NFL draft steal: Chiefs rookie Creed Humphrey acing job of protecting Patrick Mahomes

Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Oklahoma C Creed Humphrey

Kansas City Chiefs
6-foot-4, 302 pounds
2020 NFL draft: Round 2, No. 63 overall

The Chiefs entered the offseason knowing they needed at all costs to create a bulwark around their most valuable asset.

Super Bowl LV saw the Chiefs' battered offensive line come completely unglued in the 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Patrick Mahomes barely able to take a snap without being completely engulfed amid a ferocious pass rush.

Kansas City's front office threw the kitchen sink at the position, first signing Joe Thuney and luring Kyle Long out of retirement, and then trading its first-round pick in the Orlando Brown trade. But that was just the beginning.

In the draft in April, the Chiefs used two picks on blockers — Humphrey in Round 2, followed by guard Trey Smith in Round 6. Their aggressive approach showed a near obsession with getting that position squared away. And it has paid off in spades.

Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey has been tremendous as a rookie. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey has been tremendous as a rookie. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Yes, the Chiefs' offense hit the skids at one point this season, and the line struggled in a loss to the Tennessee Titans. But it's nearly impossible not to notice how well the group is performing now, especially given the contributions of the two rookies (Humphrey and Smith).

Humphrey's job is even tougher given his role. It's true that Mahomes is the nerve center of the Chiefs' offense. But the rookie center is responsible for snapping the ball to Mahomes on every play and keeping the passing lanes free and clear. Nothing undermines a QB's effectiveness quite like A-gap pressure in their face.

How is the precocious rookie doing it? Well, he's proving he can play with the savvy of a multi-year veteran. Humphrey caught our eye in the 41-14 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10, using a subtle head raise to draw a defensive penalty. We're wondering if he might have had a few elective acting classes at OU.

When you earn that level of approval from Olin Kreutz, one of the best centers of the previous generation, you're doing something right. Pro Football Focus agrees, giving Humphrey the best grade of any rookie in the NFL this season and rating as the top overall veteran center, playing every single offensive snap for the Chiefs.

“He’s done a nice job with it,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “He’s intelligent, he’s football intelligent, which is important, and then he’s a good player. He’s got great balance and strength, so he fits right in.

"He doesn’t talk much, period, but he does a great job with the [line] calls and gets done what he needs to get done. When he does speak up, people listen. He’s got the guys’ respect.”

So how did Humphrey slip to the end of Round 2 in a league that badly needs centers? Let's go back to the spring and reexamine Humphrey's pre-draft projection.

Why did Creed Humphrey slip in the draft?

Center is a bit if a strange position when it comes to the NFL draft. It's considered an important position to some; others view it as perhaps the third-most important offensive line spot behind the two tackle positions.

In recent years, we've had one or zero centers land in Round 1, followed by an average of two or three more selected in Rounds 2 and 3 combined. Some college centers are eventually moved to guard, and some non-centers later are converted to the position in the league.

So on the one hand, Humphrey going 63rd overall doesn't feel like a massive slight, even if he was the third center drafted this year. The first was Landon Dickerson, who has started nine games at guard for the Eagles (but could play center when Jason Kelce retires). Josh Myers, who started the first five games this season for the Packers before landing on injured reserve, went one pick before Humphrey.

Dickerson was one of the more decorated OL prospects in the 2021 NFL draft class. Injuries were really the only thing that clouded his evaluation. Humphrey being taken after Myers was surprising to some league observers but hardly considered stunning.

Most of the pre-draft concerns about Oklahoma C Creed Humphrey have proven to be unfounded. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
Most of the pre-draft concerns about Oklahoma C Creed Humphrey have proven to be unfounded. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images) (John E. Moore III via Getty Images)

The biggest knocks on Humphrey appeared to be his shorter arms (32 1/2 inches) and smaller hands (9 1/2 inches), that he wasn't always able to anchor against burlier nose tackles and that Humphrey's athletic testing numbers didn't always manifest themselves on the field. He also was inexperienced with under-center snapping and is lefthanded, which is rare for a center.

Most of those concerns have proven to be very much unfounded so far. His college experience (37 career starts), wrestling background, positional savvy and quick reaction skills all appear ideal fits for the NFL game, especially in the Chiefs' offense where Mahomes is the game's best when he has time and space to operate.

How we viewed Humphrey as a prospect

We actually were stunned at how low we rated Humphrey, rating him as our No. 81 overall prospect. No other way to say it — it looks like we whiffed badly here.

Funny enough, our assessment of him was actually pretty spot on, calling Humphrey a "sound, smart and steady pivot with wrestling background and the demeanor and approach to be a 12-year pro."

Where we missed was the upside. Humphrey was billed as a high-floor prospect, but it's clear he's more than just a solid player. What we wrote ...

Profiles as a good prospect but with a limited ceiling.

... was just a misfire. We'll take the L. In addition to the head-bob trick against the Raiders, highlighting his technical ability, we've seen him adjust to quicker-rushing interior linemen better than he did early in the season and perform consistently as a run blocker who can wall off defenders and get into space to open big lanes.

He's playing at the level you'd expect of someone with multiple years of starting in the league. If the NFL was a true meritocracy, Humphrey would be an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. (But we know how that goes with offensive linemen.)

“He just feels more comfortable,” Mahomes said recently, via the Kansas City Star. “I mean, he’s played [well] the entire season, but I think he’s seen more and more defenses, he’s seen more and more pressures and blitzes, and he understands what we’re trying to do as an offense.

“That center position is kind of like the quarterback. You get more comfortable with the more snaps you get, and so now he can let his talent be shown. He can go out there and be who he is because he has a [comfort] with the offense.”

Future forecast

It's hard not to think that our original prognostication of Humphrey being a 12-year pro is spot on. Why we didn't give him a higher draft grade is anyone's guess.

Reid has almost always found terrific talent at center. He unearthed undrafted Hank Fraley early in his Eagles coaching tenure and later scooped up possible Hall of Famer Jason Kelce in Round 6. Together, that pair manned the position at a very high level for most of Reid's tenure in Philadelphia.

Upon arriving in Kansas City, Reid helped turn Rodney Hudson into one of the league's best centers before he left for the Raiders. Hudson's replacement, Mitch Morse, was a former second-rounder who handled the spot quite well for years after that in Kansas City.

It's pretty clear that Reid and his offensive line coach, Andy Heck, have an eye for talent — and an especial knack for finding it at center.

Humphrey is a near-perfect fit for Reid, his staff and this offense, and the way the rookie's career has started, it appears that he won't have to wait long to start hearing some Pro Bowl and perhaps All-Pro accolades coming his way.

We frankly should have been more bullish on his projection because Humphrey already looks like a gem partway through his rookie campaign.