When the Kansas City Chiefs selected linebacker Nick Bolton with the 58th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the move was met with mixed opinions. Some were thrilled that Kansas City took a local product (Bolton played college football at Missouri), while others considered it a subpar pick on a player whose ceiling was that of a two-down, thumping linebacker.
Seventeen games later, it's pretty clear which side can feel proud of their initial reactions.
Tasked with accepting a large role for stretches of the season when other linebackers on the roster — Anthony Hitchens and Willie Gay Jr. — missed time due to injuries, Bolton thrived. He progressed throughout the year, going from strictly a stout run defender to someone who diagnoses plays well and even flashed competence in zone coverage reps. Despite having the kitchen sink thrown at him as a rookie, Bolton passed the test(s). After the Chiefs' 28-24 Week 18 win over the Denver Broncos, he said his mindset ever since the beginning has been simple.
"Coming in, I just wanted to be the best player I could be so that was my mindset," Bolton said. "I'm going to try to continue to do that for our football team and try to make us better."
Even crazier: Bolton not only led the Chiefs in tackles this season with 112, but he paced the field by 32. Hitchens came in second with 80. Bolton was also the lone Chief with double-digit tackles for loss, recording 11 on the year. In terms of impact plays that go directly to the stat sheet, there weren't many young linebackers in the league better at their job than Bolton this year. That was never more evident than when he picked up a Melvin Ingram forced fumble and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown that swung momentum back in the Chiefs' favor late in the game. Bolton credited his teammates for the big play.
“I came off the edge, [Defensive Coordinator Steve] Spagnuolo called a great blitz," Bolton said. "[LB] Melvin Ingram [III] went ahead and got credit for penetration, got the TFL (Tackle for Loss) and caused the fumble. From there, it was just scoop and score. My teammates gave me some great blocks heading into the endzone.”
No, Bolton isn't a perfect player. He's far from it, in fact, as his athletic limitations cause him to struggle in man coverage and he's late on many rotations to the flats. His zone coverage depth and fluidity are works in progress. He struggles to wrap up and bring down shifty playmakers. With that said, he's a heady player who operates deliberately, hits hard and reads the field well. Bolton has a knack for making big plays and stepping up when the Chiefs need him to most. Saturday's game was one of those instances.
As the Chiefs prepare for their first playoff game of the 2021-22 season — regardless of which team they'll be facing — they will continue to need Bolton's best. Spagnuolo's unit is dangerous when Bolton is an impact player. He serves as connective tissue and a stabilizer for those around him. He may not have made a ton of jaw-dropping tackles against the Broncos but he was at the right place at the right time and made a heads-up play in a critical situation. Bolton's first regular season was one to remember and looking back at his draft slot, it's safe to say he's living up to that and then some.