Following the release of veteran inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens on Tuesday, a vacancy is left within the Chiefs’ starting linebacker rotation.
Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton — a couple of Kansas City’s best young defenders — will overtake the vast majority of gameday snaps moving forward. However, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo elected to utilize four different linebackers in relatively large roles during the 2021 season — so additional depth is needed entering training camp.
In this article, we will detail some of the different approaches the front office might take to bolster the linebacker room, including a few free agent and draft names to watch.
If Brett Veach and company would like to add a free-agent linebacker — and I suspect they will — it will be a cheaper, short-term option. As previously mentioned, Bolton and Gay are expected to command this group for at least the next two seasons. There is simply no need to invest significant financial resources at linebacker right now — if there were, Hitchens would still be on the roster.
Knowing that Bolton and Gay will man the two-linebacker packages, the focus shifts to acquiring the third starter for their base 4-3 alignments that make up a smaller percentage of most games nowadays. Bolton is set to replace Hitchens as the full-time MIKE (middle) linebacker, and Gay will undoubtedly play the WILL (weak-side) position for the nickel defense, at a minimum.
It would thus make sense for the Chiefs to pluck a starting-caliber SAM (strong-side) backer to step right in for that role, allowing Gay and Bolton to play their regular positions. It’s vital that the SAM linebacker is also versatile enough to play the WILL position in a pinch, as injuries and fatigue, in general, are bound to occur.
A familiar name to watch as a potential one-year signing to fulfill this outlook includes Damien Wilson. Wilson had 106 total tackles, three sacks, five passes defensed and an interception for Jacksonville in 2021. Wilson's experience within Spagnuolo’s system from 2019 to 2020 certainly has value.
A couple of new, likely cheap outside veteran options who fit the profile of a base SAM linebacker with some versatility sprinkled in are Anthony Barr and K.J. Wright. Barr was once a Pro Bowl-caliber player for the Minnesota Vikings, but his play has declined with some injury issues and age in general. Still yet, he recorded 2.5 sacks and three interceptions in 2021. Wright played all 17 games for the Las Vegas Raiders last year after a lengthy stint with the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s the type of veteran presence that could be an added benefit for Gay and Bolton.
However, Gay has played the SAM position within the base defense for much of the past two seasons — and he’s done a heck of a job. His physical demeanor at the line of scrimmage leads to good things for the defense. It is certainly possible that Kansas City elects to keep Gay at the SAM slot in base personnel, meaning they would just need to bring in another WILL linebacker type as depth.
Yet again, the coaching staff may prefer a familiar face for this role in Ben Niemann — someone who has experience playing the WILL and MIKE for Spagnuolo. If they go with an alternative option, veteran names to watch include Kwon Alexander, Christian Kirksey, Nick Vigil and Neville Hewitt — just to name a few.
The bottom line is the likelihood of a veteran linebacker signing is quite high — whether it be before or following the NFL Draft.
The NFL Draft
Similar to the overarching thought regarding free agents, we can safely say that there won’t be a major draft pick investment at this position in 2022. Bolton and Gay are both second-round draft choices from the 2021 and 2020 drafts, respectively. The odds of the team investing anything more than a day-three draft pick (during rounds 4-7) are slim-to-none.
A few collegiate names to consider later in the draft process include Troy Andersen (Montana State), D’Marco Jackson (Appalachian State), Aaron Hansford (Texas A&M) and Zakoby McClain (Auburn). Darrian Beavers (Cincinnati) is a versatile body type who possesses some edge pass rush skill that is intriguing.
If the Chiefs were to select a young linebacker, we could most likely expect it to be more of a coverage-based player who offers some of the transformative athletic versatility that teams search for in this modern style of NFL football.
When training camp rolls around and the Chiefs are headed up to St. Joseph, we can safely expect the No. 3 linebacker behind Gay and Bolton to be a cheaper veteran option. The No. 4 linebacker could be another veteran addition, or Darius Harris — an undrafted signing who has been with Kansas City since the 2019 summer. It could also be a rookie if their draft board sets up in a way in which they cannot pass up the opportunity to take a promising young player late in the draft.
No matter what, the second level of the Chiefs’ defense is Bolton’s and Gay’s to run with — and this past Tuesday’s transaction report all but confirmed that.