Will the Kansas City Chiefs have an odd man out at linebacker?

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers
Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers / Harry How/GettyImages

The Kansas City Chiefs have a talented young linebacker group. Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Chiefs linebacker group the 6th best in all the NFL. The quartet of Nick Bolton, Willie Gay Jr., Drue Tranquill, and Leo Chenal give KC great depth and talent at the linebacker position, but are there enough snaps to go around this season for all four to regularly get on the field?

Last season the Chiefs relied so heavily on Nick Bolton that he almost never came off the field. He played 97.47% of KC's defensive snaps. In a distant second was Gay who played 52.96% of the defensive snaps. Darius Harris was actually third on the team with 25.35% of the defensive snaps and Chenal was fourth with 22.74%.

The Chiefs have not re-signed Harris this offseason, but they did surprise some by signing Drue Tranquill who was a key linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers last season to a one year deal. Tranquill played 93.41% of the defensive snaps for the Chargers last season and was easily their best coverage linebacker.

Prior to the Tranquill signing, it was reasonable to think that Gay and Chenal could see an increase in the amount of snaps they would play this season, but now the Chiefs are faced with a good problem to have. How do they get all four of these linebackers on the field? Yes, they have the snaps vacated by Harris, but Tranquill played almost 700 more snaps for the Chargers last season than Harris did for KC. Even with a down linebacker free agent market, you have to assume Tranquill didn't sign with KC to play that limited of a role.

The Kansas City Chiefs have four linebackers on their roster that can make a strong case for playing time, but will there be enough snaps to go around?

The question I have before training camp rolls around is if one of K.C.'s linebackers is going to be the odd man out this season. Will Nick Bolton see his snaps reduced? Will we see less Willie Gay on passing downs in favor of Drue Tranquill? Will Leo Chenal be relegated to simply a backup and special teams player?

Before taking a closer look at those questions, let's look at some key details including each linebacker's age and contract situation.

  1. Nick Bolton - 23 years old - signed through the 2024 season
  2. Willie Gay Jr. - 25 years old - in final year of contract
  3. Drue Tranquill - 27 years old - on a one-year deal
  4. Leo Chenal - 22 years old - signed through the 2025 season

I don't believe age and contract will be the most important factor in who gets playing time this season, but I do think we need to keep in mind that Bolton and Chenal are the only ones that are guaranteed to be with the team beyond this year.

Next, let's look at how each of the four graded out against the run and in coverage with PFF last year.

  1. Nick Bolton - 81.4 run defense grade, 73.8 coverage grade
  2. Willie Gay Jr. - 54.5 run defense grade, 74.1 coverage grade
  3. Drue Tranquill - 49.2 run defense grade, 75.4 coverage grade
  4. Leo Chenal - 67.2 run defense grade, 55.0 coverage grade

When it comes to stopping the run, Bolton finished with PFF's ninth-best run defense grade in the entire NFL. Chenal showed some promise against the run in his limited snaps as a rookie and Gay and Tranquill both graded out in the lower third of starting linebackers. Physically, Tranquill is built like a coverage linebacker and doesn't seem like a great fit for three-linebacker sets or short-yardage situations. Gay has the size and power to stop the run but has struggled with being in position or with over-running plays.

These run grades (and the eye test) make a case for Chenal getting more reps in three linebacker sets and short-yardage situations. I doubt he plays much (or at all) in clear passing situations, but the signing of Tranquill may actually not have much of an effect on Chenal. Darius Harris seemed to get some reps last year in two linebacker sets where KC was still worried about the run. It's possible Chenal could be considered for a similar role if he takes a step forward in his second season. It's also worth noting that Chenal had arguably his best game of the year in the Super Bowl.

Passing downs is where things get interesting. Both Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill have graded out much better against the pass than against the run throughout their careers. Does that mean we could see some two-linebacker sets with Gay and Tranquill where K.C. is anticipating the other team throwing? That would allow Bolton to actually get a breather now and then after playing almost all the defensive snaps last season.

Bolton appears to be K.C.'s most trusted linebacker, so there's no guarantee they will be taking him off the field. Bolton made strides against the pass last season, but it's still an area of the game where he needs to continue to grow. While his pass coverage grade wasn't far behind Gay and Tranquill last season, general consensus (and the eye test) says that he's behind Gay and Tranquill in coverage abilities. So will K.C. take their star linebacker off the field more on passing downs? Time will tell.

I actually believe the linebacker that should be the most concerned about his playing time is Willie Gay. I hope that I'm wrong about that because I think Gay is the most physically gifted linebacker on the Chiefs' roster. The problem has always been that the coaches don't seem to fully trust him. Last season was the first time he played more than 50% of the defensive snaps (and it was just 53%). Early in his career, Gay lost playing time to Ben Niemann. Niemann wasn't remotely close to Gay physically, but K.C. trusted him to be in the right place at the right time. Tranquill is a much more talented player than Niemann, so what happens if Tranquill shows himself to be more reliable?

If Chenal takes a step forward and is clearly the second-best linebacker vs the run and the Chiefs don't want to take Bolton off the field much at all because of his leadership, that could leave Tranquill and Gay competing for passing down reps next to Bolton.

The good news for Chiefs fans is that it has been ages since the Chiefs had four legit talents at linebacker on the team competing for snaps. They now have the depth to survive an injury at the position without playing someone that is a liability. My hope is that they can find a nice rotational balance that uses all four players in a way that plays to their strengths. If they can do that, they may even outperform the sixth-place linebacker ranking they received from PFF.

So what do you think Chiefs fans? Do you think one of these four linebackers will be the odd man out this season? Do you think Chenal will find his development delayed this season or will he still earn his way onto the field? Will the Chiefs try to reduce Nick Bolton's huge snap count? Could Willie Gay find himself a part time player with the arival of Drue Tranquill? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.