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Cowboys 2020 Draft: Mississippi State’s Willie Gay Jr. is an intriguing option at linebacker for Dallas

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Gay is one of the freakiest athletes in this year’s draft class and has the ceiling to become a very good player on the next level.

Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This year’s draft is going to have a lot of unpredictability in a virtual setting with team executives having to communicate over the internet and phone calls. Players will rise, while others will fall. Some teams will try the strategy of picking for need, while others will bank on potential down the line.

The Cowboys are almost certain to address pass rusher, the secondary, and wide receiver when the draft kicks off in two weeks. All of those holes need to be addressed with players that can come in and play — especially in the secondary.

A position that has not been talked about much regarding the Cowboys is linebacker. 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander-Esch have shown signs of being very productive players over their careers. Sean Lee is back, and the team re-signed Joe Thomas. How big of a need is linebacker for this year?

Well, the duo of Smith and LVE fell back to earth last season after looking like the sport’s next great linebacker duo in 2018. Both have serious injury concerns that have to make you wonder how good — and for how long — each of them can be. The Cowboys believed in Smith when they gave him an extension prior to last season, but that deal does not look as pretty now as it did then.

The Cowboys have tweeted out the virtual meetings that they have held with this year’s draft prospects (you can follow all of the virtual visits in this tracker). Some of those names include Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts, Baylor WR Denzel Mims, and LSU CB Kristian Fulton. Dallas also interviewed EDGE rusher and linebacker Zack Baun. Then, the team released footage of them interviewing Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, who is regarded as one of the best linebacker prospects in the class.

Murray is expected to be a first-rounder, and it is hard to imagine this team taking a linebacker on day one of the draft. Maybe it is just due-diligence if Murray falls, but Bobby Belt believes the team will prioritize the position within the first two days of the draft.

With that in mind, it is smart to think about different linebackers that the Cowboys could add in the draft.

Willie Gay, Jr. could be a sneaky option.

Mississippi State has produced a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball over the years: Fletcher Cox, Darius Slay, Chris Jones, and Preston Smith all wore maroon in college. Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat, and Johnathan Abram played on the same defense and were all first-rounders last year. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler did the best job on likely 2021 first-round receiver Ja’Marr Chase during LSU’s national championship season and will likely be a day-two pick.

Another one of those defensive stars out of Starkville is linebacker Willie Gay, Jr.

Gay, Jr. has not received a ton of hype during the draft process. A lot of that is because he was suspended for eight games during the 2019 season due to cheating on a chemistry test. The linebacker also got in a fight during Mississippi State’s bowl prep.

Those are the red flags that have prevented his stock from rising too much. On the field, though, Gay, Jr. is a star that made play after play during his career at his hometown school.

Willie Gay was ranked as the 33rd best prospect in America when coming out in the 2017 recruiting class per 247Sports, choosing the hometown Bulldogs over offers from Alabama, LSU, and Michigan. It was easy to see how much talent the linebacker had as soon as he arrived on campus, but he was truly able to showcase that during his sophomore season.

A big contributor on a defense that finished as the number one unit in 2018, Gay impacted the game in run support, as a pass rusher, and in coverage. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop utilized Gay in a number of different ways, and he was able to make an impact from anywhere.

An example of how he can impact a game is shown in the clip below. In back-to-back plays against Alabama in 2018, Gay rushed off of the edge and got to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for a sack. The next play, Gay faked as if he was blitzing again before dropping back in coverage and picking off Tagovailoa’s throw.

Gay is sometimes hesitant and is slow to react, but when he knows where the play is going and plays without overthinking, he is incredible to watch. The Mississippi State product would fly all over the field on Saturdays, making plays sideline-to-sideline. Here, he closed quickly and laid a big hit to force a punt.

He showed the ability to shoot gaps and play the run during his collegiate career. An example of that is shown below, as Gay exploded through the A-gap and made the play at the line of scrimmage.

The theme with Gay is when he plays on instincts and does not hesitate, he is a nightmare to deal with. Arkansas, as well as many other teams in the SEC, discovered that during his time with the Bulldogs.

If there is anything to not question about Gay is his speed at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds. He makes up a ton of ground on the football field.

Gay has shown to be good in coverage.

In today’s NFL, it is absolutely necessary for a linebacker to be able to defend the pass and cover both wide receivers and tight ends. You have to be quick and have awareness, otherwise quarterbacks are going to eat you alive. This is an area where Gay succeeded in college.

During Gay’s first defensive series of the 2019 season, he immediately made an impact — something that those watching Mississippi State became very familiar with. Kentucky was looking to come into Starkville and grab a big SEC road win. Gay had other thoughts right from the start.

The Mississippi State linebacker only played the first half of that game due to two personal foul penalties — one was because he took his helmet off after this play in celebration while still being on the field, while the other was a questionable call when he got in a post-play argument with a Kentucky offensive lineman.

Pro Football Focus is also very high on Gay. According to their data, the former Bulldog scored a 93.9 coverage grade since his career began in 2017, which is good for the highest grade of any linebacker in coverage in this year’s draft class.

The Draft Network’s Joe Marino writes that Gay has the coverage skills to be an every down player on the next level.

Has ideal traits to execute in coverage, making him an every down option. Shows strong anticipatory skills in coverage and has the physical ability to win in man coverage.

Linebackers that have Gay’s speed, athleticism, and length do not grow on trees. Those are key traits that should allow him to be effective in coverage on the next level.

Gay possesses elite athleticism and frame.

Despite only playing in five games a season ago and only officially starting six games over his three seasons in Starkville, Gay received an invitation to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. A big reason for that is that Gay possesses athletics that is extremely rare. He showcased just how freakish of an athlete he really is in Indianapolis.

Per his mockdraftable profile, Gay came in with four different categories that were 93rd-percentile or better at the NFL Combine:

  • 136” broad jump (99th)
  • 4.46 40-yard dash (97th)
  • 10 1/2” hands (96th)
  • 39 1/2” vertical jump (93rd)

Gay’s impressive combine showing caused many to go back and watch more tape on the Mississippi State product. While he certainly has flaws and areas that need to be improved, Gay’s athletic profile is hard to pass up on.

Daniel Jeremiah tweeted out earlier in the week that he would not be surprised to see Gay hear his name called early in the second-round, saying “he’s extremely explosive on tape”.

While PFF’s Mike Renner believes Gay would have been a first-round option if he had played the entire season last year.

From Dane Brugler’s draft guide, “The Beast” (which is more than worth getting if you want to be a smarter football fan):

SUMMARY: A one-year starter at Mississippi State, Gay played primarily the Will linebacker position in former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s scheme. A former top recruit, he showed flashes of high-level play during his time in Starkville, but consistency was an issue, playing in only five games in 2019 due to an NCAA suspension. Gay owns the athletic twitch and pursuit speed that is the medicine for horizontal offenses, chasing down jet sweeps and defending both sidelines. While he plays with passion, his decision-making (on and off the field) deserves scrutiny. Overall, Gay’s undisciplined play style and inconsistent key-and-diagnose skills create concern for his next level role, but he flows to the football with urgency and closing speed, showcasing special teams skills and NFL starting upside.

GRADE: 2nd Round

If the Dallas Cowboys are truly eyeing the linebacker position in this year’s draft class, Willie Gay should be one of the primary options to identify. Gay is an elite athlete that can make an impact on the defense in a number of ways as a pass rusher or in coverage.

Linebacker was once a strength for this team, but as we were reminded, things can change in an instance in the NFL. Injuries and players taking a step back have changed this position from perhaps the best unit on the team to an area of some concern.

There may be more pressing and immediate needs on this team, but players with Willie Gay’s athletic profile and ceiling to be an impact player on the next level do not come around very often. If Gay is on the board at 51, he should be in the conversation. If he is still there at pick 82, he would be a steal.

The team that takes Gay may have to be patient with his development, but he has the potential to be a boom type of pick.