Although the 2021 campaign didn’t end the way the Kansas City Chiefs would have liked, there were bright spots that emerged that should play a large role in the future of this franchise.
More specifically, the Chiefs’ rookie class had three immediate success stories in linebacker Nick Bolton, center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith. The first-year defender out of Missouri made a name for himself as the season went along, and did not fall short of his second-round status with a linebacker grade that ranked eighth in the NFL on Pro Football Focus (minimum of 50% snaps).
This stellar campaign flew a bit under the radar with the national media though, which is why Football Outsiders labeled Bolton their “most underrated” Chief heading into 2022.
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Bolton Steadied the Ship as a Rookie
The writers described underrated as players who “deserve more recognition” for their efforts. Concerning Bolton, they voiced:
If the Chiefs defense hadn’t been such a disaster in the first half of the 2021 season, Bolton might have been a popular candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Bolton led all rookie defenders with 70 solo tackles and 42 assists last year. Per Sports Info Solutions, Bolton recorded 60 tackles short of a first down on rushing plays and allowed just 14 catches for 131 yards on 21 pass targets. Solid numbers for any linebacker, let alone a rookie for a shaky defense.
It was certainly a breakout start in an area Kansas City really needed someone to step up. Willie Gay Jr. missed the first four weeks of the year — five absences total — while veteran Anthony Hitchens continued to regress. Bolton’s ability to outplay both of them as a rookie led to the latter’s release in February.
Now, a third youngster joins the room in 2022 draft pick Leo Chenal, which speaks to how Football Outsiders ended the section on Bolton.
“The Chiefs are trying to rebuild their defense around younger players like first-round picks George Karlaftis and Trent McDuffie in the wake of last season’s disappointing finish,” explained the staff of analysts, “Bolton should emerge as a leader for a unit that will be expected to grow up in a hurry.”
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Has KC Found Their New Leader?
During a segment of the SportsBeat KC podcast on June 27, Kansas City reporters Blair Kerkhoff and Jesse Newell debated who is “best qualified” to take over Tyrann Mathieu’s leadership role on the defensive side of the football.
The answers were surprisingly two newer Chiefs in safety Justin Reid and the aforementioned Bolton. Kerkhoff went with the linebacker but wondered aloud if the second-year prospect’s small sample size of “credentials” would lend itself to the role.
Newell agreed that it might, stating: “Yeah he definitely could [become a leader]. I don’t want to misquote [Kansas basketball coach] Bill Self but he always had a similar saying to that which is — ‘it’s really hard to be a leader from the bench.’ There is a certain level of ‘I need to be able to play well’ because guys aren’t gonna listen to somebody who — ‘hey, that’s nice of you to say that but you aren’t playing. You are not one of the most productive players on the team.’ Nick Bolton should be though.”
The pair was also impressed with his interviews and positional wherewithal considering the linebacker just turned 22 in March.
Ironically, Bolton decided to switch to Mathieu’s former jersey number this spring and will don the memorable No. 32 that belonged to the “Honey Badger” before him. A look to fit his budding personality.