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How the rookie class helped spur the Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance

It’s not all about Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid.

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AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 2 home opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Chiefs dramatically took the lead for good in the 4th quarter on a 99-yard interception return touchdown by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson.

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game against the Cincinnati Bengals, with the score again tied in the 4th quarter, rookie safety Bryan Cook knocked a Joe Burrow deep shot into the arms of rookie corner Joshua Williams for the pick. (Watson, by the way, picked off Burrow earlier in the game, too.)

Very quietly, the Chiefs had the 7th-most snaps from rookies in 2022, and 3rd-most on defense. For context, five of the six teams ahead of the Chiefs missed the playoffs the previous season. Kansas City did not have the high-profile, high-performing rookie class on the level of the New York Jets or Seattle Seahawks, but there were still several key contributors who played their parts in winning yet another AFC title.

The bulk of Kansas City’s draft capital was invested on the defensive side of the ball, which was a middling 17th by DVOA this year yet still a significant improvement from 24th in 2021. One of general manager Brett Veach’s biggest offseason tasks was revamping the secondary. Starting cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Mathieu left in free agency, as did reserve safety Daniel Sorensen.

Veach took University of Washington cornerback McDuffie at 21 overall (trading up from the No. 29 pick acquired in the Tyreek Hill trade), followed by safety Bryan Cook in Round 2, then cornerback Joshua Williams in Round 4, and defensive back Jaylen Watson and safety Nazeeh Johnson in Round 7.

While Johnson has yet to play a defensive snap, Watson and Williams had multiple starts, McDuffie started all 11 regular season games he appeared in, and Cook got significant playing time in nickel and dime packages. The midseason decision to trade Rashad Fenton to the Atlanta Falcons showed the organization’s faith in the rookie corners. That belief was put to the test when L’Jarius Sneed suffered a first quarter concussion in the AFC Championship, leaving the Chiefs with the trio of rookie corners and Cook up against the dangerous Bengals passing attack. All of them rose to the occasion and held the Bengals to just 238 net passing yards on 46 dropbacks.

Kansas City also beefed up its pass rush with its native first-round pick, former Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis. The PFWA All-Rookie Team selection finished second on the Chiefs and third among all rookies in sacks (6.0). Karlaftis also ranked third in PFF’s pass rush win rate among rookies with at least 250 pass rush snaps.

By far the biggest revelation on either side of the ball has been seventh-round selection Isiah Pacheco, the 22nd and last running back taken in the draft. The ex-Rutgers star led the Chiefs in rushing with 830 yards, good for fourth among all rookies and the most by a seventh-round pick since the NFL Draft was reduced to seven rounds in 1994. He scored a touchdown in his regular season debut against the Arizona Cardinals and by Week 7 he supplanted Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the starting lineup. Pacheco was the only Chiefs player to receive a Rookie of the Year vote, getting a single third-place nod.

It’s not been all smooth-sailing instant glory for Chiefs rookies; Karlaftis had just 0.5 sacks through Week 11, McDuffie missed six games due to injury, Williams struggled with penalties in preseason, and second-round wide receiver Skyy Moore was seldom involved in the offense and even benched as a punt returner after losing three fumbles. Karlaftis had recorded at least one sack in six of his last nine games, McDuffie has averaged just 5.0 yards per target allowed, and Moore picked one hell of a time for the longest punt return of his career.

Kansas City’s return to the Super Bowl may be primarily fueled by the brilliance of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, but the rookie class has found its footing at the right time and deserves recognition for its efforts. One of the ways for a perennial championship team to remain a contender is to replenish the roster with young (read: inexpensive) talent even with the added difficulty of not picking high in the draft order. With the way the 2022 class has performed, not to mention the outstanding 2021 late second-round duo of linebacker Nick Bolton (58th overall) and All-Pro center Creed Humphrey (63rd overall), Brett Veach is doing exactly that.