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Super Bowl 2023: Kansas City Chiefs' defensive rookies hitting their stride at perfect time

PHOENIX — A major component of winning in the NFL today is trying to figure out advantages in the passing game. That means both schematic advantages on the field and roster-building strategies off the field.

The Chiefs have an obvious advantage on the field with Patrick Mahomes leading the way for their offense. Mahomes has become unequivocally the best quarterback in the NFL and provides a huge competitive advantage against any defense he faces. The team traded star receiver Tyreek Hill and didn’t see a dip on offense.

Now, naming Mahomes as an advantage in the passing game is rather obvious, but the Chiefs have also crafted an advantage on the other side of the ball, with a host of rookies playing at a high level throughout this run to Super Bowl LVII, where they'll face the Eagles on Sunday.

It’s not a secret at this point, but the Chiefs hit a grand slam with their 2022 draft class, and they did it in an unusually valuable manner. Trent McDuffie, George Karlaftis, Bryan Cook, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson have played a ton of reps on this Chiefs’ defense and are positively impacting what they’re able to do against opposing passing games. There are teams on which rookies have to play a boatload of snaps, but they usually aren’t championship contenders; a youth movement of this magnitude is typically reflective of a team attempting to rebuild its program.

The Chiefs’ rookies know that the position they’re being put in and the results they’re producing are rare.

“It’s always been a little talk around the facility,” McDuffie, one of the Chiefs’ first-round picks this year, said about the success of their rookie defenders. “I think these guys do such a good job at just staying in the moment. Just taking things one day at a time.”

McDuffie also credited the humble mentality of this group of players as they grew into a competent defense throughout the season. Being able to play with great players, such as Chris Jones, is a huge help, obviously, but the Chiefs defense has gotten better as their rookies have gotten more experience playing at the NFL level.

Trent McDuffie (21) is one of the rookies making a big impact on defense for the Chiefs this season. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
Trent McDuffie (21) is one of the rookies making a big impact on defense for the Chiefs this season. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Chiefs rank 10th in expected points allowed per play (-0.029) since Week 8 of the regular season. They ranked 23rd in expected points allowed per play over the first seven weeks of the season (0.050). This is a group that has improved greatly over the course of the season, and they’re playing rookies at positions that require a high level of impact to swing games in the Chiefs’ favor. This isn’t a host of run-stuffing defensive tackles or linebackers expected to be downhill thumpers. These are cornerbacks, safeties, a pass-rusher. Those are the positions that need to play well at this point in the season.

Having these guys play well at their current rookie salaries ends up making Mahomes’ deal more valuable as well. This point has been beaten to death among football analysts, but getting value from lesser-paid players is always conducive to immediate team success. Those guys, if their trajectories continue upward, will get big contracts in their second deals, but for now, it’s really beneficial to the Chiefs for them to be making the money they are. There’s also the point that practicing against Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid every day is baptism by fire to get these young players up to speed a bit quicker.

“I think it made us mature that much quicker,” McDuffie said of his practice battles against Mahomes and Kelce. “Mahomes is out there throwing no-look passes. You got Kelce running routes that I’ve never seen before. It was just like, ‘Whoa, this is a whole new game for us.’ To be able to compete with guys like that every single day, nothing is surprising after that.”

The final test for this tremendous rookie class is a duel with Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and his receiver tandem of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, but there’s no backing down from these Chiefs rookies. They feel ready for anything that comes their way.