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10 Biggest Questions: What roles will the Chiefs’ linebackers play?

The addition of Drue Tranquill adds an interesting wrinkle to Kansas City’s group of linebackers.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the Kansas City Chiefs' season, I'm continuing my "10 Biggest Questions" series about the team. So far, we've covered seven questions:

Today, we turn our attention to the Chiefs' linebacker room.

What roles will the Chiefs' linebackers play?

Since general manager Brett Veach took over in 2017, fixing the linebacker position was one of his core tenets as a roster constructor. Within months of taking the job, Veach traded a fourth-round pick for Reggie Ragland — a highly talented linebacker who couldn't survive a regime change in Buffalo.

In his first offseason, Veach swiftly signed Anthony Hitchens to a five-year, $45 million deal after moving on from longtime stalwart Derrick Johnson, which made Hitchens one of the richest linebackers in the NFL at that time. Even after trading a fourth-round pick for Ragland, Veach still addressed linebacker in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Clemson's Dorian O'Daniel in the third round. Immediately upon arriving as general manager, Veach's priority was to fix the linebacker position.

The results were...underwhelming.

Hitchens was largely disappointing for most of his contract, and Ragland could never regain the athleticism he flashed at Alabama. Even after years of fans calling for him, O'Daniel struggled to get on the field for the Chiefs. O'Daniel was athletic but lacked the size to ever play in the box at the NFL level — which explains why he hasn't been signed since 2021. In 2019, the Chiefs did sign Damien Wilson, who played adequately in his two years as a starter but brought similar athletic limitations to Ragland and Hitchens. Veach did identify Ben Niemann as an undrafted free agent but he was overtaxed playing Dime linebacker for the Chiefs.

While linebacker was a flawed position for the Chiefs, it ultimately didn't hurt them in their 2019 Super Bowl run. Still, Veach wouldn't let his prior mistakes change his philosophy on addressing linebacker. After winning the Super Bowl, Veach selected Mississippi State's Willie Gay Jr. in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. During the 2021 NFL Draft, the Chiefs drafted Hitchens's replacement at MIKE linebacker with Missouri's Nick Bolton. When Niemann departed in 2022, the Chiefs drafted Wisconsin's Leo Chenal in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

After years of continuous investment at linebacker, the Chiefs finally found three young, athletic linebackers to build around. I've been hyper-critical of Gay and Bolton in particular, but there's no doubt that both are significant upgrades on what the Chiefs were putting on the field between 2019-21. Considering the athletic potential and upside of the linebacker room, it felt the Chiefs had finally done enough at linebacker to feel comfortable moving forward.

So, when I got the notification the Chiefs had signed former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill, my jaw dropped to the floor.

To be clear, I loved the Tranquill signing. Tranquill lacks the ideal size to be a full-time box linebacker, but his range, coverage awareness and blitzing skill make him one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL. The Chargers asked Tranquill to do anything from chase scrambling quarterbacks to running with Miami Dolphins' speedy receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill up the seams, and Tranquill looked comfortable doing either. Considering Tranquill's only making $3 million this year, he's one of the best value signings of the offseason.

But what confused me about the Tranquill signing was how it would change the linebacker room. Tranquill wasn't going to sign with a team to play a marginal role — Tranquill played 93% of snaps with the Chargers in 2022. There were other opportunities for Tranquill to play, but he chose the Chiefs instead. Since the Chiefs have signed Tranquill, Veach and head coach Andy Reid have had nothing but glowing comments about Tranquill and his ability to play multiple linebacker spots — including Dime linebacker.

However, the Chiefs had their three linebacker roles set. Bolton was the MIKE in any package, Chenal the SAM in the Chiefs' base package and Gay was the WILL in both base and Nickel. Darius Harris would rotate in with Gay, but the Chiefs had clearly defined linebacker roles. Adding Tranquill — lauded for his ability to play multiple positions — would create a logjam at linebacker.

Now, having more talented players is always a good thing. However, when talent starts to rival fit, it creates a "round hole in a square peg" situation, which can be understandably difficult for players who want to showcase their talents and play every snap.

If we're trying to project linebacker roles, some of the puzzle pieces start to make sense. Even though Tranquill can play MIKE linebacker, Bolton will be the MIKE on every base or Nickel package snaps. He's a significantly better run defender than Tranquill and projects as the team's future at the position. Where Tranquill does start to eat into Bolton's snaps will be in the Dime, where his coverage and blitzing ability far trump Bolton's. Bolton was overtaxed as the team's main coverage linebacker last year, but having Tranquill around helps minimize that weakness.

Even looking at Chenal's role, there likely won't be a shift in what the Chiefs need from him. For 2023, Chenal will continue to be the SAM linebacker in the Chiefs' defense and should continue to play that role well. There is potential for Chenal to be unlocked more as a subpackage pass rusher or blitzer, but that would be when the Chiefs go with a 3-2-6 package with another linebacker. Tranquill shouldn't affect what Chenal's snap distribution looks like.

This leaves us with one more linebacker: Willie Gay. Gay's developmental arc in Kansas City has been uneven. After being the third linebacker as a rookie, Gay saw his role increase these past two years. He's become a more significant part of the Chiefs' Nickel package, playing WILL linebacker next to Bolton. However, the Chiefs haven't had Gay ever fully take on this role. Between Niemann and Darius Harris, the Chiefs have always limited Gay's snaps — even with Harris and Niemann both struggling on the field.

Tranquill is undoubtedly an upgrade over Niemann and Harris, and his skill set overlaps with Gay. Through this point in Gay's career, Tranquill's been a significantly better player. Gay has more density and hitting power than Tranquill but lacks the coverage awareness and IQ that Tranquill brings.

So, if Tranquill comes in and picks up this defense quickly, what does this mean for Gay's future? Do the Chiefs still try and incorporate him into the game plan? Is he going to be reduced back to only playing in the base defense — similar to his rookie year? Gay's now entering the last year of his rookie deal as a second-rounder — having his role reduced isn't a positive sign for his future. Gay was always a raw prospect that needed time to develop, but does there reach a point where the Chiefs have had enough waiting for Gay to develop?

If the Chiefs still want to give Gay developmental reps, whose reps are going away? Does Chenal see a reduced role if both Tranquill and Gay play in base? Taking any non-dime reps from Bolton seems unlikely, but if the matchup requires a more rangy coverage linebacker, could the Chiefs move Tranquill to MIKE and reduce Bolton's snaps?

Once again, having a talent as versatile as Tranquill is incredibly valuable. I think he's a terrific fit in this defense and gives defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a reliable option at multiple spots, which is critical when he's game planning each week. Still, his introduction to this team brings a lot of questions about how the Chiefs feel about their linebacker investments long-term. The Chiefs have always been a bit strange in how they deploy their linebackers, and with Tranquill onboard, I expect them to get even stranger going forward, and I'm fascinated to track how the position plays out this year.

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