Chiefs rely on overlooked draft class amid rise in AFC West
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There was nothing glamorous about what Chiefs general manager Brett Veach did in the NFL draft.
The Chiefs didn't have a first-round pick after shipping it to Baltimore for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. They used their second-round choice on a local linebacker, loaded up with a couple of offensive lineman and added a project at defensive end and a tight end in the later rounds that perhaps could help spell Travis Kelce down the road.
No star running back. No big-play wide receiver. No stud pass rusher.
Yet what at first appeared to be a ho-hum draft haul has turned into a bunch of players that have had a crucial role in helping the Chiefs (6-4) overcome a sluggish start to win three straight and climb back atop the AFC West.
"Brett and his crew did a nice job of bringing guys in," coach Andy Reid said.
That might be an understatement.
Brown has provided an anchor on Patrick Mahomes' blind side to a completely reworked offensive line. Second-round pick Creed Humphrey has emerged as one of the NFL's top-rated centers regardless of experience level, and sixth-round pick Trey Smith took over the starting right guard spot in training camp and never let go.
The biggest coup, though, has been former Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton.
The Chiefs wanted to get faster and more athletic at linebacker, particularly when it came to helping in pass coverage, so they looked just down Interstate 70 for help. And while Bolton went through plenty of growing pains in the first couple of weeks of the season, when incumbent Anthony Hitchens took the majority of the snaps, he has come on in recent weeks.
With Hitchens sidelined by an injury, Bolton took over on-field play-calling duties and piled up 15 tackles with four for a loss against Tennessee. He added 11 stops the following week against the Giants, when the Chiefs' defense finally began showing some signs of life, and that began their current three-game winning streak.
"Just his numbers alone are tremendous," Reid said, "and then his knack for the game. Just that feel he's got. He's a smart kid. Doesn't say much — if you're interviewing him, you might not get a whole lot. But he talks on the field and he's accurate with what he's putting out there. So despite all that senior leadership that we have on defense, they're willing to listen to him because they know he knows his stuff."
Bolton currently has 47 solo tackles and 75 in all, both tops among rookies this season. He is 15th overall when it comes to total tackles, despite making only 25 as he was earning Reid's trust through the first four weeks.
Bolton is second among rookies with 10 tackles for loss, one behind Cowboys standout Micah Parsons, who will be on the opposite sideline when the Chiefs play Dallas on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
"I really came in every week trying to get a little bit better," said Bolton, who started his sophomore and junior seasons and became a second-team All-American at Missouri before leaving early for the NFL draft. "I feel like I've kind of done that to this point, trying to put myself in the best position to help our team."
As for the rest of the rookie class, defensive end Joshua Kaindoh was earning meaningful snaps before an ankle injury in Week 4 landed him on injured reserve. Tight end Noah Gray has played sparingly most of the season, but he caught his first career touchdown pass in last week's 41-14 rout of the Raiders in Las Vegas.
"I don't think I can point to any single aspect that has kind of progressed as the time has gone on just because naturally, I've been around these guys longer and have been able to pick their brains longer and been able to figure out what to work on," Gray said. "Just a huge thanks to the other tight ends because without them I wouldn't have been able to do that."