There are many questions about which position groups will be strengths and which will be weaknesses for this year’s Kansas City Chiefs team, but the linebackers are one group that has already earned the confidence and faith of fans to lead the defense.
Second-year linebacker Nick Bolton led the team in tackles and tackles for loss in his rookie season, playing alongside Willie Gay Jr. — who was one of five Chiefs to have multiple interceptions. However, he believes he should have had more.
This year, they take the reins of the group as complementary pieces like veteran Elijah Lee, rookie Leo Chenal — and other fringe-roster candidates trying to contribute to the group. There’s still a lot to learn about the positions this preseason.
With that said, I still want to preview the linebacker position for the 2022 season. I’ll look at how the group will be deployed in each personnel:
The traditional, three-linebacker sets are far from the true “base” personnel of the defense; last season, only 27% of their defensive snaps came with four defensive backs on the field — which was still the 10th-highest rate in the NFL, per Football Outsiders.
The Chiefs will still use it to match offensive formations with multiple running backs or tight ends, almost exclusively on first or second down.
Bolton is the MIKE linebacker, wearing the green dot that allows him to relay in plays from the sideline to his teammates. Gay projects to be the WILL linebacker, the other off-ball linebacker that is asked to play in space more than the other two spots.
Right now, the SAM linebacker spot has been occupied by Lee rather than Chenal, who has rotated in during team periods. Lee’e experience has likely given him the initial edge, but I believe the Chiefs will be too tempted to deploy Chenal’s skills in this limited role.
Elijah Lee has been the starting SAM in #ChiefsCamp so far, but that doesn't mean Chenal can't beat him out by Wk1— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 10, 2022
KC's in base roughly a quarter of their snaps, most of those plays being runs. Chenal could be similarly disruptive like Bolton was right away last yr as the SAM pic.twitter.com/b86S9LIgIj
Chenal’s ability to get downhill and be powerful at the point of attack is precisely what is asked of the SAM linebacker most of the time they are on the field. Last season, that’s how the Chiefs first deployed Bolton — allowing him to focus on disrupting a rush at the line of scrimmage.
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
In college, Chenal’s best skill was playing against the run; he earned a 94.1 Pro Football Focus grade in run defense during the 2021 season, the highest of any linebacker in the 2022 draft class. He has the instincts and the tenacity to get to the ball quickly, whether through blockers or with his quick reaction to the play.
It’s also worth noting how natural Chenal looked as a pass rusher at times in his college tape. In the situation of a first-down pass or a play-action shot, Chenal has the skills and tools to beat a pass block and get after the quarterback.
I believe Chenal will eventually win the starting SAM position, boosting the base defense’s play-making against the run specifically.
To transition to Nickel, the defense simply changes out the SAM linebacker in exchange for a fifth defensive back; the Chiefs aligned in Nickel for 45% of their defensive snaps last year, which was the second-lowest percentage in the league.
For 2022, that will leave Bolton and Gay as the two linebackers — a great combination of run defense and play-making in coverage that makes them one of the more exciting linebacker duos in the NFL.
Willie set high expectations for himself today, wanting to lead the league in INTs #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 4, 2022
He said he should've had more than 2 INTs last yr, and pointed to Dallas and Denver as games he should've had one.
Safe to say he remembers correctly. (Plus a good play from the AFCCG) pic.twitter.com/hhnjWzGTVt
This personnel is where you’ll see Gay shine the most, getting more chances to play the pass than he usually would in the base defense. He has always had the quickness and speed to close on passes like he does above, but it was obvious that he took a step forward in how quickly he reads and reacts to the play last year.
His continued progression could allow him to reach his goal of leading all NFL linebackers in interceptions, something he wasn’t as far away from doing last year as you’d think.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s Dime personnel exchanges one linebacker for a sixth defensive back. They aligned in this personnel on 28% of the defensive snaps last year, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
This personnel is where the Chiefs linebackers will see the most difference: Backup MIKE linebacker Ben Niemann has primarily occupied the Dime spot for the past three seasons, but he departed this offseason. The idea behind Niemann as the Dime linebacker was that it allowed the Chiefs to have a MIKE linebacker on the field, but one with more athleticism to blitz or cover than the starting MIKE linebacker, Anthony Hitchens.
First I noticed the starting Dime D today came in 7v7— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 30, 2022
Cook as the 3rd safety, Bolton as the lone LB #Chiefs
In this year’s training camp, we’ve seen Bolton getting the snaps as the dime linebacker — meaning the Chiefs trust Bolton to be a three-down linebacker. In today’s NFL, a three-down linebacker is rare, which speaks to how highly they think of Bolton as a player.
Nick Bolton has been running as the Dime LB in #ChiefsCamp, meaning the Chiefs are preparing to use him as a three-down, every-snap LB— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 10, 2022
We saw him play the Dime and take 99% of the snaps in the Wk15 Chargers game last yr; he racked up 14 total tackles and 3 passes defended pic.twitter.com/5d07XFmie2
It’s not the first time Bolton has played in the spot, however. In last year’s Week 15 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, Bolton was thrown into the Dime linebacker position — making plays in both the pass and run game. He played 99% of the defensive snaps, racking up 14 total tackles, one quarterback hit, and three passes defended.
There’s an argument to be made that Willie Gay’s superior coverage skills may make him a better fit for this position, but if the Chiefs believe Bolton to be their best linebacker, it would make sense that they want him on the field at all times. Spagnuolo has consistently deployed his dime defenses on the game’s most important snaps.
The bottom line
The Chiefs linebackers will be a position of strength for them this season, as long as they are utilized correctly. Once Chenal earns his way into the SAM spot, and Bolton settles into being a three-down linebacker, the group should be better than any group Spagnuolo has had in Kansas City.