, 2021
The bottom line
We will not be seeing Gay Jr. in action week 1 against the Cleveland Browns due to his toe injury. It shouldn’t be a long-term thing (thankfully), and that means in due time, he should be making splash plays for a defensive unit looking to have their best season since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo joined the staff.
This also means Bolton likely plays more defensive snaps earlier in the year than he was originally expected to. Fans should be confident he will be mentally sharp and prepared for the task, even if some rookie mistakes come along the way.
Beyond 2021, however, if these two physical playmakers can remain healthy and do their jobs while playing to their own individual strengths, the Chiefs should possess one of the NFL’s absolute best inside linebacker duos.