The Kansas City Chiefs added six draft picks in the 2020 NFL draft and a number of undrafted free agents too. Several of those rookies made contributions during the course of the 2020 regular season and postseason. One player flashed in limited snaps but didn’t see much opportunity as a rookie.
Let’s take a look at Willie Gay Jr.’s rookie season and see what we can project for the future.
Mississippi State LB Willie Gay Jr. – Round 2, Pick 63
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2020 season review:
Gay Jr.’s rookie season didn’t exactly live up to expectations that many had after he was selected in the second round. He started off the year primarily playing special teams snaps and didn’t see much defensive action until Week 4 against the New England Patriots. He followed it up in Week 5 against the Las Vegas Raiders with 33 defensive snaps, recording a sack and six combined tackles. It looked like he was turning the corner, but the following week he’d play in just two defensive snaps.
That’s when a pattern surrounding his usage began to emerge. Instead of utilizing Gay Jr. opposite Anthony Hitchens in the Chiefs’ sub-package defense, Steve Spagnuolo only was using him in their base 4-3 packages against 21 and 22-personnel. When they faced teams that wanted to run those heavier packages he was in there, but when teams were throwing the ball with lighter personnel groupings, he wasn’t on the field.
Later in the season, Gay Jr. would see a season-high 49 snaps in Week 16. It was his most productive game of the year with nine total tackles and a tackle for loss. Anthony Hitchens went on the reserve/COVID-19 list and an injury to Damien Wilson prefaced Gay Jr.’s heavy usage in the game. Ben Niemann also suffered an injury during the game, leaving Darius Harris, Omari Cobb and Gay Jr. as the only three linebackers healthy for Kansas City.
An ankle injury sidelined Gay Jr. after the third snap in Week 17, a game where he was expected to have a showcase performance for the 2021 season. Ahead of Super Bowl LV, he suffered a meniscus injury in practice that ended his season prematurely.
Gay Jr. is looking at a recovery timeline on his knee injury that should have him ready well before the 2021 NFL season begins. Assuming there are no setbacks in his recovery, he’s also due for a much larger role next season.
Damien Wilson is an unrestricted free agent as of March 17. Gay Jr. basically had been an understudy to Wilson all of last season, working behind him at the SAM linebacker spot in base and the BUCK linebacker spot sub-packages. With Wilson’s departure and possibly Ben Niemann leaving as a restricted free agent, there will certainly be more snaps to go around.
Another offseason working in the system should help him continue to learn the defensive scheme and earn the trust of the coaching staff. Really, what he needs most is more snaps under his belt. His games played and starts are both a bit deceiving when you consider that he only played in 25% of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps in 2020. A big knock coming out in the draft was Gay Jr.’s lack of playing time at Mississippi State and it showed. He’s simply too gifted athletically to be riding the sidelines for this defense.
Chiefs 2020 rookie season reviews:
We’ll debut our rookie season reviews over the next several weeks, with the exception of Lucas Niang given the opt out. Check back here for hyperlinks when they’re available.