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Pre-Camp Breakdown: Examining the Chiefs’ Young and Athletic Linebacker Corps

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By: Matt McMullen, Chiefs Reporter

 

The Kansas City Chiefs are set to kick off training camp in just a few days, and with the annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph nearly here, we’re examining every position group on the roster heading into camp.

Here’s a look at what we’ve covered so far: QB | RB | TE | WR | OT

We’ll continue with linebacker, where the Chiefs currently employ eight players. Kansas City has invested significant draft capital into this position in recent years, resulting in a young and athletic group that stands among the best in the league.

Here’s a closer look at each linebacker on the roster, beginning with last year’s returning starters and then sorted alphabetically.

Nick Bolton

One of the top young linebackers in the NFL, the 23-year-old Bolton ranked second in the NFL in tackles last season (180) while also becoming one of just nine players to tally 100+ tackles to go along with multiple interceptions and multiple sacks. He recorded at least 10 tackles in nine games, which marked the third most of any player in the NFL. Additionally, Bolton’s fumble recovery for a touchdown in Super Bowl LVII helped secure Kansas City’s second world championship in four seasons.

The former second-round pick was also solid in coverage, logging the most coverage snaps (670) of any linebacker in the NFL last season while recording the ninth-best Pro Football Focus’ coverage grade among linebackers with 500+ coverage snaps (a pool of 30 players).

Bolton’s efforts landed him on NFL.com’s recent “All-Under-25 Team” entering the 2023 campaign, and he was also ranked as the No. 10 overall linebacker in the league by Sports Illustrated. Here’s what SI’s Gilberto Manzano wrote about Bolton:

“You might not be familiar with the name, but you’ve definitely noticed the middle linebacker in the No. 32 jersey flying around making plays for the Chiefs during postseason games. Bolton, 23, flashed as a rookie in 2021, but he really took his game to the next level in Year 2 by stacking 180 total tackles, the second most in the league. As a unit, the Chiefs’ defense often gets forgotten (as teammates of Patrick Mahomes); Bolton said himself that the defense doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s also time to acknowledge that Bolton is one of the best linebackers in the league.”

Willie Gay Jr.

Gay is entering his fourth season with the Chiefs after appearing in 13 games in 2022, logging the second-most defensive snaps (607) of any linebacker on the team behind only Nick Bolton’s 1,119. The 25-year-old Gay recorded career-bests in several categories, too, including total tackles (88), tackles-for-loss (9), pressures (9), passes defensed (8), quarterback hits (4) and sacks (2.5).

One of the most athletic players on the team, Gay was also strong in coverage last season. He tallied 308 coverage snaps in 2022, earning Pro Football Focus’ No. 16 coverage grade among linebackers with 300+ coverage snaps.

Gay will aim to build on that strong campaign in 2023 as one of the Chiefs’ primary linebackers once again.

Leo Chenal

A third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Chenal is entering his second season with the Chiefs following an impressive rookie season that included action in all 17 regular-season games. The former Wisconsin star logged 261 defensive snaps (fourth among Chiefs’ linebackers) and 281 special teams’ snaps, which ranked fourth on the team among all players.

The 22-year-old Chenal will likely have a chance to earn even more snaps going forward, primarily in short-yardage situations.

Cole Christiansen

Christiansen, who signed with the Chiefs’ practice squad in early September of last season, went on to appear in one game (Week 6 vs. Buffalo) for Kansas City in 2022. He logged 18 special teams’ snaps in the game.

The 25-year-old linebacker appeared in seven games for the Los Angeles Chargers between the 2020-21 seasons before signing with Kansas City.

Jack Cochrane

An undrafted free agent signee in 2022, Cochrane was elevated to the active roster early in the year and went on to appear in 15 regular-season games as a core contributor on special teams. In fact, his 262 special teams’ snaps ranked sixth on the squad.

The University of South Dakota product will now have an opportunity to either resume or grow that role with a strong training camp.

Cam Jones

An undrafted free agent signee from Indiana, Jones was one of the higher-profile names available on the open market following the conclusion of the 2023 NFL Draft. In fact, Jones was the No. 15 overall linebacker in this year’s class according to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. He projected Jones to be selected in the fifth or sixth round in his pre-draft guide, writing the following:

“Overall, Jones’ take-on and shed skills require further maintenance, but his instincts and short-area quicks lead him to the football, where he looks to create violent collisions as a tackler. He is a ready-made special teamer with the talent to inch his way up the linebacker depth chart.”

The 6-foot-1, 226-pound linebacker racked up 208 tackles, 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 11 passes defensed, seven sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions in 47 career games (23 starts) from 2018-22. He also played on kick and punt return coverage in all five of his seasons.

Additionally, Brugler wrote that Jones was on his way to a career year before suffering a season-ending foot injury midway through the campaign. Prior to the injury, he was leading the Big Ten in tackles-per-game (10.8) through five contests. Brugler added that Jones remained on the sideline as an extra coach throughout the rest of the year despite the injury.

Isaiah Moore

An undrafted free agent signee from North Carolina State, Moore was the No. 17 linebacker in this year’s class and a projected fifth or sixth-round pick according to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler.

Moore – who stands at 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds – earned the distinction of being called a “smashmouth run defender” in Brugler’s draft guide. He recorded 55 starts during his college career, earning Team Captain honors in each of the last three seasons while racking up 341 total tackles, 43.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks and 11 passes defensed.

Drue Tranquill

A veteran free agent addition in late March, Tranquill brings an experienced and diverse skillset to the Chiefs’ linebacker corps. The No. 130 overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Tranquill went on to appear in 47 games (27 starts) for the Los Angeles Chargers over the last four seasons.

The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Tranquill was on the field for 1,051 total snaps last season (including the playoffs), which marked more than he had amassed in his previous three seasons combined (947). He certainly made the most of that playing time, too, finishing 12th in the NFL in total tackles (144) while tallying 10 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.

Additionally, the 27-year-old Tranquill is a jack-of-all-trades at the linebacker position who possesses a varied skillset that will benefit the Chiefs in a number of ways. He can be an effective pass-rusher, as evidenced by his five sacks and seven hurries on 70 pass-rush snaps in 2022, but his coverage ability is also impressive.

In fact, Pro Football Focus assigned Tranquill the seventh-best coverage grade among all linebackers with 900+ total snaps last season. For further context, that grade would have led all Chiefs linebackers (regardless of snaps played). Here’s more from the folks at PFF:

“Perhaps most importantly in today’s NFL, Tranquill followed up his 74.6 coverage grade in 2021 with a career-high 75.4 mark, with his 18 stops in coverage a top-20 figure among off-ball linebackers. He also made the absolute most of the occasional blitz, tallying 15 pressures, five sacks and three more quarterback hits on 70 pass-rush snaps.”

It’s worth noting that Tranquill was a safety early in his college career, so he’s a natural fit as a hybrid, coverage linebacker.

The Bottom Line

The Chiefs kept just four linebackers on the initial 53-man roster last year, but it’s worth mentioning that they held onto five in both 2021 and 2020. It’s a near certainty that the quartet of Bolton, Gay, Chenal and Tranquill will be on the Week 1 roster this year barring injuries, meaning that the other four linebackers currently on the team could be competing for just one potential spot.

It’s not out of the question that the Chiefs decide to keep six linebackers, as they did so as recently as 2019. The initial 53-man figures can also be deceiving, however, as the expanded practice squad allows for those who don’t make the initial cut to stick around and potentially make an impact later. An excellent example of that fact is Jack Cochrane, who was waived following training camp last year but went on to appear in 15 regular-season games and all three playoff contests.

Regardless, this has the potential to be the best group of linebackers that the Chiefs have featured in several years as one of the most athletic and dynamic units in the NFL.