The 2021 season was a difficult one for the Kansas City Chiefs — with high highs and low lows.
When the stars played well — and the role players stepped up — there were glimpses of a complete team. But there were other times when the team’s best players failed absolutely — and the role players were nowhere to be found.
This offseason is going to be one of change. General manager Brett Veach and his team will attempt to rebuild the defensive front with the same type of success they had in building the offensive line in 2021. Some familiar faces will be gone — which will create a leadership void — but hopefully, we’ll see some new energy in the team’s depth.
Over the next three days, we’ll recap some of the 2021 season’s big movers — with an eye on which players may be gone and which ones may take on a bigger role.
Mecole Hardman: Depending on expectations, opinions about Hardman vary. If you’re looking for him to be either a No. 1 or No. 2 wide receiver (or to justify his draft capital), you’re likely to still be disappointed — and you probably will be for the rest of his career. Whether they’re fair or not, he simply isn’t likely to live up to those standards. But that doesn’t mean Hardman won’t be a valuable part of the team in 2022. He’s still on his rookie deal, which means he’s relatively cheap. After a 2021 campaign with 59 catches for 693 yards and two touchdowns — and a fairly productive postseason — he’s continued to increase his production each season. Hardman has settled into a role where he can contribute on the ground, in the air and in the return game. The assumption is that Kansas City will add a front-line line wideout (or two) this offseason. With the pressure off — and expectations reset — Hardman can be a valuable and dangerous Swiss Army Knife in an offense that needs multiple playmakers.
Nick Bolton: The Chiefs’ highest 2021 draft pick was an unquestioned success as a rookie. Bolton earned the coaching staff’s trust, showing himself to be an instinctive and disruptive player in the running game — and a sound tackler, too. He was among the league’s leaders in tackles (112) and tackles for loss (11). The latter is an underappreciated statistic. Bolton’s ability to get into the backfield and create a negative play is arguably just as valuable as a player’s ability to sack a quarterback. It was his development that has allowed the Chiefs to move on from Anthony Hitchens — so in 2022, it’s safe to assume that we’ll see an even bigger role for No. 54. Going forward, he’ll be counted upon to be a leader, a tone-setter and a cornerstone of the defense.
Willie Gay Jr.: As good as Bolton was, he still might not even be the best linebacker on the Chiefs’ roster. His partner on the second level has shown unique athletic abilities — and a knack for big plays. In limited 2021 action, Gay had 50 tackles, two interceptions and four passes defended. But he’s just scratching the surface of his talent; he will be one to watch in upcoming seasons. At linebacker, Kansas City’s future is bright. For years to come, we should expect to see Gay and Bolton on the field together a lot more.
Melvin Ingram: The only Bull on our list who isn’t under contract for the coming season is also the guy that helped turn the season around for the Chiefs’ defense. Ingram enters free agency after a nine-game stint where he didn’t light up the box score — he had just one sack and one forced fumble — but was still a disruptive player who made everyone around him better. Ingram was also a strong performer in the postseason, with a couple of sacks in the biggest games of the year. So all of the elements are there for Ingram to command a new contract. The Chiefs should give him a solid offer to return. We’ll see if it’s enough to keep him in the mix.
L’Jarius Sneed: With defenders like Ingram, cornerback Charvarius Ward, safety Daniel Sorensen, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (and others) hitting free agency, the unit might be unrecognizable in 2022. So as he remakes the defense, Veach will need to build around a handful of young players. As one of the best players on the roster, Sneed will be one of them. He had a solid season as an outside cornerback, forcing four turnovers, defending eight passes, racking up two sacks and seven tackles for loss. Sneed can do a little bit of everything. Among secondary players, he is one of the league’s best tacklers. He can play both inside and outside — and be a ball hawk, too. The diversity of Sneed’s skillset has prompted many to speculate that he could be a safety in the coming season — especially if Tyrann Mathieu moves on in free agency. Keep an eye on Sneed. Wherever he lines up, he’ll an exciting chess piece.
Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith: Each of these guys had an incredible 2021 season — and deserve a spot on our Bulls list in their own right. Together, they might just be the NFL’s best interior offensive line. Their effectiveness (and nastiness) have changed — and should continue to change — the way Kansas City plays offense. Behind these three, quarterback Patrick Mahomes should be more comfortable stepping up into the pocket. But perhaps more importantly, the Chiefs’ running backs are finding more and more success when their numbers are called. The team’s best free-agent acquisition in 2021, Thuney displayed leadership along with his advanced technique, getting out in space on screens and even holding down left tackle for a week. After his rookie season, Humphrey is arguably the league’s best center. Smith is the team’s best value, playing every offensive snap — and physically dominating opponents every week — after being selected in 2021’s sixth round. We must credit Veach and his staff for putting this group together in one offseason. Seeing them continue to work and grow as a unit is going to be fun.
Others trending in the right direction this offseason: Orlando Brown Jr., Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Rashad Fenton and Byron Pringle.
On Tuesday, we’ll take a closer look at the Chiefs on the decline (Bears) heading into the offseason.