There’s no direct replacement for Gay, but the Chiefs will have some options moving forward.
The Kansas City Chiefs are off to a 2-0 start this season, and a large reason why is because their defense has seemed to come along quicker than many expected. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. has been a big part of that development, but the third-year man is now slated to miss the team’s next four games as the result of a suspension due to a personal conduct policy violation.
Because of the league suspending Gay stemming from a January incident in Overland Park, Kansas, the Chiefs will be without their second-leading linebacker in terms of snaps for upcoming games against the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Las Vegas Raiders and Buffalo Bills. That slate contains a couple of daunting outings and even a pair of games against other playoff hopefuls, so there will be no easy going for Kansas City without Gay.
With Gay now out of the picture for the immediate future, how can the Chiefs make their best attempt at replacing him? The Arrowhead Report crew has a few ideas in mind.
Joshua Brisco: You could make an argument that Willie Gay Jr. is one of the Chiefs’ most irreplaceable defenders, and he’s certainly one of their most unique ones. There’s no “poor man’s Willie Gay” on this roster, so defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to get creative. Rookie Leo Chenal probably isn’t ready for the spotlight in coverage, and Darius Harris seems to be KC’s backup MIKE behind Nick Bolton. While Elijah Lee may be the most logical plug-and-play option, the Chiefs haven’t put him on the field in meaningful spots so far this year.
As suggested by Nate Taylor of The Athletic in the latest edition of Time’s Ours, perhaps Bolton could move back to WILL and allow Harris to start in the middle, while Bolton continues to call the defense. In passing situations, rookie safety Bryan Cook may be the team’s best bet as a pseudo-linebacker, but regardless of how they adjust, the Chiefs will be scrambling to fill in for Gay during his suspension.
Jordan Foote: Simply put, there’s no direct way to replace Gay. The Chiefs are definitely going to miss him and in his absence, the team’s depth at linebacker (and potentially other positions) is undoubtedly going to be tested. Elijah Lee, in this writer’s mind, appears to be the most logical replacement for Gay due to his experience. Darius Harris could also factor into the equation, as could rookie safety Bryan Cook. Steve Spagnuolo is known for being creative with some of the blitz packages he throws at opposing defenses, but that creativity will now be put to the test in another area as well. Kansas City will be worse off without Gay, but something tells me that they’ll stay afloat for the next month even without their über-athletic linebacker.
Mark Van Sickle: It will be difficult to replicate exactly what Willie Gay Jr. brings to the table. The Chiefs could use rookie Leo Chenal to fill on on a majority of the snaps Gay would typically receive and that would make sense. Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking would be to add rookie Bryan Cook into some of those snaps. He could see more playing time if they want help covering running backs or tight ends in certain packages.
The most logical move would be to see Darius Harris and Elijah Lee get expanded roles. Both looked solid during training camp and preseason and are veterans. They don’t bring the athleticism that Gay possesses but can play the run and get out in coverage. Hopefully whatever the patchwork plan there is, whether by rookie or veteran, can get the Chiefs through a quarter of the season without too much of a hiccup.
Conner Christopherson: The Chiefs do not have a proven replacement for Gay’s exact role on the roster. If they want to continue to have ample pass defenders on the field while still playing base defense or nickel defense, a player will have to step up in Gay’s absence to fill that role. This could be where rookies Bryan Cook (safety) and Jack Cochrane (linebacker) fill in, providing projectable box play while still being good athletes.
The more likely outcome of the Chiefs losing Gay for four games will be that Elijah Lee becomes the nickel linebacker and the Chiefs will live out of nickel for the next handful of games. Lee is not the athlete Gay is, but he should be able to operate near the line of scrimmage in the run game at the least. The Chiefs will need to come up with creative ideas to not have their two linebackers in these sets exposed in the passing game, however, there’s a reason why Gay was a key piece of this young defense.
Zack Eisen: Gay’s stock has only been rising since around midway through last season. The Chiefs losing him is a big hit to their defense, as he is their best coverage linebacker and has improved his run fits this season. Trying to pinpoint exactly how to replace him is hard because he does so many things well and is always around the football. The best guess would be every linebacker moves a spot up the depth chart. People immediately jump to rookie Leo Chenal filling the role, but I don’t think his coverage ability is good enough yet to be an every-down player.
Darius Harris makes a ton of sense as a guy who has been in the organization for multiple years and has flashed during his time in Kansas City. While that may be the most logical replacement, the Chiefs can get creative here. Spagnuolo played a lot of three-safety looks during his first three years in Kansas City. With Gay absent, could it make a return? Second-round pick Bryan Cook hasn’t seen the field much on defense yet but he has the physicality and athleticism to play in the box. Justin Reid is another option that can play near the line of scrimmage. These dime package looks would allow the Chiefs to keep a similar level of coverage ability and athleticism that Gay brings while he is out these next four weeks.