Willie Gay Jr. eager to compete for snaps in Saints LB corps

What’s the vision for Willie Gay Jr.? The New Orleans Saints acted quickly to sign the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker when free agency opened up, and it’s obvious they needed another player in the group after losing Zack Baun to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Many of Gay’s strengths overlap with Pete Werner as a highly athletic linebacker who can run with tight ends and running backs in coverage, but with the quick processing ability to read the field and flow to the ball on running downs. Something he does better than others is tracking a mobile quarterback and limiting big plays with their legs, which has been a major weakness for Dennis Allen’s defense.

And how does Gay see himself fitting into a defense that plays more nickel and dime personnel than plays with its base 4-3? He considered the challenge when introducing himself to local media this week.

“They have two great linebackers right now. Pete going into year four, Pete has been playing amazing, I’ve been watching him since we both were young bucks,” Gay said, noting that he came into the NFL just a year after Werner made the jump. “And of course Demario, he’s a Mississippi guy, from Brandon, Mississippi. I’ve been watching Demario since eighth grade. So just to be able to be on the field with those guys, whenever, definitely I know I’ve got to earn my stripes whatever position that may be, however many reps it may be, I’m excited for it.”

He’s open to anything, characterizing this experience as “a clean slate for me.” But Gay knows he’ll have to work for snaps. And with both him and Werner entering a prove-it year as pending free agents for 2025, he’ll have to fight hard through training camp to carve out a role not just this season, but beyond.

“I mean of course we’ll be competing for snaps, it happened to me last year, my fourth year of my contract,” Gay replied when asked about the training camp battle brewing. “Not to take food off anybody else’s plate but you definitely want to just get in, get to the point where you’re playing — me personally, more than I was last year.”

Gay totaled 698 defensive snaps in 19 games last  year (including the playoffs) for Kansas City, which averages out to 36.7 snaps per game. Compare that to the Saints linebackers:

  • Demario Davis: 1,074 snaps in 17 games (63.2)

  • Pete Werner: 919 snaps in 16 games  (57.4)

  • Zack Baun: 303 snaps in 17 games (17.8)

  • Nephi Sewell: 59 snaps in 7 games (8.4)

He won’t fill the same role as Baun on the strong side, often working as a designated pass rusher; Gay is at his best making plays in space either at the middle spot or on the weak side, where Werner and Davis trade off from one down to the next. So he’ll be looking to displace one of them to earn more reps. Maybe that means scaling back Davis as he ages, or going with a more confident coverage player and rotating Gay in for Werner on passing downs.

But if Gay had it his way, the Saints would just run their base personnel more often so all three of them could share the field: “I actually want to get out there, show what I can do, any way that’s possible. Us three on the field, we had a good room with the Chiefs, but me, Demario, and Pete, I feel like we can make something happen. I’m excited, that’s for sure.”

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire