If I were to ask you to pick one position group on the Kansas City Chiefs defense in which you feel the most confident, you might choose the linebacking corps.
And rightly so. Over the last few years, the Chiefs have made substantial investments at linebacker. In fact, the Chiefs have selected a linebacker in the first three rounds in each of the last three NFL Drafts.
Thus far, their investment has paid off in spades.
Last season, Nick Bolton led all rookies with 112 combined tackles. As I outlined last week, he will step into a larger role as the team's starting MIKE linebacker in 2022.
Next to Bolton, the uber-athletic Willie Gay Jr. saw his playing time increase during his second season in 2021. Heading into this season, the Chiefs will be leaning on both of these players to provide an emotional spark as they lead the defense.
Then in April, Kansas City selected former Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal in the third round. Only time will tell if Kansas City’s string of hits at linebacker will continue.
Speaking with the media on Thursday, Bolton said that having Gay on the field next to him has helped him in his development,
“Everybody that’s around here has instilled their confidence in me — Willie included,” he noted. “So everybody’s coming in, just trying to give me the most confidence as possible to lead the team and go out there and play fast. And so I’m counting on those guys — and they’re counting on me. And so we’re just going to keep building, keep stacking days.”
Beyond being teammates, Bolton and Gay are friends. Head coach Andy Reid thinks their bond is part of the reason why both men found success last season — and is excited to see them continue to build on what they have already accomplished.
“They’ve known each other a long time,” said Reid. “So they’ve got that natural thing that’s going on there — and then they work at it. And so I like what I’ve seen. I think both of them are much more comfortable in what we’re doing right now than what they were at the beginning of last year.”
To add to this dynamic, the Chiefs brought in Kanas City native (and Kansas State alumnus) Elijah Lee to compete for the third linebacker spot. Lee — who up to this point has been a bit of an NFL journeyman — originally came into the league as a seventh-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings. He’s also s[ent time with the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.
Bolton said Lee’s experience has helped the younger linebackers understand the game better.
“Yeah, by far he’s the oldest vet in the room,” he noted. “He’s seen a lot of football. He’s been in a lot of different schemes and stuff. So he’s coming in and allowing us to help him learn the scheme, and then he’s also giving us feedback on what he’s seeing— and how people should attack the schemes we’re in... I’m excited for him to be here.”
As with Gay, Bolton said that he’s benefited from his friendship with Lee — especially since he is from Kansas City and knows all of the best spots around town.
“Oh yeah,” he smiled, “he came in and let us know different places to eat and stuff like that.”
Bolton and Lee also live near each other, which has given them the opportunity to kick it at each other’s houses.
“We don’t stay far from each other,” said Bolton, “so we get to hang out a lot.”
Sure... maybe being buddies off the field won’t make these linebackers better players — but I still buy into the concept that being friends away from football improves your play on the field.
When your co-workers are people with whom you share friendships — and that you genuinely enjoy as humans — it makes everything flow more smoothly. It adds an additional layer of enjoyability — not to mention respect and accountability — that wouldn’t normally be there.
Beyond the bright lights and podiums, you know who your friends really are. You know how they are going to react to different situations and what kind of support they will need. In turn, you know they will be there to support you.
You’re also more honest with your friends — which for linebackers is essential. There isn’t a position in football where communication matters more.
To prove this point, we don’t have to look very far. It’s well documented that Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are best friends.
And if being BFFs leads to more moments like this, then I think we can all agree that we hope our linebackers spend every waking moment together.