KC Chiefs: How great of a draft need is linebacker?

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Willie Gay Jr. #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs blocks Darryl Johnson #92 of the Buffalo Bills on a kickoff during the second half at Bills Stadium on October 19, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. Kansas City beats Buffalo 26-17. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Willie Gay Jr. #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs blocks Darryl Johnson #92 of the Buffalo Bills on a kickoff during the second half at Bills Stadium on October 19, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. Kansas City beats Buffalo 26-17. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images) /
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Ever since the great Derrick Johnson was let go by the K.C. Chiefs, the team has been struggling to fill the void in the heart of the defense. While DJ was certainly not the same performer in his twilight that he was when earning consecutive Pro Bowls during the prime of his career, the Chiefs have watched one below average performer after another try to man the second level for quite some time.

Even now, the Chiefs are still hoping that significant investments are going to pay off at a greater level in 2021 than they have thus far.

Anthony Hitchens looked better than ever in 2020, but that performance came years into an expensive free agent deal that turned heads when Brett Veach first offered it to the former Cowboys linebacker. Even now, he’s certainly not an impact player in the middle. Instead, the Chiefs are simply glad that he’s a very dependable, physical player who is the cream of the current crop.

Last season, the Chiefs sunk a second-round pick into Willie Gay, Jr. to raise the ceiling at the position. There were flashes, to be sure, when Gay was on the field, clear signs of his incredible athleticism. However, he played in only 25 percent of all snaps on the season and he played in less than 10 percent of all snaps in five different games (one of those should not count in Week 17, however).

Linebacker could come into view early once again for the K.C. Chiefs in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Basically, the Chiefs have likely seen the best of what Hitchens has to offer and are now hoping that Gay can grow into the role envisioned for him despite a lack of extensive experience in his rookie year.

So what does this mean moving forward? The Chiefs have brought back Ben Niemann once again as a third linebacker but they also watched Damien Wilson leave in free agency. Signing a physical linebacker isn’t a problem in free agency, even at this point, so the Chiefs don’t necessarily need to draft a linebacker if they want to keep the status quo or simply rely on Gay’s growth in year two. But is that a wise move?

At the same time, the Chiefs hardly play in a base defense and the depth and youth at cornerback in particular should ease concerns about the depth at linebacker. Grabbing a dynamic young safety or corner could be just as useful in the draft as another linebacker import.

Still the Chiefs have other major needs, but if they were to draft another linebacker on Day 2 or 3, it could help move the needle at the position—even just a bit—which would provide some real competition for all parties involved. For Gay, it’s a sign that the snaps aren’t going to be handed to him in 2021. For Hitchens, it would provide a spark to continue to play all out as his contract becomes easier to cast aside.

The Chiefs do have other players on the roster ready to provide that competition in Emmanuel Smith, Darius Harris, and Dorian O’Daniel, but the ceiling is still far too low overall at the position moving forward, especially if the Chiefs want the defense to take a leap to the next level. Yes there are concerns up front and questions at corner, but shoring up things at linebacker would go a long way toward improving the entire unit.

Expect the Chiefs to make some level of an investment at linebacker, depending on the board and how they have certain prospects viewed. No one should reach for positional need, but it feels like linebacker could come into view even as early as the second round.

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