Mid-round Spotlight: Willie Gay Jr.

Sam Penix
Sam is a massive Cleveland sports fan who has covered the city's agony since 2016. He is fond of the Cavaliers and Indians, but his true passion is for the Browns and the NFL Draft.

Aside from Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, the 2020 NFL Draft class lacks elite talent at linebacker. However, Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. will be a Day 2 pick, but has first-round talent.


Gay spent three years at Mississippi State, playing in 28 games. He played in only five games in 2019 due to a foot injury and suspension. He was involved in a cheating scandal involving a tutor completing homework assignments for players, reportedly got into a fight during practice with quarterback Garrett Shrader, breaking Shrader’s orbital bone. Gay was also ejected from the Egg Bowl in 2018 after registering two personal fouls.



Gay is a solid 6’1″ 243lbs with long 32 5/8″ arms. He should have zero issue holding up physically in the NFL and can punish ballcarriers.


Gay has zero issue with hitting, whether he’s engaging a blocker or tackling a runningback. He flies all over the field and loves to make the big hit.


Gay is noticeably athletic on tape, and his fantastic Combine performance confirmed that. Here are his drill results and how they rank among other LBs this year:

40-yard dash: 4.46 – 2nd

Vertical jump: 39.5″ – 2nd

Broad jump: 136″ – 1st

20-yard shuttle: 4.3 – 7th

3-cone: 7.08 – 8th

Willie Gay is explosive and has the athleticism to do everything asked of a modern NFL LB.


Gay’s athleticism gives him true sideline-to-sideline range. He can chase down ballcarriers from the other side of the field and has fantastic closing speed.


Over the past two seasons, Gay has earned Pro Football Focus coverage grades of 90.0 and 90.6, respectively. He collected three interceptions and four passes defended during his career. Coverage skills at the LB position have never been more important, and that’s what will get Gay drafted.

Block Shedding

It doesn’t matter if Gay is trying to stop an RB or rushing the passer; he is very hard for a blocker to keep engaged. He has very good bend around the edge and his long arms allow him to keep offensive lineman off of his chest. He’s also strong enough to to hold his ground and throw a blocker to the side.


Whether it’s up the middle or around the edge, Willie Gay shows great pass rush ability. He earned a solid 77.6 pass-rush grade in 2019. He can overrun the QB at times, but his closing speed is excellent and he can close the gap between him and the passer in a hurry.



Gay is not the most instinctive player. He can sniff out plays at times but play recognition is not his strength. This limits his potential as a MIKE backer and will likely relegate him to WILL in the NFL, where he can use his speed and coverage ability better.

Run Defense

Run defense is not Gay’s strength. He is a reactive player between the tackles and while that works at times, on the majority of plays he’s making a tackle 5-6 yards downfield. He won’t be making many big plays against the run in the NFL.


Gay is often caught hesitating instead of trusting his instincts and as a result the offense is able to make a big play or avoid a bad one. At times Gay will be trapped between dropping into coverage or blitzing, instead just hopping up and down in no-man’s-land trying to make a decision. He needs to learn to just play and stop trying to overthink things. Average instincts + indecisiveness is not a good combination.

Out of control

Willie Gay is generally a good tackler but he can tend to play too fast. Over 846 career snaps Gay missed nine tackles, which is not a bad number, and he earned a 78.3 tackling grade in 2019. It’s more an issue of him going for a big hit instead of wrapping up properly, and one that can be fixed with coaching.

Pursuit angles

Gay may have elite speed, but he doesn’t do himself any favors when choosing pursuit angles. He routinely gives up anywhere from three to seven extra yards simply because he initially took too sharp an angle to the ballcarrier. This is another problem that can be ironed out with experience and coaching, but it will make fans and his coaches furious until he fixes it.


The biggest knock on Willie Gay is his character. His involvement in an organized cheating scandal is concerning, as the altercation in which he severely injured his own teammate. Teams must be very careful in doing their homework on him, and that becomes much more difficult now that in-person visits are not happening.


28 games over three seasons is not a lot, and Gay was a backup for 16 of those. 846 snaps just isn’t a lot to go off of, and even though he showed plenty of promise in college, he’s still a big risk, even when not considering his character concerns.


Gay totaled 99 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, three picks, and PDs during his career. Those would be good numbers for one 12-game season, but much less so when spread over 28. The list of players who are significantly more productive in the NFL than they were in college is short.

Bottom Line

Willie Gay Jr. is an intriguing prospect with first-round physical tools, but he lacks the polish and production of a top prospect. His character concerns will cause some teams to completely remove him from their boards, especially because Gay’s incidents are recent. But if Jeffrey Simmons (Gay’s former teammate) can be a top-20 pick, it’s hard to see Gay lasting past the middle of the third round at the very worst. His coverage skills and athleticism should translate well, even if he never develops into an all-around player.

Read about another Combine star and mid-round prospect Jack Driscoll.

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