It might be bit early to crown Nick Bolton with anything just yet, seeing as how everyone we’ve looked at so far has a lot more time in the league. There’s a serious leap that happens in a player’s development once they have a year or more under his belt, and Bolton is still learning the ropes during the long rookie campaign he’s in right now. However there’s a lot to like here for the Chiefs, specifically in the growth he’s shown in recent weeks.
Bolton came into the league with plenty of praise as a run-stuffing linebacker, the sort of automatic tackler teams knew would be successful for years at the pro level even if that success remained in that lone dimension against the run. Plenty of players have carved out nice careers for themselves doing exactly that, and when the Chiefs selected Bolton in the second round, it was clear they were continuing the aforementioned investment in the middle with the sort of complementary linebacker next to Willie Gay to reform the unit.
Then came the injuries all around him.
Bolton was supposed to be eased into his role a bit more than he has been, but Gay began the year on injured reserve due to a toe injury. Then just as he was coming back, Hitchens had a triceps injury that kept him out multiple weeks as well. Just like that, the Chiefs had problems getting the full cadre of linebackers on the field at the same time, which was bad for results as a team but good for the learning curve for Bolton.
From Week 1, Bolton was an instant starter for the Chiefs and looked reliable in the areas expected of him. It was easy to see how easily he shed blocks, shot the gaps, and got into the backfield with his strong instincts and relentless effort. However, there were serious issues in coverage that allowed teams to create mismatches, and the Chiefs simply didn’t have the personnel to deal with the issues that arose—at least with injuries.
In recent weeks, however, Bolton has turned a corner. Unfortunately he’s also losing playing time. Against the Tennessee Titans, he had 15 total tackles including four for a loss—and some punishing stops of Derrick Henry that turned heads on a national stage. With Gay playing alongside him, the pair looked so good that fans were wondering why Steve Spagnuolo would ever let Hitchens back into his starting role when back from injury. Alas, Spags is going with the veteran anyway, at least for now.
But here’s what true: Bolton wasn’t just a solid run defender in the last month. He’s looked like an elite one, the sort of answer that few teams have for game-changing rushing attacks who lives in the opponent’s backfield. His exemplary tackling skills also comes in more handy in coverage than some people realize, especially on screens. Given what the Chiefs will ask him to do long-term, he’s going to be just fine.
Together, with Bolton and Gay in the middle, the Chiefs have given themselves something they didn’t have in the years immediately following the end of DJ’s tenure. That should scare opponents for years to come.