Now that the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2021 draft process is complete, it’s time to start evaluating how each player fits into the team’s scheme, how they’ll factor into the 2021 depth chart, and how they project to contribute in the long term. I started with the 58th overall selection: Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton.
Bolton played the MIKE linebacker position for the Missouri Tigers in his two years as a first-team All-SEC starter. He was tasked with organizing the defensive front and adjusting the overall defense based on pre-snap movement by the offense. The most impressive aspect of his game was against the run; he’s shown a knack for firing through gaps and delivering hard hits.
His faults come in pass coverage; he didn’t look comfortable in the limited man coverage reps he saw — and his route awareness in zone coverage isn’t up to par for the modernized passing attacks that dominate the NFL.
In my opinion, he is a MIKE linebacker in the NFL — and should be depth for that position right away. No one should expect him to be a fully functioning MIKE in his first NFL season, but his experience in college combined with the physical skill set he possesses make sense for that leading linebacker spot in the defense that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo runs.
He has a very similar play style to the current starter there: Anthony Hitchens.
How he factors into the 2021 depth chart
Bolton should not be the starting MIKE linebacker in 2021 — Hitchens has earned the right to be cemented in that role. In recent years, linebacker Ben Niemann has been the immediate backup to Hitchens due to his high IQ in Spagnuolo’s scheme. That will likely remain as Bolton learns the intricacies of the defensive scheme. However, I would slot Bolton in over Darius Harris at MIKE just for the upside.
Bolton should still be able to see the field in 2021, likely as the SAM linebacker in base formations. He has the requisite physique to handle being closer to the line of scrimmage and has enough burst to provide pass-rush potential. He has competition now: the Chiefs reportedly signed veteran linebacker Kamalei Correa, who has experience at SAM in recent seasons. I see those two competing head-to-head for the primary SAM snaps in those base sets. If Bolton proves he can handle it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Correa released before the season.
Bolton could also take snaps as the WILL linebacker in base — but there is a heightened coverage responsibility that comes with that role, and a healthy Willie Gay Jr. should man that position in all formations.
At the very least, Bolton should be solid depth for all three linebacker positions.
As I mentioned before, Bolton’s play style reminds me of Hitchens. That makes me believe the Chiefs want him as an eventual Hitchens replacement — and that move could happen as soon as the 2022 season (depending on how Bolton progresses).
Hitchens’ contract ends following the 2022 season, but they can feasibly move on with one year remaining. Hitchens has a $12.7 million cap hit in 2022, but a dead cap number of $4.2 million — meaning the team could save roughly $8.5 million by releasing him in the 2022 offseason.
Hitchens will be 30 years old in that final season of his deal, while Bolton will be 22. If Bolton can progress to provide a similar impact as Hitchens by that time, he would be an inexpensive, younger replacement that obviously has more upside to grow into. The value of a starter playing on their rookie deal is immense — especially with the other big contracts Kansas City has to work around.
Even if Hitchens remains on the team through the entirety of his contract, Bolton should eventually take over the MIKE linebacker position and be the centerpiece of the unit.