Chiefs' fans were riding a wave of being undefeated and knocking off a tough division rival in the Los Angeles Chargers when the unfortunate and shocking news of linebacker Willie Gay's four-game suspension hit the airwaves (more on that here).
Gay's suspension now leaves a gaping hole in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's unit. His energy, speed, athleticism and range will be difficult to replace, but let's look at how the Chiefs may substitute Gay's defensive production over the next four games.
The Chiefs drafted rookie Leo Chenal in the third round of this year's draft out of Wisconsin. He is currently starting as the SAM linebacker in the Chiefs' base defense. Coming into the draft, Chenal was known for his willingness to take on blocks and attack the ball carrier, which helps him excel in run defense. While not a total liability in the passing game, it may be a tall task to ask him to cover quick tight ends or running backs. Chenal looks to be a better option to stay at the SAM spot, as moving him to the weak side may put him at a disadvantage.
Darius Harris is going his third year as Chief after being signed as undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee following the 2019 draft. He is the guy that I think the Chiefs turn to first to fill the void of Gay in the next four games. Coming out of college, he was highly regarded for his versatility to play every linebacker position in a 4-3 scheme. Following his signing, general manager Brett Veach went on record.
“[Harris] is a guy that you might want to watch,” said Veach. “And maybe it’s not this year, but we think he has a lot of talent moving forward. He can be a guy that doesn’t just make the roster but starts one day. We are excited about him; we are [also] excited about the speed that [Gary] Johnson brings. But those are two guys that we liked. Being that we didn’t draft any linebackers, we were certainly aggressive. If you go back to this Harris kid, this was a kid that if he didn’t have the shoulder issue, he gets drafted.”
Harris' game speed may be the only thing to question how productive he can be, but I think the Chiefs will give him the nod to find out.
Elijah Lee is a sixth-year veteran signed to a one-year deal by the Chiefs this past off-season after spending his last two seasons with the Cleveland Browns. Lee is a local guy out of Blue Springs High School and played his college ball at Kansas State.
Lee has only started six games in his six-year career. He had a solid preseason on defense and special teams, leading most to believe he would start over Chenal. Lee has recorded eight defensive snaps this season, and I don't see that trend changing much with the Gay suspension.
Undrafted rookie Jack Cochrane out of South Dakota is an interesting player to consider. Cochrane was signed to the Chiefs after the 2022 draft and immediately started to stand out at the team's minicamp. Cochrane didn't make the Chiefs' initial 53-man roster but was quickly added to the practice squad. On September 13, the Chiefs activated him to the active roster to the surprise of many, which may indicate the Chiefs likely knew a suspension of Gay was looming.
Cochrane mainly played middle linebacker at South Dakota but also played some outside linebacker there as well. Spagnuolo used Gay in many coverage situations over the first two games, and that happens to be one of Cochrane's strong areas. He has fluent hips for a linebacker and the athleticism to cover tight ends. With six career interceptions and 16 career passes defensed in college, he may be a good option to replace Gay in obvious pass situations.
The bottom line
There is no doubt that Gay's absence will be felt on the defense. But the Chiefs have some depth that can soften the blow over the next four games. Although not a linebacker, rookie safety Bryan Cook will also be a player who may see his snaps increase in some subpackages to help fill the void.
It will be interesting to see which direction Spagnuolo goes in certain situations. No matter the temporary solution, the Chiefs and their fans will be anxiously waiting for the return of Gay.
Who do you think is best suited to replace Willie Gay Jr.’s defensive production?