Linebackers Willie Gay, Nick Bolton generate excitement from Kansas City Chiefs coaches

Herbie Teope
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Chiefs middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens (53) is getting some help in the linebacking corps this offseason in the form of Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs know what they have in the middle of their defense, a spot patrolled by linebacker Anthony Hitchens.

As for the two spots next to Hitchens, it remains a work in progress ahead of training camp with second-year pro Willie Gay Jr. and rookie Nick Bolton, the Chiefs' first of two second-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.

But that doesn't damper enthusiasm on what could be at the linebacker position if Gay and Bolton eventually join Hitchens in the starting rotation.

"Both those guys, we're really excited to have and really looking forward to what they can do," Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Thursday, which marked the sixth day of organized team activities (OTAs).

Outside linebackers coach Ken Flajole agreed.

"It's a great opportunity, no doubt," he said. "Great to have those young guys, get them indoctrinated in the scheme and try to bring them along."

The Chiefs got a good look at Gay in 2020 after using a second-round pick on him.

He flashed at times but was brought along slowly, appearing in 16 games with eight starts before suffering an ankle injury in the season-finale. Gay missed the postseason after landing on injured reserve and finished his rookie campaign with 39 tackles, a sack, three passes defensed and a forced fumble on 267 defensive snaps (25%). He also contributed 241 snaps on special teams.

"We've asked Willie to play two different spots: SAM (strongside) and WIL (weakside)," Spagnuolo said. "That's typical in the NFL, just like we do with all our linebackers except for Hitch(ens)."

As for Bolton, the former Missouri star previously earned praise as being "Tiger tough" from head coach Andy Reid during the rookie minicamp in May.

Bolton also prepares for the regular season with an advantage that Gay didn't have in 2020, specifically organized teams activities, a three-day mandatory minicamp and preseason games.

"Nick will get the benefit of that this year," Spagnuolo said. "We're going to try and find ways to get him on the field; it might take a little while."

Spagnuolo's statement of potentially taking time for Bolton carries weight, as the defensive scheme the Chiefs incorporate is complex, especially for a rookie. Moreover, the Chiefs ask a lot of their linebackers in either the 4-3 base or nickel scheme, with the latter requiring only the middle and weakside linebackers on the field.

The Chiefs also possess depth at the linebacker position with Ben Niemann, Dorian O'Daniel, Darius Harris, Omari Cobb and Emmanuel Smith returning from the 2020 roster. Rookie Riley Cole joined the roster this offseason as an undrafted free agent.

Nevertheless, someone will need to replace Damien Wilson — who signed a free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the offseason — as a starter. 

And it is reasonable to believe that the Chiefs didn't use a second-round pick on a linebacker in consecutive drafts for them to sit for the long term.

The task of ultimately getting Bolton and Gay ready falls on linebackers coach Matt House.

"Matt does a great job with them," said Flajole, who coached with House in St. Louis and Carolina. "I'm just really impressed; I think he's a quality football coach.

"I chime in and give my two cents when it's appropriate, but I don't want to discount what he's done in the room, too."

Gay and Bolton will have another set of OTAs on June 8-11 under the watchful eyes of Spagnuolo, House and Flajole before the mandatory minicamp on June 15-17.

Linebackers, however, truly shine when the pads come on and hitting is allowed during training camp in late July.

There's time to sort out the starting rotation before the start of the regular season in September, but the excitement level for the Chiefs' pair of second-round picks in recent drafts is clear.

"Lucky to have the two young guys," Flajole said. "And I'm anxious to get working with them and see how we go and see how this all plays out."