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Nick Bolton in ‘Constant Communication’ With Anthony Hitchens

The Chiefs' young linebacker still keeps in touch with his vet.

When the Kansas City Chiefs selected linebacker Nick Bolton with the 58th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, many believed the writing was on the wall for Anthony Hitchens. That ended up being true, as the duo was split after just one season together.

Bolton came on strong as a rookie, recording 112 tackles. Eleven of them were for a loss, and he had countless snuffs of run plays at or near the line of scrimmage as well. His aggression helped him serve as a heat-seeking missile in year one, which was much-needed on a Chiefs team that hasn't had the best front seven when it comes to tackling. 

Bolton even won a Defensive Rookie of the Month award, making it a relatively easy decision for the Chiefs to cut Hitchens. By releasing the veteran linebacker, Kansas City saved over $8 million in salary cap space. When asked if he had any recent contact with or still talked to Hitchens, Bolton was emphatic that he and his former on-field mentor are still in touch.

Nov 22, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens (53) against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“Oh, yeah," Bolton said. "Me and Hitch, we’re still in constant communication. That’s my guy. He’s one of those guys that when I came in, open arms. He helped me learn. Kind of taught me the ins and outs of the industry. Probably at least once a month I check in on him. We’ve been talking throughout the offseason. I was sad to see him go, but I know he’s cheering me on. I’m cheering him on. The best of luck to him if he comes back here or finds another team, I know he’s going to be the best individual himself.”

Bolton, entering year two in the NFL, will replace Hitchens as the Chiefs' starting MIKE linebacker. Whenever Hitchens missed time in 2021, it was Bolton who stepped up and played some of the best football of his rookie campaign. At one point, the 22-year-old wore the "green dot" on his helmet — giving him the responsibility of relaying plays and captaining the defense in a way. No matter what test was thrown at Bolton, he responded early and often.

Things will look different this year, as the Chiefs will be relying heavily on Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. to usher in a new era of football. In Steve Spagnuolo's defense, linebackers are asked to do quite a bit. They aren't solely run defenders or open-field tacklers.

Oct 10, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (50) celebrates with outside linebacker Nick Bolton (54) after a play against the Buffalo Bills during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Bolton is a heady player but a limited athlete, so man-to-man coverage isn't his forte. He said he's been working on improving his zone coverage prowess this offseason, however. Gay is a great athlete and one of the best coverage linebackers the Chiefs have had since the great Derrick Johnson, so the bar will be set high as the 2022 season approaches. There's no replacing Hitchens, though, and Bolton acknowledged that.

“It’s hard to replace a guy like Hitch," Bolton said. "It’ll be up to me and Willie (Gay) to kind of help out, be vocal where we can be, not overstepping. Let it come naturally. That’s kind of what we’re doing heading forward. Just trying to put our best foot forward every single day and see where it takes us.”

Moving on from Hitchens was more than just a business move by the Chiefs — more than a financial-based decision. When Kansas City elected to release the top player on its depth chart, full trust was being shown in Bolton and Gay. That trust comes with the expectation that both players will prepare like veterans, play like veterans and lead like veterans. It's a tall set of tasks to live up to.

Bolton seems to be ready for the challenge, as he's been preparing for this moment for a year. Hitchens showed him the ropes in 2021, and the training wheels are being taken all the way off in 2022. As Hitchens still looks for his next NFL team, Bolton isn't forgetting who helped him get to where he is as he gears up for his second year in the league.