The rejuvenated Kansas City Chiefs linebacker group has been the object of much hype and optimism ahead of 2021 NFL season.
With second-year backer Willie Gay Jr. and rookie Nick Bolton leading the way next to Anthony Hitchens, a youth movement is in full effect in the middle of the Chiefs’ defense. Even though rookies tend to make minimal impact on Andy Reid-coached teams, Kansas City’s investment at linebacker in consecutive drafts is a clear indication they saw the position as a liability after their Super Bowl showings.
Hitchens has been good but not quite great for the team since signing in 2018, and fourth-year linebacker Ben Niemann has yet to prove he should be an NFL starter on a championship-caliber roster, despite seeing significant usage last season.
This dearth of production from the linebacker position has left the Chiefs’ defense listless when it mattered most in February. Now, fully committed to change, the team looks primed to let Bolton break the trend and make bigger contributions than would usually be normal for a first-year player in Kansas City.
Bolton’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for all parties involved. The coaching staff has rewarded his effort and strong showings in training camp with more opportunities. With two weeks of practices in the books, Bolton told the media on Sunday that his acclimation to the NFL game has gone swimmingly so far.
“The first couple weeks have been a great learning experience,” Bolton said. “I feel like I’ve had a pretty positive first couple of weeks. I came here doing what I planned to do which was to learn and grow every single day, so I’m going to keep going with that.”
The rookie has grown in the first week of training camp, taking on added responsibilities with Hitchens and Niemann briefly sidelined by injuries. Bolton was tasked with being the play-caller on-field at practice for the first time as a result. When speaking with reporters, Bolton alluded to an extra edge that he felt he gained from the opportunity.
“I feel like it kind of helped me be more confident in everything that I’m doing,” Bolton said. “Hearing the calls, hearing the checks and also getting the mental part of that. Running the off the field, seeing everybody else executing, the people going before me and after me and stuff like that kind of helped process the game differently. I found it very beneficial.”
As his workload increases, so will expectations. Most second-round picks in the NFL play significant snaps for their teams as rookies. That would be a break from tradition in Kansas City specifically, but the Chiefs seem to have found a prospect worthy of bucking the trend. Bolton will have a major opportunity to show his potential in Saturday’s preseason debut and could emerge as a breakout candidate for the 2021 season.