Despite the absence of Tyrann Mathieu, No. 32 on the Chiefs defense will maintain prominence for the 2022 season and beyond.
Entering his second season, Nick Bolton is set to become the Chiefs' starting middle linebacker and the unit's primary signal-caller. Befittingly enough, as Bolton earns new responsibilities and grows into a leadership role, he will be doing so wearing a number that has thrived with those burdens the past three seasons in Kansas City.
Bolton, who wore No. 32 at the University of Missouri, is already seeing his level of comfort grow compared to this time last year.
"It's a complete 180. It's a lot smoother," Bolton said this week at OTAs, via the team's website. "Everybody around here has been instilling confidence in me to lead the team and play fast. So, I'm counting on those guys and they're counting on me. We're going to keep building and keep stacking days."
Evidence of the Chiefs' confidence in Bolton was realized following the offseason release of veteran Anthony Hitchens. Bolton is being tasked with a position change this offseason after playing the weakside LB position for most of his rookie campaign. The former second-round pick brings speed to the MIKE position, but he still sees plenty of room for improvement in order to successfully fulfill his new responsibilities.
"The big thing [for me right now] is vision, just seeing the field better. Coming into my first year, everything was moving fast, but as the season progressed, things slowed down a little bit," Bolton explained. "This season, it's about just opening up my vision and being able to see more things on the field at one time. That will help me play a little faster, so that's what I'm aiming to do."
Bolton got plenty of experience during his rookie season, finishing with a team-high 112 tackles and 11 tackles for loss while adding an 86-yard fumble recovery touchdown to his highlight reel. He became just the ninth rookie since 2000 to eclipse 110-plus tackles and 10-plus TFLs, and the first to do so since Colts LB Shaquille Leonard in 2018.
"I think the more understanding he has and the more he does it, it becomes even more friendly to his instincts," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "You saw him in the run game be really effective [last year], and now he's able to work on the passing game. That's what these camps are. That's where you see linebackers make a little jump from their first year into their second and third year. They get all these reps with the pass game, and I think that'll help him down the road in rounding off his game. He's attacking it like crazy right now. He's really put a lot of effort into that."
Chiefs LBs coach Brendan Daly is seeing a growth from Bolton on the mental aspects of the game, which factors into the trust the team has bestowed on the 22-year-old.
"I was very impressed with Nick a year ago, particularly from a mental standpoint," Daly said. "He's one of those people that the more you're around him, the more impressed you become with him. He's grown from a mental standpoint, he's grown from a communication standpoint and he's grown from a leadership standpoint. It's been really fun to watch, and impressive, to be honest. It's pretty amazing the amount that he's handling at such a young age. There are times that I have to [remind myself] that he's only in his second year."
Kansas City's defense saw a down year in 2021 following back-to-back AFC championship seasons. The unit ranked 26th in the NFL with 368.9 yards allowed per game in the regular season and went on to surrender 28.0 points per game in the playoffs.
Outside of the free-agent signing of safety Justin Reid this offseason, the Chiefs D will be relying on youth in 2022. Pass rusher George Karlaftis and cornerback Trent McDuffie are expected to earn significant playing time as rookies, while LB Willie Gay Jr., safety Juan Thornhill and CB L'Jarius Sneed are poised to become foundational pieces alongside veterans Chris Jones and Frank Clark.
Bolton, who is younger than all but five players on the Chiefs' current roster, is ready to lead K.C.'s defense for many years to come.
"I feel like it's our time, our young guys, and not just me. Willie (Gay Jr.), Justin Reid, Juan (Thornhill) and the young guys on the defensive line," Bolton said. "It's our time to step up and lead as a group. Nobody will replace Hitch or Tyrann Mathieu -- those are special guys. There is a reason why they wore Cs, but it's up to us to come in as a group and get guys in the best position possible to play."