There was an easy argument to make that the weakest position on the Kansas City Chiefs defense during the 2019 championship run was the linebacker group. Three years later, no members of that position remain on the team — and it has debatably become the most impressive position on the roster.
The team has to feel good about their early returns on the second-round picks from the last two years: Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton. Both have shown the reason they will be starters at the WILL and MIKE positions, respectively — but to take the position’s depth and overall impact on team success to another level, the Chiefs used a third-straight Day 2 pick at the position.
Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal was the selection at pick 103, and he’s immediately slated as the starting SAM linebacker — with room to be much more; general manager Brett Veach confirmed that in his post-Day 2 press conference.
“I think this last pick with Leo (Chenal) allows us to play Willie (Gay) more at a natural position at the Will linebacker, now we have a Sam, Leo will also have backup Mike ability and Nick (Bolton) is so important to us, he kind of runs that show. So now you have a guy that can play SAM and can also kind of back up that MIKE position – have value similar to a guy like Damien Wilson who we had in the past.”
So what will the latest piece of this young-linebacker trio look like on the field for the Chiefs? I dug into his college film to find out:
According to PFF, Chenal was the highest-graded run defender in college football during the 2021 season. Skeptic or not of that grading system, Chenal’s playmaking in that phase of the game backs up the statistic.
Chenal maneuvers the box so easily, slips blocks seamlessly so well. So quick to react to blocking direction/scheme— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) April 30, 2022
Him and Bolton together in a heavy nickel would be incredible against the run pic.twitter.com/fJLP5ZtPQM
As an off-ball linebacker — where he aligned on 96% of his career snaps at Wisconsin — Chenal is very quick to react to the ensuing run play. He recognizes the type of run, responds and goes with the flow of it, and has a knack for taking the right angle depending on his gap responsibility. He combines excellent downhill speed with a feel to find the ball carrier, making himself a wrecking ball on any type of run between the tackles.
I wanna make sure we don't underrate Chenal's range as a run defender. He has the speed and instincts in avoiding blocks to get where he needs to in a hurry pic.twitter.com/4lKRoM5hS4— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
I say between the tackles, but not to limit what he can do. Chenal tested as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes with a 9.99 Relative Athletic Score, and it shows up in his range as a run defender from that off-ball alignment. Once he understands where the play is going — which he does very quickly — he can fly there with a great angle and avoid blocks along the way.
Stretch runs and jet sweeps don’t get him outflanked as much as they would other players at his position; he has the anticipation and athleticism to stay one step ahead.
It's like there's a magnet to the ball at the front of Chenal's facemask, the guy just sheds and gets to the ball carrier so quickly pic.twitter.com/uZ4jF8AuQt— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
As I just mentioned, he’s natural at avoiding blocks in space — and that applies to when he’s maneuvering a cluttered box. Whether he slips under a blocker or goes through one with powerful hand usage, he finds the ball. Tight ends really stood no chance blocking Chenal in any one-on-one situation on a run play (or pass play).
Not many offensive linemen did either — including former Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, who was drafted in the first round this year by the Baltimore Ravens.
Chenal shedding Linderbaum + the fullback back to back like it's nothing pic.twitter.com/74vgdxlSQO— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) April 30, 2022
Linderbaum has to have nightmares about Chenal from this game. Just can't handle Chenal's strength — but also quick, powerful hands on the pass-rush rep at the end pic.twitter.com/St0BoFPbpm— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) April 30, 2022
Chenal’s ability to line up on the line of scrimmage and generate enough power to beat linemen at the snap is what makes him such an intriguing fit for the SAM position — a role that will be asked to do that in the base formations.
The other intriguing part of Chenal at that specific, on-ball alignment is his natural abilities as a pass rusher. While he was rarely used to truly rush against an offensive tackle from the edge position, he was used as either a blitzer or a pass rusher on 17% of his snaps in 2021.
In the above tweet, the last clip against Linderbaum shows him blitz from the MIKE position — using a quick, smooth swim move to get past him before Linderbaum could even really get hands on him.
Chenal really does look natural rushing the passer, hand usage and bend around a tight edge is impressive for an off-ball LB -- but for the #Chiefs, this will come in handy from the SAM position on the line pic.twitter.com/ygRB37uLoN— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
He looks very natural rushing against a blocker on the edge of the line — caving in the outside shoulder and using his hands to fight through their block while turning the corner and coming up from behind the pocket.
Even when he’s rushing against an interior lineman, his initial win in the leverage battle allows him to penetrate into the backfield — but also win to the blocker’s outside shoulder and get to where the quarterback is moving to try and avoid him.
He's also a great blitzer, because of how fast he gets downhill, the angles he takes to avoid blockers, the quick, powerful hands to blow through half blocks pic.twitter.com/43TKAuszig— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
As you’ve already seen a few times, Chenal is a very good blitzer — and some of it is for the same reason he’s a good run defender: he gets downhill quickly and is good at avoiding blocks while maintaining that downhill speed. Running backs rarely — if ever — stonewalled him in pass protection, and that extends to his new teammate, running back Isiah Pacheco:
Just for fun: Chenal running over now-teammate Isiah Pacheco pic.twitter.com/tYt7pddxCN— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
On the coverage side of pass defense, Chenal has the athletic ability to keep up with faster tight ends and take up space in zone defense — but his run-defense instincts don’t translate to recognition in pass coverage.
Similar to Nick Bolton last year, there are some lapses in coverage. Too many times he feels the WR or TE crossing his face or going up the seam, but just doesn't react quickly enough to effectively cover them pic.twitter.com/ht2P04rLng— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) May 6, 2022
On plays where a tight end either releases up the seam or across his face on a drag route, there are times he just seems delayed in turning and running to cover it. It feels like something he can improve on, especially considering his foundation of athleticism.
The bottom line
Chenal is going to contribute to the defense immediately. On run downs, the Chiefs can feel more comfortable than they have in the past to be in their base formation — knowing they’ll be strong against the run, and also capable against the pass with Chenal’s natural skill for getting after the quarterback in a variety of ways.
However, Chenal isn’t going to be cornered into that limited-time position. He has the ceiling to be the team’s best overall linebacker, and that is no knock on his teammates. It means the Chiefs have an incredibly good group at that position, and the sky is the limit for the impact they can make over their next few years playing together.