By Matt McMullen – Chiefs.com
We’re less than two weeks from training camp, and with the annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph nearly here, we’re in the midst of examining every position group on the roster in anticipation of the 2022 campaign.
Here’s a look at what we’ve covered so far:
We’ll continue with linebacker, where the Chiefs currently feature eight players: Nick Bolton, Jermaine Carter, Leo Chenal, Jack Cochrane, Willie Gay Jr., Darius Harris, Elijah Lee and Mike Rose.
Here’s a closer look at each linebacker on the roster (listed alphabetically).
The Chiefs’ organizational “Rookie of the Year” in 2021, Bolton was nothing short of tremendous last season after joining Kansas City as the No. 58 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. In fact, Bolton racked up the most tackles by a Chiefs’ defender (112) since Derrick Johnson tallied 116 tackles in 2015. Additionally, Bolton became just the ninth rookie since the turn of the millennium to record 110+ total tackles and 10+ tackles-for-loss.
His coverage skills improved over the course of the season, too. Among linebackers with at least 100 coverage snaps between Week 8 and the end of the regular season, Bolton earned the fourth-best Pro Football Focus coverage grade in the league. Only the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons recorded a better mark among rookie linebackers.
Now heading into his second season as a professional, Bolton will be tasked with a larger role in 2022. General Manager Brett Veach has indicated that Bolton will take over the “MIKE,” or middle linebacker position this season while also acting as the primary play-caller for the defense. It’s a big responsibility, but one that Bolton demonstrated he was ready to embrace during the offseason training program.
A free agent signee this offseason, Carter started all 17 games for Carolina last season while racking up a career-most 88 tackles. The four-year veteran has appeared in 65 career games with 30 starts (all with Carolina) since entering the league as a fifth-round pick in 2018.
He logged meaningful snaps at virtually every spot within Carolina’s linebacker corps last season and brings valuable experience to an otherwise very young group of linebackers in Kansas City. At 27 years old, Carter is the oldest member of the bunch.
The No. 103 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, Chenal was among the best linebackers in all of college football last year with 115 tackles, 18.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles. He finished No. 7 in the FBS in tackles-per-game (10.4) and No. 2 in tackles-for-loss-per-game (1.6), earning “Big 10 Linebacker of the Year” and First-Team All-American honors following the season. Additionally, Chenal was one of only two FBS players with 115+ tackles and 18.0+ tackles-for-loss in 2021.
Chenal is a classic, “thumper” kind of linebacker who thrives in a role that allows him to attack downhill. His 44 run stops last season were tied for the ninth-most among all linebackers, and according to Pro Football Focus, his “physicality” grade was a perfect 10/10.
Here’s more from PFF’s pre-draft analysis:
“Those that covet a brick wall coming downhill won’t find a better option in the class…He’s the best take-on linebacker in the country. Offensive linemen go backward when he makes contact…He packs a punch as a downhill player, as he can light up offensive linemen with ease. His 94.1 run-defense grade wasn’t too far behind Micah Parsons’ (94.8) PFF college record.”
That style of play will fit perfectly in Kansas City, as Chenal – according to General Manager Brett Veach – can be used as a “strongside” linebacker, or “SAM,” while fellow linebacker Willie Gay Jr. can man the “weakside,” or “WILL” spot in the Chiefs’ defense. Chenal can also serve as a backup middle, or “MIKE,” linebacker.
One metric that helps illustrate Chenal’s value is “Relative Athletic Score,” which represents a composite of a player’s various athletic testing results. In the case of Chenal, on a scale that ranged from one to 10, he scored a ridiculous 9.99. It was the third-best score for any linebacker prospect since 1987.
Leo Chenal was drafted with pick 103 of round 3 in the 2022 draft class. He scored a 9.99 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 3 out of 2419 LB from 1987 to 2022. https://t.co/unnXwkfpiT #RAS #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/YdwWEkOnmR
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2022
The Chiefs signed Cochrane as an undrafted free agent earlier this offseason. A four-year starter at the University of South Dakota, Cochrane – who stands at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds – appeared in 46 games (39 starts) over the last five seasons, recording 327 tackles, 23 tackles-for-loss, 16 passes defensed, six interceptions and five sacks in that time. He saved his best performance for last, leading South Dakota in tackles (103), passes defensed (10) and interceptions (4) in 2021 while earning Third-Team All-America honors. He was the only FCS player with 100+ tackles and 4+ interceptions in 2021.
Here’s more on Cochrane from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler:
“Cochrane is a smart, technically-sound player vs. the run and the pass. He does a nice job staying square and mirroring at the line, but his lack of length will make lateral scrapes tougher to execute in the NFL…Overall, Cochrane was a longshot to be drafted at this time last year, but his improvements and production on his senior tape have put him in the late round mix.”
Cochrane didn’t hear his name called over the course of draft weekend, but his dream of playing professional football is still a reality as training camp approaches.
Willie Gay Jr.
One of only three linebackers returning from last year’s team, Gay is undoubtedly one of the most exciting young players on Kansas City’s defense heading into 2022. A gifted athlete, the two-year veteran possesses the size (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) to stop the run but also the speed (4.51 40-yard dash) and agility to cover sideline to sideline.
Gay demonstrated that potential over the course of 12 games (11 starts) last season, amassing 48 tackles, four passes defensed, two interceptions and a tackle-for-loss. Now heading into this season as a surefire starter, Gay could be on the cusp of a true breakout campaign. As indicted earlier, he’ll largely man the “WILL,” or weakside linebacker role heading into camp, according to General Manager Brett Veach.
Overall, it’s not hyperbole to claim that the duo of Bolton and Gay is among the best young tandems in the league. If they can continue growing alongside one another throughout this season, they have what it takes to be special.
Another returning member from last year’s group, Harris originally joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He spent that initial year rehabbing an injury before appearing in 11 games over the last two seasons (4 in 2020, 7 in 2021), serving almost exclusively in a special teams role last year.
Still only 26 years old, Harris will compete for a rotational role on defense throughout camp. He hasn’t seen a ton of game action during his young career, but it’s worth pointing out that he’s been around Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme longer than any other linebacker on the team.
A local product who attended Blue Springs High School and later Kansas State, Lee signed with the Chiefs as a free agent earlier this offseason. The 26-year-old Lee, who originally entered the league as a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, has spent time with San Francisco (2017-19), Detroit (2020) and Cleveland (2020-21) across 66 total games (6 starts). He has 99 career tackles to his name.
Most recently, Lee appeared in 16 games last season for Cleveland as a core contributor on special teams. His 332 special teams’ snaps last season led the Browns by a wide margin and ranked 33rd in the NFL. He’ll likely take on a similar role in Kansas City in addition to the duties he earns on defense.
Another undrafted free agent signee this offseason, Rose was a four-year starter at Iowa State prior to joining Kansas City. He racked up 321 tackles, 41 tackles-for-loss, 14 passes defensed, 9.5 sacks and six interceptions across 49 career starts during his time there, earning First-Team All-America honors and the “Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year” award in 2020.
Pro Football Focus ranked Rose as the No. 10 undrafted free agent available this year while citing the below:
“Rose has the versatile body type to wear a number of different hats in a defense. That will be coveted in certain schemes.”
Here’s more on Rose from Dane Brugler, who ranked him as the No. 14 overall linebacker in this year’s class.
“Rose is a smooth mover with the instincts and toughness that NFL teams covet. He projects as a versatile backup (middle or strongside) at the next level who should find a home on special teams.”
Brugler projected Rose to be selected in the fourth or fifth round, but despite not hearing his name called, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Rose now has a shot with Kansas City.
The Bottom Line
The intrigue at linebacker for Kansas City heading into camp is probably less about positional battles and centered more around the progression of Bolton and Gay. Both players have flashed immense potential during their young careers, and with former linebackers Anthony Hitchens (598 snaps in 2021) and Ben Niemann (557 snaps in 2021) no longer on the team, their roles are going to increase tremendously in 2022. There’s a lot of responsibility on their collective plate, but based on what we’ve seen previously, the linebacker corps is in good hands.
Elsewhere, one question that will need to be answered in camp is who the third linebacker in the Chiefs’ “base” defensive formation will be. It’s possible that Chenal could win that job in camp, but veterans such as Lee and Carter also have a shot at playing significant snaps in Week 1 with strong performances in St. Joseph.
The “base” defense (with three linebackers) is rare nowadays as offenses routinely deploy three-receiver sets, but the third (and even fourth) linebacker in Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme still often contributes. In fact, at least three linebackers (and four last season) have logged 400+ snaps in each of the last three seasons for Kansas City.
As for how many linebackers the Chiefs may keep, Kansas City featured five on the Week 1 roster in each of the last two seasons after keeping six in 2019. That means that outside of the two clear starters (Bolton and Gay) and the high draft pick in Chenal, the other five players will be competing for two to three roster spots. It should make for a fun competition to watch as this young group – which averages 23.8 years old – has a real opportunity to mark a strength of the 2022 defense.
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