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Chiefs Depth Chart: Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Drue Tranquil, Leo Chenal

Going into this season, one of my biggest questions about the Kansas City Chiefs was going to be about how they deployed their linebackers.

When they signed Drue Tranquill in free agency, that gave them four viable linebackers that could realistically play on any given snap. How would the Chiefs distribute the snaps, and how well would guys play in adjusted roles?

Through two weeks, it’s been incredibly encouraging. Between Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Leo Chenal and Tranquill, the linebackers are playing some of their best football in their careers.

So, what are the causes of this happening? How are the Chiefs finding ways to maximize them? Let’s look at their snap distribution first:

Snap distribution

All snap data provided by Joseph Hefner’s Team Formations App:

Two weeks is a small sample to glean information from, but there are two main takeaways for me with the linebacker snaps:

  1. Tranquill is getting snaps in many different opportunities
  2. The 3-3-5 package of Bolton, Chenal and Tranquill might be something to monitor all season

To start with Tranquill, he’s seeing snaps in multiple packages. He’s only played three Dime snaps so far, but he’s rotating in with both Gay and Bolton in the Nickel and base packages. When they signed Tranquill, I thought it was mainly to replace Gay’s snaps, but he’s eaten into some of Bolton’s early on as well. I’ll be intrigued to see if his Dime reps go up moving forward.

My other main takeaway deals with the 3-3-5 package the Chiefs are deploying. I’ll touch on this in a future post, but Kansas City has started turning to more of this look this year. Through two weeks, they’ve played 13 snaps with this package — and Chenal, Tranquill, and Bolton are all a part of it.

Part of me wonders if this was specific to the Jaguars and their RPO game, but they’re finding ways to get Tranquill and Chenal on the field more. Now, let’s dive into the film of these linebackers and what they’re doing well:

Drue Tranquill

The first thing that stands out about Tranquill’s game has always been his range and athleticism. This play perfectly demonstrates that.

The Lions run a quick swing screen to speedy running back Jahmyr Gibbs, and Tranquill is entirely out-leveraged on this play. Still, he closes the space incredibly quickly, getting all the way to the sideline to make this play only go for 8 yards. Any other linebacker probably isn’t able to close off the inside quick enough to cut off a big space, but Tranquill covers a ton of ground rapidly.

Tranquill’s not only making a difference with his speed, but he’s shown more physicality than he did with the Chargers. The Lions are running inside zone here from I-formation, and the fullback is assigned with being a lead blocker on Tranquill. Tranquill reads this quickly, flying in to stun the fullback, using his inside shoulder to stunt the block entirely.

This reduces the space frontside for this run, and the running back is forced to run into traffic.

Leo Chenal

In Chenal’s rookie year, most of his best plays came at moments in which he flashed his physical dominance. We get those same high-level physical traits through two games, but his processing has also improved.

On this play, the Lions run counter with their guard and wing tight end pulling. Chenal instantly keys the guard pulling, which means he’s responsible for the backside wrap block by the tight end. He quickly moves to scrape over the top of the climbing tackle, which allows him to take on the tight end head-on.

L’Jarius Sneed makes this play happen by avoiding the kick-out block by the guard, but Chenal’s quick diagnosis and block deconstruction would’ve also made this play go nowhere.

This play is probably the best of Chenal’s career. The Jaguars run a throwback screen to their running back, but Chenal’s on top of it the entire time. He sees the running back leak late and tackles him along the sideline. The discipline Chenal plays with is impressive for a young player.

Of course, the physical moments stand out the most for Chenal. On this play, the Jaguars have their tight end solo-block Chenal — which, unsurprisingly, was a disaster for the offense. Chenal gets an extension going inside on the block, setting a solid edge. Then he throws the tight end to the ground, using a swim move to get disengagement and clean up for the tackle. Chenal’s block deconstruction is among the best I’ve scouted for linebackers, and it’s showing up on his film all the time this season.

Willie Gay

Gay’s best trait in the NFL has always been his blitzing ability, and it seems the Chiefs have a plan to use Gay more in that department this year. This was on the first third down of the season, and the Chiefs slant their defensive line to the right, opening a one-on-one for Gay against the running back in pass protection.

Gay gets a full headstart into the running back but flashes impressive power in his hands to knock the running back into the quarterback’s throwing window.

Nick Bolton

Bolton’s game or usage has carried over to this year, but he’s still performing well in his role. Some of his fundamental issues (beating straight-ahead blocks and turning in coverage) are still there, but he’s improving his strengths (playing downhill and tackling in space).

On this play, the Jaguars are running a Toss-Sweep, and Bolton is quick to key the pitch, get over the top of the climbing blocks and meet the running back in the hole before he can accelerate.

This was a touchdown-saving play by Bolton. The Jaguars run a read-option with Trevor Lawrence, and when Sneed dives inside against the run, Lawrence decides to keep. However, Bolton saw the mesh coming with Lawrence and stayed in a good position to meet him at the sideline.

The range and athleticism to beat Lawrence to the sideline is impressive, but the quick diagnosis was superb by Bolton.

Bolton still has issues with getting off blocks. That’s a consequence of being 5’11” with short arms, but I do think he’s improved beating some blocks this year. This play is an excellent example of that.

The Jaguars run G-H counter, and Bolton takes on the wrap block from the tight end. Bolton gets his body in front of the block, blowing up any space in the hole. Bolton going downhill into any block is good, but he’s utilizing his power and explosiveness more when dealing with blocks.

The bottom line

The Chiefs have a good problem: they have too many solid linebackers!

All four linebackers are playing at a high level currently, but it’s hard to get them all snaps. I’ve clamored for more Tranquill and Chenal, but it’s difficult to get them more snaps with how well the unit is playing as a whole.

I’ll be interested to track how Spagnuolo deploys these guys moving forward. Is the 3-3-5 here to stay? Will Tranquill play a more dime linebacker? Regardless, as mentioned, these are good problems to have.

If the linebackers continue to play as well as they have early on this season, there’s no reason the Chiefs defense shouldn’t sustain the early success they’ve had.


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