Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay, and Nick Bolton
Okay, so I’m cheating here and including three guys instead of one, but I really think this is a collective effort more than a spot where one guy has to step up. Ever since Derrick Johnson retired, the linebackers have been somewhere between flat out bad and just competent enough to get by. If the Chiefs linebackers could get to the point where they are a point of strength on this defense, it would be a step forward for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo that we haven’t seen yet.
The Chiefs have made a significant investment at this position. Anthony Hitchens was their first big free agent signing on defense. Willie Gay and Nick Bolton were both second round picks in an era where not many linebackers get taken in the first round anymore, which makes a second round pick an expected starter. With that kind of investment at a position, there is no excuse for it to become a weak spot.
Hitchens showed up to training camp lighter than ever before and has looked very athletic so far in the preseason games. Willie Gay was flying all over the field before a toe injury slowed him down and Nick Bolton looks like someone who is already going to be an asset in run defense. However, time will tell how well he is able to cover at the NFL level.
The Chiefs definitely need Gay to get back to full health for this group to reach their ceiling. While he’s out, they need the slimmed down Hitchens to play as well or better than he did last season (which was a big step up from 2019). They also need Bolton to be effective right away. Ben Niemann will help fill the void while Gay is out, but we know that his ceiling simply isn’t as high as K.C.’s other linebackers. The Chiefs need Bolton to come out of the gate as a rookie and limit how much Niemann has to be on the field.
If this group can up the all-around play at the linebacker position, especially by the time the playoffs roll around, it will make it possible for this to be the best defense of the Mahomes era. If that happens and the Chiefs offense is still firing on all cylinders, good luck trying to stop them.
Finally, let’s talk about how the Chiefs can get more pass rush this season.