This is question 5/10 on my 10 Biggest Questions list. Here are some links to check out the other ones if you haven’t read them yet. Thanks!
- Question 1: Who Emerges as Long-Term Right Tackle?
- Question 2: Which WR Emerges as a Long-Term Solution?
- Question 3: Do the Chiefs Lean on the Offensive Line?
- Question 4: How Do Chiefs Win on 3rd Downs?
Brett Veach has been general manager for the Chiefs for five offseasons now. He’s been together for an entire draft class’s duration, which gives us a good representative sample of his tendencies and results. Veach has targeted every position with some asset at this point, but arguably no position has seen more investment in the Veach era than linebacker. Veach paid an 8-figure salary to a veteran for four seasons, while also putting four top 100 picks into the position over the course of five seasons. To say Veach has put a lot of resources into trying to find solutions for the position would be an understatement. Regardless of positional value and equity, getting linebacker correct was a huge priority for the organization.
For three years, the group has had a revolving cast of characters, but the two mainstays were Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann. Hitchens has led the team in linebacker snaps over the past four seasons, and Niemann was given the keys to communicating the 3rd down defense, which is where teams largely win in the NFL. While these guys may have had roles in the room and helped communicate down-to-down, both were pressure points for opposing offenses weekly. Teams did an excellent job isolating Hitchens in space on outside zone concepts, while also taking advantage of his lack of range in any type of play-action concept. The Chiefs did a lot to limit Hitchens in space, but you can’t account for everything, and teams were routinely able to make Hitchens a pressure point in space.
Niemann was arguably worse. I wish I had stats to track this, but teams did their absolute best to make him and Daniel Sorensen play in space on 3rd downs. The Chiefs were able to succeed on 3rd downs by putting Tyrann Mathieu in the MOF and keeping 2 safeties deep over the top, but the best teams were able to isolate these guys in space and the flat and pick up key conversions there. Spagnuolo tried his best to hide these guys through blitzing and disguising, but when teams can find your cadence on how you’re trying to hide a guy, they can mess with their formations to get a good matchup. One example of this would be the first Buffalo game last year.
Josh Allen to Dawson Knox vs. Kansas City 10/10/21 pic.twitter.com/5a7L9HL57a
— Bills TD A Day (@BillsTouchdown) January 22, 2022
This play doesn’t represent Niemann/Hitchens as pressure points, but represents the problems that Spags has had to try and solve for years. Because the Chiefs have to worry about Sorensen deep as a pressure point in a one-on-one, they stick Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill for more range and athleticism. Unfortunately, that means you’re leaving one of Niemann/Sorensen in space. This play is obviously broken, but when teams can find the way you shift to hide weakness, they can mess with their formations to get better looks. It’s been obvious for three years that this has been a problem for the Chiefs.
Veach watches tape too. It was clear and obvious how teams were using these players as pressure points for their offensive success, and the Chiefs clearly had seen enough. Veach swiftly released Hitchens this offseason, while also letting Niemann walk. It wasn’t a monetary issue, but the Chiefs made an executive decision to try and improve that position group.
I’m not trying to defend Hitchens/Niemann. Both were holes that the Chiefs had to work at to cover every single play. Still, that’s a big challenge for anyone to replace two veterans who have equity with the franchise. The coaching staff asked them to go out and execute and communicate the defense, which is no slight job. With those guys gone, the Chiefs are going to pin a lot on young players to be able to solve those problems for them in high-leverage stakes.
Luckily, there are at least potential solutions there. The Chiefs have been preparing for this moment for several seasons now, and have two incumbent solutions at the position in Nick Bolton and Willie Gay. What makes them unique as successors is that both have been given long leashes to develop at their own pace on the defense, while both still being on the right side of the development/expense curve. While it could be argued spending two 2nd-round picks on part-time linebackers is bad business (only applies to Willie in this case), the Chiefs viewed linebacker as such a cog in the machine that they needed guys with the necessary tools to play in this defense. For Spags, he puts a large premium on the ability to read offenses pre-snap and to put out small fires pre-and-post snap. For young players, that can be a difficult learning process.
Regardless, the Chiefs felt confident enough in Willie and Bolton to give them the keys to the cars in that room. There are no incumbent veterans or players in front of them, this is their show now. Both will be tasked with running a defense and executing it at a high enough level for the Chiefs to compete for a Super Bowl. The question isn’t whether the Chiefs will find a way to get these guys’ snaps, but instead how far are they developmentally? Let’s break down each of their career arcs so far.
With Willie, I think the Chiefs have to feel comfortable with his progress through two seasons. I was able to get some college film on him during the 2020 draft process, and it wasn’t great. He clearly wasn’t ready to play linebacker at a high level in the NFL. Athletically, he easily could hang with the best players in the league, but the ability to play the position wasn’t there yet. Year 1 was extremely limited, but I was pleased with where he ended the 2021 season. He showed improved coverage ability and processing. I still think there’s a way to go from a run processing sense, but Willie’s on a positive trajectory currently. My bigger question with him has to do with regression. It’s not that Willie is going to regress, but as the sample size of his snaps grows in the NFL, will certain weaknesses in his game such as processing stick out more. Because the Chiefs have limited his reps and responsibilities, teams haven’t made him an attack point on a snap-by-snap basis. If he is to play more, he’s going to have to prove he isn’t a weakness for teams to attack. If he can prove he’s not an advantage point for offenses, his ceiling dramatically improves long-term. Still, he’s going to have to prove it.
That sample size question applies even more with Bolton. To be perfectly candid, I didn’t like the Bolton pick in 2021. His college tape had some impressive moments, but the translation to the NFL wasn’t clear to me. His lack of agility and coverage ability made him a pressure point for SEC offenses. Bolton was a terrific college player, but I had serious concerns about his athletic profile in the NFL.
Now, in fairness, Bolton was much better in year 1 than I thought he would be. I was wrong, I own that. Yet, I still have questions about his long-term role. The Chiefs did a lot to limit his snaps to heavier personnel, and Bolton did play well when that was the case. His best game came against Tennessee last year, when the Titans were sticking heavy personnel on the field and running a basic offense built around longer-developing runs. When Bolton’s given a downhill trigger vs. the run, he’s a legitimately good linebacker.
Unfortunately, the NFL just doesn’t operate that way. Teams are going to force you to defend in space, particularly with the pass. This is a challenge for any linebacker, but it especially will be for Bolton. Can he overcome his weaknesses athletically in coverage enough to make a positive impact? Bolton’s got a much better athletic profile than 2021 Hitchens/Niemann, but it’s still not ideal for a player in space in 2022.
Both of these players have to prove their ability in coverage in 2022. Teams like to target new faces when the season comes. There’s no sense in attacking Justin Reid or L’Jarius Sneed ruthlessly in space because both have proven capable enough to where there’s not enough juice to squeeze out of attacking them. A team is going to look at the tape and decide to make them a pressure point very early in the season. If they come out early and prove that teams can’t attack them, then that drastically changes the ceiling of the defense. Yet, if both come out and struggle in larger roles, teams will have no problems isolating them in space and getting easy yards out of it. They certainly can improve over the course of the year, but it should be obvious fairly early where these guys project long-term.
Both Bolton and Willie have shown enough positive strengths that can correlate to success at the position. Willie’s athleticism is legitimately good, and Bolton’s tackling ability and play strength could make him a ++ run defender. Still, ceiling in the NFL isn’t decided by your strengths, but how well you can cover any weaknesses. With larger roles this year, Willie and Bolton have every opportunity to implant themselves in the long-term plans of the Chiefs. Veach’s vision involves both linebackers being long-term fissures for the organization, but now it’s on them to prove it. Their developmental arc will tell us a lot about how the Chiefs hope to build their defense long-term, and where the Chiefs plan to allocate their money going forward.