Let’s take a quick look into the crystal ball for a second and project out a year from now, to a time when the K.C. Chiefs will likely be going very, very cheap at linebacker.
One year from now, Willie Gay, Jr. will have two full seasons under his belt, and his God-gifted athleticism should be on full display at the pro level now that the game has slowed down for him. With his instincts able to take over, the Chiefs will be looking forward to continued growth for a linebacker with one of the best closing bursts in the game.
Next to Gay, Nick Bolton should be ready to slide in after watching Anthony Hitchens captain the team’s defense from the heart of it all as a leader, communicator, and fierce tackler in the midst of the action. Bolton’s own nerves should be settled at this point as well, and the same points about the game slowing for Gay certainly apply here as well. Bolton should be quicker to adjust given his playing experience.
The Chiefs are going cheap at linebacker at a key time.
Side by side, the Chiefs should enjoy these two as long-term pillars for the next few years on the field. In terms of Clark Hunt’s pocketbook, the team will also enjoy knowing they are paying both players a pittance compared to their players of similar skill around the NFL.
In 2022, Gay is going to cost the Chiefs a total of $1.44 million while Bolton is going to cost them $1.32 million. Basically, together, the Chiefs should have their starting linebacking corps in the heart of the defense as a dynamic young pair of investments for approximately $6 million total for each of the next two seasons after 2021.
The thought process here is that Hitchens will prove to be far too expensive for the Chiefs to retain him after this year. That’s bolstered by the back-to-back selections as high as the second round at the position, and the near-identical skill sets of Bolton and Hitchens. In short, passing the torch makes the most sense.
If both players can perform as expected, this is good timing for the Chiefs. The linebacker position is going to get much more expensive in the wake of several players hitting free agency who deserve bigger deals.
On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins paid Jerome Baker a healthy three-year extension worth up to $39 million, per Adam Schefter, and no one is confusing him for one of the NFL’s elite. Think of the deals that Fred Warner, Roquan Smith, and Darius Leonard are going to command soon enough. Yes, these numbers for linebackers are going to climb higher and higher.
The likes of C.J. Mosley and Bobby Wagner are already paid $17 and $18 million respectively in 2021. The next tier of Zach Cunningham, Deion Jones, and Myles Jack all come in around $14 million, which the Baker deal is pushing. Suffice it to say, Hitchens’ own deal at $9 million annually finally seems fair now that the market has caught up.
Yes, the Chiefs are paying hefty bills at other spots, but if these consecutive investments at linebacker can pay off, then the team will feel much better about the product on and off the field in the heart of the defense. While the league is paying larger sums to similar players, the Chiefs will reap the rewards of going younger and cheaper.