The Kansas City Chiefs have taken back the Lamar Hunt Trophy and are heading into Super Bowl LVII to face the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the most grueling and gritty victories of the Patrick Mahomes era. Countless Kansas City players have left the game due to injury, plus Mahomes and Travis Kelce have also been injured.
Some of the most memorable storylines in the game will be Patrick Mahomes’ tenacity, Chris Jones’ game of a lifetime, and Joseph Ossai’s costly worthless roughness penalty. While they are all valid, what should not be forgotten is the fact that the Chiefs’ many rookies have paid huge dividends in the most important game (to date) of their young professional careers.
The Chiefs have selected ten players in the 2022 NFL Draft, nine of whom have made the final roster after training camp, and eight who have played at least 275 snaps on offense or defense so far this year. Even the two rookies who haven’t seen any playing time on offense or defense, one made the final roster (Darian Kinnard) and the other, Nazeeh Johnson, has played well over 100 snaps on special teams this season.
The fact that the Chiefs have nine rookies contributing to a team en route to the Super Bowl is mesmerizing. Two of the top rookies were drafted after 240th overall, and seven weren’t even first-round picks. When you compare that to the other top draft classes of 2022 (New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, and Detroit Lions), Kansas City is the only one that doesn’t have a top 10 pick. Yes, they had two top players, but the Jets they had three, including two in the Top 10 alone, and the Lions had two picks in the Top 12. No fan should ever claim that Brett Veach struggles to find talent in the draft ever again.
A bright young Chiefs secondary
No other unit on the team was more dependent on their secondary kids. After L’Jarius Sneed went down with an injury, the first three cornerbacks the Chiefs had available were all rookies. His injury also led to 23-year-old Bryan Cook seeing a slight increase in his playing time.
The top pick in the entire class was Trent McDuffie, the former Washington corner. He had a less than ideal first year campaign as he missed six games with a hamstring injury sustained (coincidentally) in Glendale, Arizona, Week 1. He had an up and down game as he slid multiple times, leading to explosive plays for Cincinnati, but had a quietly huge pass deflection on a Joe Burrow pass intended for Tee Higgins in the third quarter on third down. The ball probably would have been caught for a first down if not for the former Husky’s clutch tip.
In the wake of Sneed’s absence, it’s arguable that no player has been asked to step forward more than Joshua Williams, who had seen his snap count drop dramatically in the previous two games. He played good, but not perfect, football throughout the game, including Burrow’s huge fourth-quarter interception of a Bryan Cook tip. If you told fans a year ago that a Division II fourth-round pick would make one of the most intense plays of the season, I’m not sure many would believe it.
The third and final cornerback in the rookie class is Jaylen Watson. Some players naturally have a “clutch gene” and it seems Watson is one of those guys. Not only did he have the winning pick against the Chargers in the home opener, but he also sealed the divisional round win over the Jaguars with an interception and picked off Burrow late in the first half to cap a potential touchdown. drive for Bengalis. For the 243rd overall pick in the draft, it’s safe to say he was one of the biggest steals in his entire class and the Chiefs might not be where they are right now without him.
Chiefs best draft value?
While Jaylen Watson is one of the best values in the 2022 draft, there’s a good chance he’s not even the best value in his own team! That title could belong to running back Isiah Pacheco. It can be argued that no player in training camp had more hype surrounding him than the rookie out of Rutgers. Based on the report, one might think it was the second coming of Priest Holmes, and that doesn’t appear to be the most inaccurate claim ever made. He’s had a slow start to the season, but he’s been strong the last couple of months and has been fantastic in the playoffs so far. The biggest gripe I have was the lack of tapping Andy Reid gave it.
In the win against Cincinnati, Pacheco tallied five receptions for 59 yards on the passing game, but didn’t have the most efficient night handling the ball against Cincinnati, with 10 carries for 26 yards. While not the most productive play, his six-yard run late in the game was invaluable as he caught a dump-off from Patrick Mahomes, nine yards behind the line of scrimmage, another 15 yards to give the Chiefs a net gain advantage instead of a huge loss that it had the potential to be. Fans were screaming at the start of the year to get Pacheco’s snap count up, and those fans are trying to be corrected based on how he played in the postseason.
More impressive AFCCG rookies
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cincinnati native Bryan Cook playing against his hometown team in the biggest game of his football career. He played a solid game overall, but was called for a costly defensive pass interference penalty, which was the correct call, which resulted in three-pointers for the Bengals instead of at least three points for Kansas City. That 6+ point swing could have cost KC the game, but luckily it didn’t matter. It must have been surreal for a player to beat his hometown team for a trip to the Super Bowl, but Bryan Cook made that dream come true.
One of the biggest stories of the win was how the Chiefs’ pass rush was able to shut down Joe Burrow. Kansas City managed to fire him five times, one of which was by George Karlaftis. After a very quiet start to the year, notching just 0.5 sacks in ten games, he has collected 5.5 sacks in his last nine.
After being benched as a punt returner due to several bunted punts, Dave Toub called on Skyy Moore back in the wake of Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman who both left the game and Justin Watson was inactive. Outside of the game-winning kick, he made the night’s biggest special teams play by returning a Drue Chrisman punt 29 yards to midfield, putting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense in a great position to earn the holding points of the game.
The last pick of the draft class is also the forgotten rookie of his class. Nazeeh Johnson was the fourth last pick in the draft and it was worth it. Yes, he has yet to play his first defensive snap, but he’s been incredible on special teams this season. As of Week 13, Johnson has the most special team tackles on the Chiefs, while he plays only 10th most snaps. According to Pro Football Focus ($), Nazeeh Johnson has the highest special team mark among any Kansas City player, with at least 100 of those snaps. He didn’t contribute anything defensively, but there’s no doubt that he has made this team better since he started seeing the pitch more. Dave Toub may have just found his next special teams ace.
After trading Tyreek Hill and letting veteran leaders like Tyrann Mathieu, Charvarius Ward and Anthony Hitchens walk away in free agency, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach was under pressure to hit a home run in the draft and may have hit a walk-off grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series. Even one of the low profile rookies, Leo Chenal, was still solid when given the opportunity. The Chiefs would not have won this game without their rookie class. The team asked a lot of their guys and they delivered.
When all is said and done, there is a real possibility that the Kansas City Chiefs have found five or six defensive starters, two on offense and one or two on special teams, in this single draft class. All but one of their ten picks have paid dividends and contributed so far this season. If even half of the rookies continue to rise, there’s no limit to how good this football club could be in the foreseeable future, and Sunday night could be just the beginning.