When the Kansas City Chiefs selected Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the initial reaction was that he would help the team's long-term outlook more than the short-term.
Reality dictated that it wouldn't take long for him to prove he could fit into both categories.
Halfway through his rookie season, he leads the entire team in tackles — both assisted and solo — and tackles for loss; he has 10 tackles in the backfield, while none of his teammates have more than five. He has the most snaps out of all non-defensive backs on the unit, playing nearly 67% of the snaps this season.
Looking back at the first 10 games of his NFL career, Bolton feels accomplished in what he set out to do from the beginning.
"I came in every week trying to get a little better," he shared with reporters during his press conference on Wednesday. "I feel like I've done that up to this point. I'm trying to put myself in the best position to help my team win. We got three [wins] in a row... so I'm proud of where I'm at, but I'm still trying to get better."
The three-game win streak Bolton boasts started after an embarrassing loss to the Tennessee Titans. The only aspect of the game that wasn't embarrassing was Bolton, who racked up a game-high 10 tackles and four tackles for loss; he was the key piece to slowing down running back Derrick Henry — which the unit absolutely did.
After six games as an outside linebacker, Bolton filled in for the injured Anthony Hitchens at the MIKE linebacker position in that Titans game. The middle spot is a place Bolton played at Missouri — and his time in there may have helped him adjust even more to the NFL level.
"The Titans game, things starting slowing down a little bit," Bolton recalled. "I went back to playing MIKE; coming back from the outside, the game started slowing down when you go outside in... I was sinking in a little better, but I'm still trying to get better every week."
The middle position allowed Bolton to embrace the bigger picture.
"You got communication," Bolton continued. "You know what everyone else is doing from being in the middle — you kind of know what those guys are doing beside you. Also, coming from the outside, you learn what the interior guys are doing as well. Everything helps."
There's a lot that goes into playing the position that is often described as "the quarterback of the defense." Fortunately, Hitchens was still in the building and helping Bolton along the way; the rookie appreciates the veteran presence.
"Hitch has always been an extension of the coaches to me," Bolton shared. "He's been here and done a lot; he's been here three years, so he already knows the subtle nuances of the scheme. Coming in every single day and learning from him, going out on the field and talking through things, seeing what he sees... Hitchens has been a great vet for me."
Hitchens' presence has assumedly helped Bolton adjust to the fast pace and increased tempo of the NFL — but it's not an easy task. It hits every first-year player as they get their feet under them in professional football, and Bolton was no exception.
"The biggest surprise coming in was the speed of the game," revealed Bolton. "It has kind of slowed down a little bit for me, and it's gotten me more comfortable, so I'm excited for what the rest of the season has in store."
For as impressive as Bolton has been, he isn't a perfect player; he's aware of his shortcomings halfway through his first season.
"I'm just trying to get better at pass coverage and tackling," he listed. "I feel like playing linebacker, tackling is something you can always improve on. I had a couple missed tackles early, but have knocked those out."
In summary, Bolton is happy about his progression up to this point in the season. He has taken pride in his growth since the beginning of the year.
"I'm tremendously better than I was in Week 1," Bolton declared. "I'm more comfortable, but I'm still not where I want to be. I have a couple plays out there I feel like I could've made. In the back half of the season, I hope to make those."
The Chiefs will be banking on him to do just that: make plays. The defense has turned a corner, and its no coincidence that Bolton's emergence has happened simultaneously. He'll be a tremendous factor in the unit continuing to play at the level they have in recent weeks.