How The Kansas City Chiefs Will Try To Replace Willie Gay – Forbes
Following the suspension of linebacker Willie Gay Jr., the Kansas City Chiefs must replace their second-leading tackler and one of the defense’s most athletic players.
“It’s been next man up,” Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton said.
That next man is likely Darius Harris, according to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
Harris lacks much of an NFL resume, but the Chiefs had an inkling that Gay would be suspended and had time to prepare. So they must see something in Harris.
If nothing else, Harris is well-versed in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.
An undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee, the 26-year-old linebacker has been with the Chiefs since 2019.
He spent the first season on injured reserve, recovering from a shoulder injury and most of the next two seasons on the practice squad, though he started two games in 2020.
“He kind of knows everything. He’s a sharp kid,” Reid said. “He’s tough, has a good concept of the defense.”
But the 6-2, 232-pound linebacker has big shoes to fill.
Gay comes off one of the best games of his career. While on the field for 92% of the defensive snaps against the Los Angeles Chargers, he was everywhere.
Gay led the Chiefs with 11 tackles and two passes defended.
Those 11 tackles included two tackles for loss, which illustrated his athletic ability and instincts.
On a 2nd and 10 with 7:30 left in the first quarter, he perfectly read a screen play and tackled running back Austin Ekeler for a three-yard loss.
On the Chargers’ next possession, they tried some trickery with a throw back from DeAndre Carter to Ekeler, but Gay snuffed it out, resulting in a four-yard loss.
Off the field, Gay has had more issues. He was arrested in January after visiting his son. He got into an argument with the child’s mother, who called police after he damaged her home.
Gay has something of a violent track record. While in college at Mississippi State, he reportedly fought his quarterback Garrett Shrader, who broke his orbital bone, prior to the 2019 Music City Bowl (before Gay recorded a team-high 11 tackles and a forced fumble during the bowl game).
He agreed to go to mental health counseling in June, following the incident with his son’s mother.
“Obviously, the whole situation was a bad situation that we don’t want to happen,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “But at the same time, we love Willie as a guy and we want him to come back in and still be a great part of this team.”
Gay is in third year of his four-year, $5.3 million rookie contract, and his play has been worthy of an extension, though the Chiefs will likely factor in his off-the-field behavior that resulted in the NFL’s four-game suspension.
Harris, meanwhile, is in a contract year. His one year, $895,000 deal expires after the 2022 season. So he has an opportunity to showcase his defensive abilities and earn a raise with the Chiefs or another team.
To this point he’s mainly been a special teams player.
While Gay was on the field for 69 defensive snaps last week, Harris played just three, though he was involved in 53% of the special teams plays.
Rookie Leo Chenal has played 32 of 137 defensive snaps this season — third most on the team at linebacker — and had two tackles and quarterback hit against the Chargers, but Reid indicated that they wanted to keep him as a backup in their two-linebacker package.
Harris got some valuable experience off the bench, playing 15 defensive snaps because of the Week One, 44-21 blowout against the Arizona Cardinals, which the Chiefs led 37-7 going into the fourth quarter.
Harris and the rest of the linebackers will be integral against the Indianapolis Colts. Though the Colts are winless, they have last year’s leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 1,811 yards last year.
“He’s special, an elite running back in this league,” Bolton said. “When the ball is in his hands, he can get north and south quick.”
Bolton praised Harris’ energy but said it will be a group effort to fill Gay’s void.
“It comes down to the other 10 guys, rallying around D Harris,” Bolton said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re flying to the ball, (that) we’ve got 11 hats to the ball at all times, so it’s not just him making the plays.”
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