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Kansas City Chiefs 2023 Preview – The Linebackers

We previewed the secondary… We look at the Linebackers.

Nick Bolton #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

When you think of the Kansas City Chiefs success in 2022, one of the first things that springs to mind is their defense. They are young, talented, and have every chance of becoming the next great defense in the NFL in 2023.

Taking a look at each position, the Chiefs have at least one star at each positional group. Underrated cornerback L’Jarius Sneed mans the back-end of the defense. Chris Jones and George Karlaftis anchor the defensive line. But is is their linebackers who may be the key to unlocking what can very easily be an elite unit this season.

Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Leo Chenal and newly veteran Drue Tranquill will set the tone in the Chiefs base 4-3 defense. And yet the Chiefs use a 4-2-5 nickel/dime package on passing downs. So just what makes these four arguably a top-5 linebacker group in the NFL? Also, I will preview the linebackers and how they can easily become the best position group in the NFL.

Nick Bolton

After learning in Year 1 behind former linebacker Anthony Hitchens, Nick Bolton has excelled in his role and brought some much needed athleticism and instincts to the middle of Kansas City defense. He has contributed 178 tackles, two sacks and 20 tackles for losses in 33 games played but, more importantly, has given defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a reliable three-down player to anchor his base and third down packages.

Listed at 5’11” and 237 pounds, Bolton has below-average size for the position but makes up for it with his athleticism, instincts and the ability to work through traffic, make blockers miss in space, locate and take good angles to the ball. His ability in coverage is what sets him apart from most of the Chiefs linebackers though as he displays very good zone awareness and ability to break from his landmark and impact the receiver at the catch point.

From an improvement standpoint, he needs to be quicker in keying and diagnosing run blocking schemes and must work to get stronger at the point of attack and working off blocks. These are things, though, that he should be able to improve on throughout the offseason into the 2023 season. If Bolton repeats the same performance like last season, don’t be surprised if Bolton earns his first All-Pro selection.

Willie Gay Jr.

Willie Gay Jr. has the best athleticism and tackling of any of the Chiefs linebackers. Gay Jr. even played the most defensive snaps he’d played in a single game since Week 2 of the 2022 NFL season before he was suspended for four games. That didn’t stop him from having a career season. 

Like Bolton, Gay Jr’s ability to stay on the field and make an impact in passing situations has been crucial to the flexibility of the Chiefs’ defense. With his ability to drop quickly to his landmarks and remain alert to routes crossing through his space or the athleticism, speed he displays with his ability to get vertical and stay in phase with the receiver in man coverage, the Chiefs can get more creative with their pass rush with using him on blitzes.

In the run game, Gay Jr. displays very good mental processing skills that was on display in 2022 attacking downhill while still maintaining gap integrity within the scheme. He also displays improved body control in his ability to work around blocks in small spaces and takes good angles in pursuit. Like Bolton, Gay Jr. also is undersized at 6’1, 235 and as such, lacks the strength to get off blocks at the point of attack if he doesn’t read the blocking scheme perfectly in the run game, but thus far has been well worth the second round investment Brett Veach made in him. Expect Gay Jr. in his contract season to be even better.

Drue Tranquill

The newly signed Drue Tranquill is a high-cut hybrid linebacker/safety. Tranquill can also line up on the edge or as an off-ball linebacker. 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 for the Chargers last season.

He was one of just 15 players to record 100+ tackles in addition to notching at least one sack, one interception and one forced fumble on the year, and among that pool of players, only Chiefs’ linebacker Nick Bolton recorded more total tackles on the season (180) than Tranquill.

Tranquill is smart, tough, and versatile and can play the Ben Niemann role on the defense when the Chiefs go into their dime package. He took on and shed offensive linemen and has the power and physicality the Chiefs like. 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 including giving Bolton or Gay Jr. a rest if needed.

Leo Chenal

Leo Chenal is still one of my favorite players to watch and for a good reason. Chenal is the freak athlete that fans love, however, he needs critical technical development while learning more about the system in Year 2. His run defense, versatility, and pass rush are what makes him like Tranquill, a jack-of-all-trades. Chenal can play either the Ben Niemann role or Spags can give him a role similar to Micah Parsons. He was the best run defender and pass rusher in the 2022 draft class. He can play as an edge or even as an interior rusher or run defender. Walker has some processing issues and needs to be more consistent taking on offensive linemen. He needs more playing time but has Pro Bowl physical traits. Processing doesn’t always significantly improve, so there is risk with Chenal with his potential reward but he’s a very reliable player down the road especially if any injury where to occur.


Jack Cochrane played in 15 games for the Chiefs last season where he compiled five solo tackles and eight total tackles on Special Teams. Cochrane helped the Chiefs defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship game and punch their ticket into the Super Bowl where Cochrane saw playing time. With 13:31 left in the second quarter, the Chiefs punted from their own 27-yard line. The punt from punter Tommy Townsend went 48 yards and was caught by Eagles wide receiver Britain Covey. Cochrane, who was playing blocker, ran down the field and assisted on the tackle stopping the Covey return. Cochrane has to show more than his special teams skill set in order to make the 53 man roster.

Lastly, Cam Jones is one player I am very interested in watching. He went undrafted but if he didn’t any injury before the pre-draft meetings, Jones would’ve been a 5-6RD selection in this season’s draft. Jones brings the same traits as Nick Bolton to the table as a heat-seeking missile against the run who needs to develop in coverage and as a pass rusher. Jones is another throwback Derrick Johnson style run-stuffing thumper who will be a valuable asset.


Bolton (23) and Gay Jr. (25) both could and should enter their prime years in a Chiefs uniform. Let’s hope Gay Jr.’s 2023 season isn’t likely his last, he proved in 2023 that he has ability to be one of our most important members of our defense. They also have talent in Tranquill, Chenal, Cochrane and Jones.

So, to summarize: This starting linebacker corps has shown in 2022 can be very effective in coverage, pressure and against the run. 2023 will be a big season for them and they’ll be fun to watch as the Chiefs look to defend their Super Bowl crown.

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