Greater physicality from the linebackers
Anthony Hitchens, who the Chiefs released this offseason, was the Mike linebacker in 2021 and suppressed snap counts among the younger and more talented linebackers on the roster. Another familiar face of the past four seasons, Ben Niemann, has departed from Kansas City, and although he was more prevalent as a special teamer, he still took nearly 50% of defensive snaps last year which limited the likes of Nick Bolton and Willie Gay.
Hitchens and Niemann, while lauded as leaders in the locker room, were underwhelming in regards to the demand for the linebacker position. The best in the business possess some of the greatest instincts on the defensive side of the ball. Along with the responsibility of calling out plays and audibles, the second level is responsible for guarding tight ends and offering support in the slot while also suppressing the run. Hitchens and Niemann were neither great in coverage or as tacklers and their playing time being forfeited to the young guns should open the door for far greater physicality in the second level.
Nick Bolton is the new Mike, Willie Gay will occupy the weak side and competition is open between Leo Chenal and Jermaine Carter on the strong side. In 2021, while only playing 55% of snaps, Bolton led the Chiefs in tackles (112) and showcased that ability against the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry. He led the charge in week 7 against the most physically imposing running back in the league with 15 tackles (9 solo).
WIllie Gay was up and down with an injury and was only available for 12 games last season, but was still able to haul in two interceptions, defend 4 passes, record half a sack, and got in on 48 tackles in a limited campaign. Barring injury in 2022, he should be a notably prevalent force against the run and in coverage as he takes on a much more significant role in his third season.
Now for the greatest competition in the linebacker room: Leo Chenal vs Jermaine Carter. Any believer in the prospect that iron sharpens iron should be ecstatic to keep up with this battle throughout camp. Shortly after being drafted, Chenal was asked what he would bring to Kansas City and his response, “physicality and violence,” was met with applause. He continued to say, “I’m addicted to hitting people. I love it. I can’t get enough.” That type of energy is what was seemingly absent among the “core” of the group in 2021 and is more than welcome by Chiefs Kingdom. The obstacle that lies between Chenal and a starting role for the Chiefs in 2022 is a four-year veteran who emerged as a full-time starter in Carolina last year, Jermaine Carter.
Carter’s strength lies in fundamental tackling (88 combined last year), the ability to shake blockers, and plus coverage ability. What plays in Chenal’s favor for his impact in year one is his ability to get after the quarterback. He had 11 sacks in his collegiate career (8 in 2021) which is more than Carter has in his college (Maryland) and professional careers combined. Additionally, Chenal led Wisconsin in tackles last year with 115. Carter may be more polished as a coverage LB, but Chenal is a player lauded for a high ceiling and can work towards that potential while displaying his strength and physicality.
The most notable identity shift for the linebacking corps in 2022 will be that physicality. While the Chiefs deploy a base 4-3 defense in today’s day and age, the potential of the talent and aggression in this room is reminiscent of 2012 with the likes of Justin Houston, Jovan Belcher, Derrick Johnson, and Tamba Hali.