Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently ranked the Chiefs 2021 draft as best in the NFL.
PFF’s methodology involved both PFF player grades and WAR (wins above replacement), a metric that, according to writer Trevor Sikkema, “measures the cumulative strength of each class.”
It’s pretty amazing to see the Chiefs atop such a list. Especially when you consider that the Chiefs traded their first-round pick as part of the Orlando Brown acquisition.
Then again, it’s not that surprising when you think of the rookie contributors on this team. Creed Humphrey is probably the best center in all of football. Trey Smith is a mauling tone-setter at guard, drafted in the sixth round, no less. Nick Bolton plays with the decisiveness of a veteran and has helped K.C.’s run defense immensely.
Pro Football Focus celebrated the Chiefs 2021 draft class.
It’s rare to find three quality starters in any draft. Do you know what’s rarer? Finding three above-average to elite starters in one draft, despite not possessing a first-round pick.
PFF’s ranking, made clear in the first paragraph of the article, took into account future projections. In other words, the writer considered the chances that each rookie would develop well. Plenty of rookies (if not most) struggle out of the gate, so a quiet rookie season doesn’t necessarily indicate future performance. Moreover, players are not drafted in a vacuum. Environment counts: an offensive player drafted to an Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes-led team will learn and grow in an environment conducive to developing offensive players.
Circling back, part of why PFF has the Chiefs at No. 1 may have something to do with the development prospects of players drafted to the Chiefs. For however good Smith is now, another year with Andy Reid, Andy Heck, and Patrick Mahomes means he might be even better next year—a projection I feel safer making than if Smith was drafted to, say, Houston.
The same idea could apply to tight end Noah Gray. Gray hasn’t had a sensational rookie year, but with another year of development under Reid and Travis Kelce, I feel good about his prospects, or at least better than if he’d been drafted to a three-win team. We don’t know what exactly they have for those rookies who haven’t seen a ton of playing time, like Gray or Joshua Kaindoh, but I feel better about their prospects developing in Kansas City.
There’s another layer to this discussion, though, regarding why some (like Sikkema) are bullish on the Chiefs’ rookie development. When a team drafts well, they add young, talented players to the team on cheap deals. When a team gets production out of its rookies-think Bolton, Humphrey, and Smith- they have more cap flexibility to address other needs. That cap flexibility means that a team can spend money on established free agents to fit different areas of need. When this happens, the team gets better.
Let’s frame this in a Chiefs-related context. Say the Chiefs take a wide receiver in the first round this year. Defenses would then be tasked with covering Hill, Kelce, and this new shiny rookie. Now, typically, would opposing defenses allocate crucial secondary resources to stop that rookie? Probably not. I mean, as long as Tyreek Hill is on the field, he’s probably getting most of the defense’s attention. Then there’s Kelce, a nightmare for safeties, slot cornerbacks, and linebackers alike, who always needs accounting. Granting that Hill and Kelce demand this kind of attention, the rookie will have chances to exploit weaker secondary players, put up stats, and become a trusted target.
So, what does this parable have to do with the Chiefs drafting well? Well, I mentioned that forecasting development is a big part of predicting the success of a draft class. We know that the Chiefs added at least three starter-quality players in the 2021 draft, all for cheap relative to their production. The Chiefs aren’t going to need to spend big money on a center and another guard and can instead spend some money on other positions this offseason. In other words, the Chiefs will be better thanks to hitting on some of those draft picks.
Here’s the cherry on top: rookies can develop at an appropriate pace when the team gets better in terms of depth. They’ll face more favorable matchups when they see playing time since the team has stars and quality starters already in place. A given rookie’s development will hinge both on that player’s skills, and the ecosystem around him, both in terms of team culture and talent.
The Chiefs became a much better team—both roster-wise and in terms of future forecast—by nailing the 2021 draft. This, in turn, is reason to be bullish about the future of the next crop of Chiefs players.