52. Mississippi State LB Willie Gay Jr.
6-foot-1, 243 pounds
Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.89
The lowdown: Gay was a highly touted high-school recruit who never quite reached the peaks expected of him — with multiple suspensions retarding his growth — but his elite testing numbers at the NFL combine and coverage ability he’s displayed have NFL teams fascinated.
Gay turned in a strong 2018 season, with five sacks and two interceptions, and showed he could handle a variety of roles on defense and special teams. His calling card was his pass coverage, though, even with some questions about his ability to read keys and fill lanes properly vs. the run.
Some of that appeared to be improved in 2019, but the biggest issue was that he was suspended (along with nine other teammates) a total of eight games last season, reportedly for academic fraud involving a tutor — and Gay later said it was in a chemistry class. The staff was allowed to pick which games the players could sit, so Gay only took the field five times last season (against Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss and the bowl game vs. Louisville).
Gay ran back a pick-6 on his first defensive series he played last season and improved his run defense in limited time over the course of the season. He also was everywhere in the bowl game loss, making 11 tackles (one for loss) and a forced fumble near his own end zone. It’s easy to appreciate his high-intensity style, even if it needs some toning down and refinement at times.
At the combine, Gay put up whopper numbers — a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, a 39 1/2-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-4 on the broad jump. Those are numbers you just don’t see often in an off-the-ball linebacker.
By the numbers: Gay only started six college games. But he was ejected twice in college for personal-foul and targeting calls.
Interesting fact: In addition to the academic suspension, Gay reportedly was in an altercation with expected starting QB Garrett Shrader prior to the Music City Bowl. Shrader suffered a chest injury and couldn’t play, but Gay was not suspended for his role in the incident.
Draft range: If Gay convinced teams that he’s not a character risk, it would not at all be stunning to see him drafted in the top 40 or 50 picks. One area scout told us before last season that Gay had a chance to develop into a first-round-caliber prospect eventually for his rare athletic ability.