The Chiefs will go into game day looking very thin at linebacker.
On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will go into their scheduled game against the Atlanta Falcons with the more talented roster, front to back—a reality reflected in the standings and in expert picks heading into Week 16. However, if there’s an area of concern, perhaps even one that might cause issues against the Falcons, it could be a long afternoon at linebacker.
The Chiefs linebacker depth looks woefully thin coming into Week 16, although other positions have been viewed as problematic before only to see young talent thrive when given the opportunity (recall how much the narrative has changed about cornerback). Still, that’s a pipe dream at this point for a linebacking corps that was already wanting before the season began—at least until proven otherwise.
On Sunday, the Chiefs will face their third consecutive opponent without linebacker Damien Wilson, who is one of the team’s most reliable tacklers. Wilson has been out with a knee injury. The Chiefs haven’t placed him on injured reserve, which seems to indicate, it’s not a long-term injury, yet Wilson didn’t even attempt to practice in this third week missed, which means something’s clearly not right.
Anthony Hitchens is another starter in this base defense, but he was placed on the COVID/reserve list earlier this week and must remain quarantined for the standard length of time allotted, which didn’t coincide well with this Chiefs-Falcons matchup. That means two starters are out.
In addition, the Chiefs lost backup Emmanuel Smith to injured reserve just last week, and Dorian O’Daniel was already on injured reserve. These are seldom-used options, but when your main ones are down, these are opportune times for such players to step up. Instead, the Chiefs will be relying on some unknown variables on Sunday—or could be at least.
Willie Gay, Jr. and Ben Niemann are now the two primary faces upon which the Chiefs will rely. Niemann was already given 85 percent or more of snaps in the last couple weeks, so he’s familiar with such a load. However, any ways in which the Chiefs have been protecting Gay by limiting his snaps are now long gone. It’s time for the second-round pick to handle a much greater workload—that is, unless the Chiefs plan to further mask things for him by including some safety help on Sunday instead of giving him room for error. If we see that reflected in the snap counts, the Chiefs have a separate issue. (As in, why is a second round pick stalling after 14 games?)
If anything happens to Niemann or Gay (or in LB-heavy packages), the Chiefs have only Darius Harris and Omari Cobb to lean on. The former is an undrafted free agent signing from 2019 from Middle Tennessee State (teammates with Charvarius Ward). The latter was just called up for the first time from the practice squad in a pre-game roster move that gives Cobb his first real chance at meaningful playing time. He was signed as a rookie free agent out of Marshall last spring.