In 2021, the Kansas City Chiefs made a massive gamble on their interior offensive line.
The Chiefs signed left guard Joe Thuney to the highest contract a guard has ever received, but they went with rookies next to Thuney. Center Creed Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith were tasked with instantly starting for the Chiefs. That’s a tall task for any pair of rookies — but especially when you have to protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Yet their rookie seasons couldn’t have gone better.
Humphrey was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded center and Smith made a career’s worth of highlights in both the running and passing game. The Chiefs asked a lot out of those guys, but there was no expectation for them to be as good as they were as rookies.
For most rookies as promising as Smith and Humphrey, there might typically be a lot of media coverage and publicity about them, but that goes out the window when talking about interior offensive linemen. Now, in 2022, Smith and Humphrey are both having strong seasons again, and they’ve recently been playing their best football.
In this post, we’ll explore the latest from Humphrey and Smith, why they’re peaking at the right time — and why both are vital to the Chiefs’ scheme.
Let’s dive into the film:
That being said, arguably no role is more important than Creed Humphrey's role in those types of runs. Not all of these are Gap runs, but Creed's main role in those runs is to seal a backside 1T/2i/3, which is a tough freaking block, but Creed handles it like a king each time pic.twitter.com/YP9t6SfhHk— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
Most centers who excel in zone blocking, such as Humphrey, struggle with man-blocking concepts such as counter because of their lack of weight. It’s difficult for a 290-pound center to seal a back-side nose tackle and keep him from going upfield because he lacks the mass to win that block.
The difference with Humphrey is that he’s big enough to seal that back-side block. In Kansas City’s Counter or Power runs, that’s critical. Having a center be able to seal that back side is imperative for those runs to work, and Humphrey’s proven to be exceptional at that. None of these runs are successful without his ability to do that.
Late night Trey Smith/Creed Humphrey Thread— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
First, it's critical to discuss Trey Smith's role in KC's Gap run scheme. Trey's famous for his pulls (whether climbing or kicking a DE in Counter), but he's also critical in when KC pulls Thuney. Trey clears lanes on backside of runs pic.twitter.com/I2VLT9DfF0
The Chiefs have pulled their linemen more this season, incorporating more Counter and Power runs into their run game. They’re willing to pull off either side — but they typically like to use Smith as their puller more.
Smith’s combination of strength, explosion and length helps him pull efficiently. Whether he’s pulling to a linebacker in a power play or kicking a defensive end out in a counter run, Smith is a rare puller with his combination of speed and power.
When Smith isn’t pulling, however, he still does damage. Smith helps Humphrey plenty with his combo block to clear space, but he still has enough athleticism to quickly reach a linebacker, sealing off the back-side linebacker to clear a hole for the running back.
Most guards don’t have the combination of sheer size and strength while also having the explosiveness to be able to pick off linebackers, but Smith has all those traits. This allows the Chiefs to pull off either side, which is critical to taking advantage of number counts in the box.
Let's talk Smith's Pass Protection. Trey's a primary two-hand puncher, keeping his stance tight and hips closed, forcing you to ride up the arc— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
What makes it hard to beat Trey is his inside foot is unbelievably strong and he's got all-time grip strength. Can only win with a pull pic.twitter.com/oSAYy2BAPT
If there’s been an area of inconsistency with Smith’s game this year, it’s probably his pass protection. Smith had an ankle injury earlier this year, which seemed to hurt his lateral movement skills. Over the past month, it seems like Smith’s getting healthier, and his pass protection has improved.
Smith’s main style as a pass protector is to punch with two hands, using his strength and size to push guys up the arc. Smith keeps his base wide and hips closed, not allowing a defensive tackle to let him bull rush him into the pocket. Smith uses “strain” as a pass protector, employing his grip strength and size to push a defensive end upfield, redirecting his path out of the pocket.
Most guards can’t get away with this, but Smith’s all-time grip strength permits it.
Smith also has an unbelievable amount of anchor and strength for a guard, but that closed stance helps him vs most power rushers— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
Trey's doing a better job this year of resetting his feet to reestablish his anchor, but the amount of size/strength makes him hard to push pic.twitter.com/50G1rO15Qx
Smith’s anchor in pass protection is also great.
Tennessee Titans All-Pro defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons tried to get Smith multiple times with a bull rush, but Smith’s too strong to give up ground. He doesn’t have great agility to bend and generate strength, but it doesn’t matter with his size. Smith can lean on defensive tackles, riding them with his grip strength, and there are very few players who can push him around.
Smith doesn’t win in pass protection with great technique, but he maximizes all his physical gifts. He combines grip strength, size, and length to get a leverage advantage on defensive tackles, forcing them to try and win upfield with speed, but Smith’s athletic enough to get both his hands locked on and redirect upfield.
What Creed/Trey do in the zone run game is unbelievable. The way they work off each other, the flexibility, range in climbing to the second level. Regardless of front structure, they have everything covered— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
Also, Trey's ability to seal a wide DT as quick as he does is nuts pic.twitter.com/g9XlLILLyn
The synergy that Humphrey and Smith have in the run game is unbelievable. A lot of zone rules are based on being “covered/uncovered” — which basically means if an offensive line is covered by a defensive lineman, they block that lineman. Otherwise, they climb (depending on inside or outside zone, this can change).
Humphrey and Smith process that at an insanely high level, but both also have freakish range and flexibility when blocking zone runs. They generate a ton of movement along the interior and can seal any defender from any angle. Zone runs are where their athleticism shows up, and with more experience this season, that area has been sharper than ever.
Here's 135 seconds of Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith taking souls in the screen game if you would like *peep the last one pic.twitter.com/y2UEmoKT5N— Nate Christensen (@natech32) December 13, 2022
Humphrey and Smith are exceptional in the screen game, and the Chiefs ask a lot out of them there. Humphrey wins more with linear speed and agility, and Smith tends to win more out of his stance and firing to the second level. Both have rare combinations of explosive athleticism for their positions, but they’ve also mastered the details of a screen.
Humphrey’s timing on when to release is imperative to screens working, but Smith has also gotten significantly better at his screen timing. Smith put that on full display Sunday, chopping a MIKE linebacker to the ground who was blitzing to blow up the screen.
Ohh My Godd. Trey might get arrested before he leaves Denver. pic.twitter.com/qA5d6B50ve— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 11, 2022
Oh, and the finish was excellent too.
The bottom line
In the NFL, identifying elite players is difficult. Rarely do you get two players as good as Smith and Humphrey in the same draft class, let alone on the offensive line. Most teams struggle to identify one elite offensive lineman in the draft, but the Chiefs found two in the same draft.
With Humphrey, the Chiefs have an athletic center that can do any assignment in the run game. Whether it’s a zone or man-block run play, the Chiefs can always trust Humphrey, with his athletic profile, to handle his assignment to perfection. Most centers specialize in one type of blocking, but Humphrey’s rare in that he can do both at a high level, which makes the Chiefs’ run game extremely versatile.
With Trey Smith, his best moments are all-time highlights. We know what Smith’s athletic profile looks like with his size, but there have been few players who combine his size and explosiveness in one package. Kansas City asks a lot out of him in the run game, but he’s handled every type of run well. His pass protection isn’t textbook all the time, but Smith knows how to maximize his athletic gifts in his pass sets, and there are very few players with the speed and quickness to take advantage of his weaknesses.
Humphrey and Smith are two of the best players at their positions in the entire league. That’s rare for their age. What makes it exciting, however, is that there’s still room to get more out of them. The Chiefs can run any type of run play with them, and it feels like they’re starting to tap into that more.
Once these guys are fully weaponized in the run game, nothing is holding them back from being the best players at their positions in the long term. I’m optimistic they will get there, and I think it will happen sooner rather than later.