KC Chiefs rookies paid huge dividends in AFC Championship

The Kansas City Chiefs have taken back the Lamar Hunt Trophy and are heading to Super Bowl LVII to take on the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the most grueling and gritty wins of the Patrick Mahomes era. Countless Kansas City players left the game due to injury, plus Mahomes and Travis Kelce were also nursing injuries themselves.

Some of the most memorable storylines of the game will be Patrick Mahomes’ toughness, Chris Jones’ game of a lifetime, and Joseph Ossai’s costly unnecessary roughness penalty. Although those are all valid, what should not be forgotten is the fact that the several rookies on the Chiefs paid huge dividends in the biggest game (to date) of their young professional careers.

The Chiefs selected ten players in the 2022 NFL Draft, nine of which made the final roster after training camp, and eight have played at least 275 snaps on offense or defense so far this year. Even the two rookies who haven’t seen any playing time on offense or defense, one made the final roster (Darian Kinnard) and the other, Nazeeh Johnson, has played well over 100 snaps on special teams this season.

The fact that the Chiefs have nine rookies contributing to a team en route to the Super Bowl is mesmerizing. Two of the most notable rookies were picked after 240th overall and seven were not even first-round picks. When you compare that to the other top draft classes from 2022 (New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, and Detroit Lions), Kansas City is the only one to not have a Top 10 pick. Yes, they had two first-rounders, but the Jets had three themselves, including two in the Top 10 alone, and the Lions had two picks in the Top 12. No fan should ever claim that Brett Veach struggles to find talent in the draft ever again.

A bright young Chiefs secondary

No other unit on the team was more dependent on their young guys than the secondary. After L’Jarius Sneed went down with an injury, the top three cornerbacks the Chiefs had available were all rookies. His injury also led to 23-year-old safety Bryan Cook seeing a slight increase in his playing time.

The top pick of the entire class was ex-Washington corner, Trent McDuffie. He had a less-than-ideal first-year campaign as he missed six games because of a hamstring injury suffered (coincidentally) in Glendale, Arizona Week 1. He had an up-and-down game as he slipped multiple times, leading to explosive plays for Cincinnati, but he had a quietly huge pass deflection on a Joe Burrow pass intended for Tee Higgins in the third quarter on third down. The ball likely would have been caught for a first down if not for the clutch tip by the former Husky.

In the wake of Sneed’s absence, an argument can be made that no player was asked to step up more than Joshua Williams, who had seen his snap count drop dramatically over the previous two games. He played good, but not perfect, football throughout the game, including the huge interception of Burrow in the fourth quarter of a Bryan Cook tip. If you would have told fans a year ago that a Division II player picked in the fourth round would make one of the most clutch plays of the season, I’m not sure many would have believed it.

The third and final cornerback in the rookie class is Jaylen Watson. Some players naturally have a “clutch gene” and it appears that Watson is one of those guys. Not only did he have the game-winning pick-six against the Chargers in the home opener, but he also sealed the divisional-round win over the Jaguars with an interception and picked off Burrow late in the first half to shut down a potential touchdown drive for the Bengals. For the 243rd overall pick in the draft, it’s safe to say that he’s been one of the biggest steals in his entire class and the Chiefs may not be in the spot they are now without him.

The Chiefs’ best draft value?

Although Jaylen Watson is one of the best values from the 2022 draft, there’s a good chance that he’s not even the best value on his own team! That title may belong to running back Isiah Pacheco. A case can be made that no player in training camp had more hype surrounding him than the rookie back out of Rutgers. Based on the reporting, one would think that he was the second coming of Priest Holmes, and that doesn’t appear to be the most inaccurate statement ever made. He had a slow start to the season but has come on strong over the past two months and has been great in the playoffs so far. The biggest complaint I have has been the lack of touches given to him by Andy Reid.

In the win against Cincinnati, Pacheco totaled five receptions for 59 yards in the passing game but didn’t have the most efficient night running the ball against Cincinnati, with 10 carries for 26 yards. Though it wasn’t the most productive game, his six-yard run near the end of the game was invaluable as he took a dump-off from Patrick Mahomes, nine yards behind the line of scrimmage, 15 more yards to give the Chiefs a net gain instead of a huge loss that it had the potential to be. Fans were screaming at the beginning of the year to increase Pacheco’s snap count, and those fans are looking to be correct based on how he’s played in the postseason.

Other impressive rookies from the AFCCG

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Cincinnati native Bryan Cook playing against his hometown team in the biggest game of his football career. He played a solid game overall but was called for a costly defensive pass interference penalty, which was the correct call, that led to three points for the Bengals instead of at least three points for Kansas City. That 6+ point swing could have cost KC the game, but fortunately, it did not end up mattering. It must have been surreal for a player to beat his hometown team for a trip to the Super Bowl, but Bryan Cook accomplished that dream.

One of the bigger stories from the victory was how the Chiefs’ pass rush was able to disrupt Joe Burrow. Kansas City was able to sack him five times, one of which was by George Karlaftis. After a very quiet start to the year, totaling just 0.5 sacks in ten games, he’s racked up 5.5 over his past nine.

After being benched as the punt returner due to several muffed punts, Dave Toub called upon Skyy Moore to return in the wake of Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman both leaving the game and Justin Watson being inactive. Outside of the game-winning kick, he made the most important special teams play of the night as he returned a Drue Chrisman punt 29 yards to midfield, putting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense in a great position to earn the game-sealing points.

The final pick of the draft class is also the forgotten rookie of his class. Nazeeh Johnson was the fourth-to-last pick in the draft and he’s been worth the pick. Yes, he has yet to play his first defensive snap, but he’s been incredible on special teams this season. Since Week 13, Johnson has the most special team tackles on the Chiefs, while only playing the tenth most snaps. According to Pro Football Focus ($), Nazeeh Johnson earned the highest special teams grade out of any player on Kansas City, with at least 100 such snaps. He hasn’t contributed anything on defense, but there’s no doubt that he’s made this team better since he started seeing the field more. Dave Toub may have just found his next special teams ace.


After trading Tyreek Hill and letting veteran leaders such as Tyrann Mathieu, Charvarius Ward, and Anthony Hitchens leave in free agency, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach was under a ton of pressure to hit a home run in the draft and he may have hit a walk-off grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series. Even one of the lower-profile rookies, Leo Chenal, still has been solid when given the opportunity. The Chiefs would not have won this game without their rookie class. The team asked a ton of their young guys and they delivered.

When it’s all said and done, there’s a real possibility that the Kansas City Chiefs found five or six defensive starters, two on offense, and one or two on special teams, in this single draft class. All but one of their ten selections has paid dividends and have contributed so far this season. If even just half of the rookies continue to grow, there’s no ceiling to how good this football team can be in the near future, and Sunday night may have just been the beginning.