If we’re being honest, the Chiefs haven’t had great linebacker play in several years. However, it was slightly improved last season. The Chiefs likely have two of their three starting linebackers in place with Anthony Hitchens and Willie Gay Jr. The third starting spot in the team’s base defense is completely up in the air. Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann (restricted) are both pending free agents, and the Chiefs don’t have anyone else on the roster that they would likely want to make a starter at this point.
Here are two options that the Chiefs could look at that have a proven NFL starting background, but might be able to be had at a discount this season.
If the Chiefs would like a proven starting linebacker who would be an upgrade in coverage, Malcolm Smith might be a good option. Smith will be 32 next season, and overall is still a solid starting linebacker, but is unlikely to demand a big contract at this point in his career, especially this offseason. While Smith isn’t a big time run stuffer, he was still great in coverage last season. PFF gave him a 74.7 coverage grade. Gay Jr. was K.C.’s only linebacker with a coverage grade over 60 last season.
If the Chiefs could find a cheap young-run stuffing linebacker either in the draft or free agency, they could even make Smith primarily a sub package only player. Pairing Smith and Gay at linebacker in clear passing situations could be a big upgrade. It’s definitely possible that the Chiefs will be able to land a cheap proven starting linebacker this offseason and Smith could be a good match.
If the Chiefs are more worried about finding a run-stuffing linebacker to replace Damien Wilson, Avery Williamson might be a big upgrade at a potentially discounted price. Williamson has been a good starting linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, and Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years. However, last season he really struggled against the pass. Williamson received a truly awful 33.8 coverage grade from PFF last season. That’s significantly worse than any of K.C.’s linebackers last season.
So why would the Chiefs want to bring in a linebacker that was worse in coverage than anyone they started last season? Well, first off, Williamson is still an elite run stopper. His 77.4 run defense grade from PFF was the fifth best among linebackers last season, and he’s averaged over 100 tackles the past five seasons he has played. Plus, Williamson was coming off a major injury that made him miss the entire 2019 season. While he wasn’t an elite coverage linebacker before the injury, he hadn’t been this bad before.
At 29 years old next season it is reasonable to think Williamson’s coverage skills will return to his pre-injury level. If so, the Chiefs can get a huge upgrade as a run defender at a discount and as his coverage improves, it could be a huge boost to the defense. That’s why I think if K.C. could get him on a one year “prove it” deal, it could be a great high upside signing.
Finally, let’s look at a couple of options at cornerback.