Here’s why KC Chiefs’ Creed Humphrey is so good — and why he was an NFL Draft sleeper

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Mark Tenally/AP
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Pro Football Focus draft analyst Mike Renner’s favorite Creed Humphrey clips are always the screen passes.

Part of the reason for that is knowing the degree of difficulty on these plays for centers like Humphrey. You’re supposed to get out in space as a 300-plus-pound offensive lineman. You’re trying to find defenders who run 4.5-second 40-yard dashes themselves whose very job is to avoid you.

But look closely enough at Kansas City Chiefs highlights, and this is where Humphrey’s greatness shows itself best. He not only makes his way out there quickly but then does more than just get in the way.

“Creed, when he hits these linebackers in space, is delivering blows to these dudes,” Renner told The Star. “He’s putting them on the turf.”

It’s been only part of a transcendent season for Humphrey, whose PFF year-end metrics put him into a tier all his own.

Humphrey earned a spot on PFF’s All-Pro Team with a current overall PFF grade (92.6) more than six points higher than any other NFL center. He also is the highest rookie interior lineman PFF has graded to date, with a run-blocking (93.8) that also rates above any other challenger.

Metrics like this don’t give us the why, though. So why is Humphrey such a dominant player? And why, if he is so good, did so many teams pass on him before he landed with the Chiefs with the 63rd overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft?

Renner is ready to help answer both of those, but first, he wants to explain one thing before you get started.

When you’re watching Humphrey — the guy in the No. 52 Chiefs jersey that touches it before Patrick Mahomes each play — you’re truly seeing a one-of-a-kind player.

“He’s one of the best athletes,” Renner said, “at the center position all-time.”

What’d teams miss?

Teams didn’t know what they didn’t know about Humphrey ahead of last year’s NFL Draft.

For instance, the Green Bay Packers passed on Humphrey and took a different center — Ohio State’s Josh Myers — with the pick before at 62nd overall. Heck, the Chiefs didn’t take Humphrey when they first could’ve, opting for Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton with the 58th selection overall.

A lot of this comes back to the draft involving some luck, Renner said. But, having said that, KC also deserves some credit for its evaluation of Humphrey not on precisely what he was, but what he could potentially be with the Chiefs.

Renner said Humphrey’s ability to move didn’t always pop when he played at Oklahoma in college. The Sooners mostly executed straight-ahead run schemes like power and inside zone, which meant he was mainly displaying what he could do within a few yards.

Big 12 defenses didn’t help either. Renner said most teams schemed against OU by using a three-man front while placing a nose tackle right over the top of Humphrey to try to overpower him. Renner said Humphrey could hold his own in those scenarios, but honestly, “that’s not really his game.”

It’s why a move to the Chiefs was so beneficial for growth.

KC’s primary running scheme is “wide zone” plays, which emphasizes offensive linemen who can move defenders on the run while playing well in space. Also, because of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ pass game threat, they rarely face “heavy” boxes where opponents stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run. That means Humphrey can play to his strengths as a run-blocker working in tandem with a teammate before getting out to the next level to clear out linebackers.

And that’s where he started to show abilities that weren’t on display at Oklahoma.

“That aspect got really underrated in the draft process,” Renner said, “just how special of an athlete this dude is.”

There’s more to him than just physical ability, though.

And Renner says one technical ability has helped Humphrey more than any other.

‘One of the best centers in the NFL at doing just that’

Renner says one thing that makes Humphrey stand out is his height.

He’s listed at 6-foot-5, which puts him only about an inch or two off the tallest players ever to play center in the NFL.

That sort of attribute, though, can be a curse without sound fundamentals.

It can be harder at that size, for instance, to maintain leverage. The position requires someone who, at worst, is not going to get pushed backward, and for Humphrey in particular, there’s at least potential for defenders to try to work underneath you to gain superiority.

That hasn’t impacted Humphrey much, though, for one main reason: his hands.

An old cliché in football is that the low man wins. And as Renner has observed, Humphrey has a knack for getting his hands in the place they’re supposed to be.

“Even though he is maybe not sinking hips lower and getting his pad level lower, he’s getting his hands underneath your hands to lift you back up,” Renner said. “So I think he’s one of the best centers in the NFL at doing just that.”

It’s this talent that’s helped Humphrey succeed in a spot where rookies rarely do.

Renner said PFF analysts typically suggest that NFL teams look for interior offensive linemen in the second and third rounds of the draft, as normally, most of the best talent at those positions will still be available.

However, a growth curve like Humphrey’s doesn’t come along often.

Renner often says the hope when drafting those guys is to get a player settled in as a good player by his third year. Maybe in the second season, he can transition into being a starter.

So for Humphrey to be this good, this fast?

“That’s a home run, that’s a slam dunk,” Renner said. “You don’t find those every year.”

And while most fans aren’t watching games to follow the center each play, Renner says Humphrey’s performance certainly has a significant impact on the Chiefs’ success.

Especially when it comes to avoiding some negatives.

Why it matters

About a year ago, Renner wrote an article discussing the hierarchy of team positions in the NFL. In essence, which positions have the most actual impact on winning and losing?

Interior offensive linemen like centers fell right in the middle of the chart. You’d much rather have an elite quarterback on your roster, but the influence of those middle O-linemen — through research, and in general — also was more significant than spots like interior defensive linemen.

Great blockers, in other words, can do a lot. But they also can’t do everything.

Knowing that, Renner says when he watches the Chiefs, Humphrey and KC guards Joe Thuney and Trey Smith stand out in their ability to control an essential part in the run game: creating the first crease.

“That’s really all you can from an offensive line is about two or three yards of unblocked green grass, and then it’s all in the running back and at that point,” Renner said. “I think they’ve been very good at that.”

Other stats reflect this too. For example, ESPN’s run-block win rate ranks Humphrey fifth at the center position, while Smith is third among guards.

On the rare occasions they do run, the Chiefs usually gain yardage. And they also rarely go backward, which has helped them become an elite team in short-yardage situations.

Renner, though, appreciates Humphrey most when rewatching those screen plays.

Humphrey compares favorably to some of the NFL’s best too. The Philadephia Eagles’ Jason Kelce — brother of Chiefs tight end Travis — is widely considered the league’s best screen-blocker at center, as Renner says he moves well in space and “sticks on” defenders, creating stalemates to open running lanes.

Renner said he’d put Humphrey right behind Kelce in this area, though — and that’s while two inches taller and with 30-40 more pounds of weight.

And Humphrey’s style isn’t to hold serve here. It’s to punish guys and put them on the ground.

“That’s where he’s had some of the best blocks,” Renner said, “that I’ve seen all season.”

Those clips show Humphrey’s versatility — and the rare combination of both strength and agility that’s already made him one of the best at his position.

While also quite an asset for the Chiefs to have landed with pick No. 63.

“He’s not gonna get worse. Injuries would be the only way. This guy doing it right now, I don’t think you’re gonna come back next year and be like, ‘Oh damn, what happened to Creed?’” Renner said. “It’s like, ‘No, you have an elite center for the next four years at least.’”