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In a best-case scenario, by the time spring rolls around, the Chiefs have already addressed their most glaring needs, leaving themselves to follow their preferred road map in the NFL Draft.
Best player available.
It’s a buzz phrase inside the Chiefs facility, one general manager Brett Veach used only a few days before this year’s draft.
“We felt like we can stay true to the board and take the best player available,” he said.
But it just so happens that this year’s draft class neatly fit some necessities, as well. The Chiefs have shored up the offensive line problems that plagued them in Tampa Bay last February, and while they executed trades and free-agent deals, nothing has proven more effective than their draft class.
It’s not just the offensive line. The Chiefs have had key contributions from a handful of players among the six-player class. Overall, they hold three of the rookie leaders in playing time.
That ain’t bad, particularly for a team without a first-round pick and one selecting at the back end of rounds.
Time to take a look at each of them individually. (Keep in mind we’re grading the picks based on where they were selected. Think of it as grading on a curve.)
Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri (2nd round, 58th overall)
The Chiefs didn’t travel far to find their first member of the 2021 class, plucking Bolton from Missouri. And his path to the lineup has been short, too.
While Bolton initially surprised coaches with his reserved demeanor, his production has been less startling.
Bolton leads all rookies with 79 combined tackles (and 50 solo stops) — despite being the 26th defensive player selected in April. He was named the NFL Rookie of the Month in October, when he had 43 tackles (7 for loss) in five games.
“His numbers alone are tremendous. Then his knack for the game, just that feel that he’s got — he’s a smart kid,” Reid said. “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. All that senior leadership that we have there on defense, they’re willing to listen to him because they know he knows his stuff.”
So why not an A+ grade here? While Bolton is a strong tackler and he’s been stout against the run, he still has some work to do in coverage. That’s why he’s been on the field for just 63% of the defensive snaps and even less often since the return of Anthony Hitchens. Bolton has not yet been able to carve out a role on passing downs.
Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma (2nd round, 63rd overall)
The Chiefs spent the first two months of the offseason revamping their offensive line — the high-dollar free-agent signing of guard Joe Thuney and a trade for left tackle Orlando Brown — but they apparently weren’t finished.
Good thing, too.
Humphrey is the top-rated rookie in the entire 2021 NFL Draft class, per Pro Football Focus. The website also classifies him as the best center in the game. That’s not the best rookie center. That’s the best center overall.
Partially due to his presence, the Chiefs have transformed a weakness into a legitimate strength.
“When you talk about Creed in there at the center position kind of quarterbacking the O-line, he’s been outstanding, operating at a veteran level from the get-go,” Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck said, adding, “Right from the get-go from OTAs, Creed showed that there was nothing he couldn’t handle in there.”
Joshua Kaindoh, DE, Florida State (4th round, 144th overall)
The size (6-6, 260) and athleticism drew the Chiefs to Kaindoh, even if the college production didn’t pan out at Florida State. In that sense, Kaindoh figured to be a long-term investment more than a short-term fix at edge rusher.
But after appearing in the first three games (and receiving 46 defensive snaps), Kaindoh landed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. He’s remained there for nearly two months. We’ll wait to see more playing time before providing him a grade, but it’s worth noting he’s still waiting on his first career tackle.
Noah Gray, TE, Duke (5th round, 162nd overall)
If these grades were released a couple of weeks earlier, Gray probably is teetering one letter lower on the scale. But he made one of the most important plays in the 41-14 win against the Raiders this month.
While that game turned into a blowout in Las Vegas, the Chiefs led by just three points midway through the third quarter when they elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes picked out Gray on a read-option play, and although the pass was slightly behind him, Gray secured the catch, the impetus for 24 unanswered points to close out the game.
“A guy stepping up and making a big play,” Mahomes said. “Noah, he’s battled every single week to continue to get better and better. For him to make a big catch like that — that was a tough catch in traffic, the ball kind of shooting right through the line of scrimmage — that was a big touchdown and got the momentum back in our favor.”
Gray was a standout early in training camp, and it looked as through he would be a reliable No. 2 tight end in the passing game. It hasn’t turned out that way — at least not yet — but as a fifth-round pick, he’s shown glimpses of having the potential to stick around.
Cornell Powell, WR, Clemson (5th round, 181st overall)
When a draft pick doesn’t crack the roster in his first season, it’s an objective whiff.
This is the only time in Veach’s tenure that a Chiefs draft pick hasn’t made the roster in his first season.
Cornell Powell opened training camp rolling with the third-string units and just couldn’t climb the depth chart. He wasn’t even in the mix for the initial 53-man roster.
Powell has since been on the Chiefs’ practice squad, so they have not given up on this selection, but he’d have to show more than he did over the summer to have a future impact with the team.
Trey Smith, G, Tennessee (6th round, 226th overall)
Smith would receive the high mark even if the Chiefs had taken him with one of their second-round picks. But the fact they got him in the sixth round? This one’s easy.
Several teams shied away from him because of a past history with blood clots, but after extensive evaluation, Chiefs medical team signed off on the pick.
Smith has brought a mauler presence to the offensive line, a physicality that shows up most frequently in the running game. Sure, he has some strides to make in pass protection, but from everything he’s shown, there’s all the reason to believe he’ll become a force there, too.
“What jumps out at you is his physical dominance — his strength, his size, his aggressiveness,” Heck said. “So while there’s a learning curve going on there, he brings an A-plus talent to the table. Something special is going on there.”