Having already packaged its 2021 first-round pick in a trade to Baltimore in exchange for Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the Kansas City Chiefs took a “best player available” approach to its top pick, selecting Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton in second round of April’s 2021 NFL draft.
The choice came as a surprise to some in the football world considering the team spent last season’s second-rounder to bring in linebacker Willie Gay, also considered by some — such as The Associated Press’ Dave Skretta — to be a “gamble” of a pick.
The reason for the Bolton addition, however, likely has more to do with the status of defensive captain Anthony Hitchens, who one prominent outlet believes could be on the post-June 1 chopping block.
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Cutting Hitchens Could Net More Than $6M in Cap Space
Now entering his age 29 season, Hitchens accounts for over $23 million in cap hits over the final two years of his five-year, $45 million contract.
In a May 15 Bleacher Report roundup examining “the best player who could be cut from every NFL roster” this offseason, Hitchens drew the short stick for the Chiefs. Writer Alex Kay provided his reasoning for the selection:
One way Kansas City can get an infusion of salary-cap space is by cutting Anthony Hitchens, the veteran linebacker who has a $10.6 million cap hit in 2021 and a $12.7 million cap hit in 2022 before coming off the books.
Hitchens has been a great player for the Chiefs, but designating him as a post-June 1 release would give the team an additional $6.4 million in financial flexibility. It’s a significant amount of cap space for a team that is loaded with veterans and pushing for another Super Bowl ring this coming season.
Being able to sign a few more pieces at more problematic areas may force Kansas City to cut ties with a player who only chipped in 78 tackles last year while missing two games and playing 56 percent of the defensive snaps.
Currently sitting just north of $10 million in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public report, Kansas City ranks toward the middle of the pack in spending power, a positive sign considering its entire 2021 draft class is already under contract. Unless the Chiefs were serious contenders for a Julio Jones trade, the need for a large chunk of cash at this point in the year would be more of a luxury for the Chiefs than a necessity.
Like Hitchens, Bolton ‘Can Make All the Calls’
As such, the odds of Hitchens being released favor 2022 as opposed to this offseason, especially considering there is still a path to significant playing time for Bolton following the departure of two-year starter Damien Wilson, who in early April joined the Jacksonville Jaguars on a one-year free agent deal worth up to $2 million.
“Well, we certainly had a lot of opportunities to watch Nick Bolton play, being local, and just a great player,” Veach told reporters following round two of the draft on April 29. “So you talk about Nick Bolton, he’s a guy that can come in here and play both at the MIKE position and the WILL position and he’s got sideline to sideline range. Again, tough, smart, can make all the calls, has made all the calls.
“You look at Anthony Hitchens and he’s one of the guys that does all that for us, but when Hitch goes down we’re really looking to add depth there. Then, again, his versatility to play either MIKE or WILL.”
Back in February, Pro Football Focus also identified Hitchens as Kansas City’s “most likely” cut candidate. While there may soon be fire coming from this offseason smoke, the Chiefs’ current roster makeup favors another year of Hitchens leading Steve Spagnuolo’s defense as the club looks to reach its third consecutive Super Bowl.
Chris Licata is an NFL contributor covering the Kansas City Chiefs from enemy territory in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @Chris__Licata or join the Heavy on Chiefs Facebook community for the latest out of Chiefs Kingdom!