The Kansas City Chiefs’ 2022 defense is going to look a lot different than the unit that took the field a season ago, and linebacker Nick Bolton will be tasked with putting the pieces together.
A year ago, Bolton was a second-round pick and a local college kid looking to make an impact on a team with an already-entrenched Anthony Hitchens playing the MIKE linebacker role. A combination of injuries and newfound playing time, however, saw Bolton flash his potential at that position and put together a debut campaign in which he won the Chiefs’ Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year Award. In 16 games (12 starts), Bolton amassed a whopping 112 tackles, three passes broken up and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
With Hitchens no longer in the fold at linebacker, Bolton is projected to be the Chiefs’ starting MIKE linebacker all year long. He’s also going to wear the “green dot” on his helmet, which will demand that he relays plays to his teammates, aligns the defense pre-snap and essentially captains defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit. That’s a lot of responsibility for someone who’s still just 22 years old, but Spagnuolo says the former Missouri Tigers standout is up for the challenge.
“His level would be really high,” Spagnuolo said on Thursday. “Super, super impressed with [him]. Yesterday, something came up on the field, there were a couple of calls. I said, ‘Nick, I’m going to make it easy on you. I’m going to do this.’ [He said] ‘Coach, you don’t need to do that. I’ve learned it. I’m good.’ That’s pretty reassuring, right? I wanted to keep it the way we had it, and he reassured me that there was no problem keeping it the way it was… that tells me all I need to know about Nick.”
Of the Chiefs’ three currently projected starters for Week 1, none of them is older than the age of 24. Willie Gay Jr. turned 24 in February, Bolton’s 23rd birthday doesn’t roll around until after the 2022 season ends and rookie Leo Chenal won’t turn 22 until Kansas City is several weeks deep into this season. General manager Brett Veach, Spagnuolo and the rest of the Chiefs’ coaches are relying on young players to emerge as leaders and steady contributors, and those qualities are present with some of the club’s free agent acquisitions as well.
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Safety Justin Reid, despite having four seasons under his belt and having played through the entirety of his rookie contract with the Houston Texans, is still only 25. Even with youth still on his side, Reid was brought in to replace a player five years his senior: Tyrann Mathieu. Like Mathieu, Reid is a vocal on-field leader with poise and is someone whose press conference tidbits can get just about anyone ready to run through a wall. Reid may be new to Spagnuolo’s defense, but he acts as if he’s known Bolton for a lifetime. When asked about Bolton’s ability to accept the challenges in front of him this year, Reid’s confidence was obvious.
“I’ve got absolutely zero concerns about him mentally handling the challenge of the playbook,” Reid said. “Nick is one of the smartest linebackers I’ve played with — young guy, old guy, it doesn’t matter. He’s on his ones and twos daily and he helps run the show on the back end. It’s comforting having a guy that’s so confident making those calls.”
Earlier in the offseason, the hype surrounding a potential Bolton-Gay duo was through the roof. The Chiefs are clearly expecting big things from both players in 2022, but Bolton’s added leadership responsibilities on the field make him a slightly more important cog in Kansas City’s defensive machine. It simply comes with the nature of the MIKE linebacker position, after all. Bolton won’t be perfect this year, but the Chiefs are backing him as much as they are any player on the entire roster.
There doesn’t seem to be a sophomore slump brewing in Kansas City, but rather a sophomore jump instead. If the confidence in Bolton parlays itself into production, the Chiefs could be looking at a huge second season from last year’s No. 58 overall draft pick.