Willie Gay Jr
When the Chiefs first drafted Willie Gay Jr. back in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, it was absolutely an upside play. In fact, the Chiefs left some more “likely” contributors in Logan Wilson on the draft board at linebacker and elsewhere on defense (Jeremy Chinn at safety, for example) in order to take Gay. It was a roll of the dice, to be sure, but the Chiefs were in such drastic need of long-term reform at the position that they took the chance.
At the time, Anthony Hitchens was the lone reliable performer who wasn’t an instant mismatch on the second level, and even there, the ceiling was obvious. The Chiefs needed youth, depth, talent at once while upgrading the position for the future. Gay was the first seed planted to make that happen.
The early returns were expected with limited playing time—flashes of clear potential along with a need for reps and time—but an injury late in the year kept him out of the team’s Super Bowl run. This preseason, however, the Chiefs saw Gay turn the corner, where despite the meaningless nature of August exhibitions, Gay looked like a man among boys at times on defense. With a year under his belt, his natural skill set was going to make him an impact player if he could translate that to real games.
A toe injury slowed his ability to show that skill set in his sophomore season, but now that the Chiefs have eased Gay back onto the field into a starting role, the talent is easy to spot. He had back to back interceptions in his first games back, and the team’s defensive resurgence has timed quite nicely with his arrival back in the heart of the action.
Here’s the truth: Gay’s blend is rare, even in the NFL—a player who is tough as nails with a non-stop motor. He’s an incredible tackler, which is made possible by his plus strength and stellar burst. Even more, he’s got surprising horizontal speed that make him dangerous in space. If he can learn to trust his instincts for the Chiefs in the middle, the team is going to have the sort of well-round playmaker they haven’t had since Derrick Johnson roamed the middle.