One of the remarkable parts of the Kansas City Chiefs’ championship run last season was the impact made by young defensive players. The team was and will always be carried by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but they may not raise the Lombardi Trophy last season without cornerback Jaylen Watson’s one-handed interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars or safety Bryan Cook tipping a pass to cornerback Joshua Williams for a game-changing pick in the AFC Championship.
In Super Bowl LVII, one of the game's biggest plays occurred when Chiefs’ linebacker Nick Bolton forced a fumble, scooped it up and scored a touchdown. These moments became one great X-factor for the championship team, and the young guys celebrated their accomplishments accordingly.
Chiefs Kingdom!!! Y’all were responsible for this . YOU GOTTA FIGHT, FOR YOUR RIGHT pic.twitter.com/dpFGuvQWb1— Wat’s Island (@JaylenWatson12) February 16, 2023
It can be a slippery slope: young players having all the ammunition needed to grow big heads and big egos. With a championship on their résumé already, the chip on the shoulder may not be as big as before.
But Nick Bolton — the 23-year-old leader of that unit — isn’t thinking that way. He isn’t resting on the Super Bowl performance that he highlighted with a big play. On Wednesday, after Day 3 Chiefs’ organized team activities (OTAs), Bolton was asked about losing any drive as the defending champions.
“I know for our defense, we’re definitely going to be hungry,” he emphasized to reporters. “We don’t really get the respect that we deserve over the three years I’ve been here. Even as I watched from Mizzou, the Chiefs’ defense wasn’t getting the recognition it deserves... There’s a hunger aspect to it, and I’m as hungry as ever.”
In 2022, Kansas City’s defense ranked 16th in points allowed and 11th in total yards allowed. That average ranking is the result of the highs and lows that the Chiefs’ young unit went through.
By the end of the season, they were playing at a higher level — and that’s something Bolton wants to focus on heading into 2023: picking up where they left off.
“We had some missed opportunities, whether it be interceptions or sacks, getting hands on balls and contesting catches,” Bolton reflected. “The first six games, I don’t think we were as gelled as we wanted to be as a defense. In the back half, it kind of picked up, so we want to start there; we want to start the beginning of the season like the last six and see where that takes us.”
To earn the doubters’ respect, the Chiefs’ young players not only need to maintain what they did last season, they need to grow and be even better in 2023. A veteran starter like safety Juan Thornhill is no longer with the team, meaning Bryan Cook has an opportunity to step up.
At practice this week, Cook has been working with the first team and flying around the field. When Bolton was asked about him, he reveled in the swagger that Cook brings to the team.
“Ever since he was a rookie, I can tell he has confidence about him,” Bolton began. “If he’s 100% wrong, he makes you believe he’s 100% right. That’s the confidence you have to have in the back end, so we’re loving that. He’s growing, you can tell he has put a lot of work in this offseason... being able to echo calls, getting guys lined up, even if we’re trying to show something and do it wrong, he’ll actually know about it... we love the competition he brings.”
That unwavering swagger is important to a defense, but not as much so during the offseason, non-padded practice. Right now, it’s about learning and retaining the information being presented to them on the field or the whiteboard.
Without tackling on defense, it can probably be hard to find the motivation to stay locked in and focused all the time at these practices, but Bolton praised the team for how they keep everyone engaged.
“Coach Reid does a great job with these camps, making us use our feet and our mind,” Bolton noted. “Those are the two things we can build on, whether it’s getting aligned, communicating, showing different looks, shuffling, covering with our feet, keeping hands off of receivers at the line of scrimmage, taking the physicality part out of the game.
“I feel like that kind of helps us throughout the season, especially in the back half when guys get a little dinged up and don’t have the same speed or agility as earlier in the season. Your mind has been sharp from the last six months, and you’re able to go out there and produce still.”
With plenty of new faces to mix in with the young core of the defense, each practice or meeting this offseason will be important. Many of the players in the unit may be Super Bowl champions now, but that won’t mean anything by the time Week 1 comes around.
The Chiefs’ defense still has plenty to prove, and no one will embody that motivation like Bolton will, captaining the unit from middle linebacker for only his second entire season.