In the final regular-season game of his rookie campaign, it’s more than fitting that Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton was in the right place at the right time making a play. It’s what he’s been doing all season.
“Coming in, I just wanted to come and be the best version of myself every single week, and so that’s kind of what my mindset was coming in OTAs and training camp and on into the season,” Bolton said after Kansas City’s 28-24 win over the Denver Broncos. “Just trying to do that.”
He did exactly that on the game’s biggest play. With the Chiefs trailing 21-20 midway through the fourth quarter, defensive end Melvin Ingram exploded into the backfield and jarred the ball loose from running back Melvin Gordon. Bolton scooped up the ball and escaped the grasp of quarterback and former Missouri teammate Drew Lock. An escort of his defensive colleagues ushered him into the end zone for an 86-yard fumble return that provided the Chiefs their moment of triumph.
“I just came off the edge, coach Spags (defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) called a great blitz,” Bolton said. “Our D-lineman, Mel Ingram, went ahead and got critical penetration, got a TFL (tackle for loss), caused the fumble and from then on, it was just scoop and score. My teammates gave me some great blocks heading into the end zone and just trying to get into the end zone from there.”
Head coach Andy Reid called it a “game-changer.”
“I was hoping that he wouldn’t stumble,” Reid said on a day when players on both teams dealt with slippery field conditions. “Those guys don’t get a chance to run that far, that fast very often, and he ran like a stallion. He took off and looked like a runner back there, so I was happy for him.”
Saturday’s game-changing play underscored the importance Bolton has meant to the Chiefs defense in 2021. The second-round draft choice led the team with 112 total tackles during the regular season, followed by fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens with 80. That ranks as the fifth-most tackles by a rookie in team history and the most since Eric Berry racked up 126 tackles during his rookie campaign in 2010. Bolton is the first rookie to lead the club in tackles since linebacker Dino Hacket with 140 in 1986.
Equally as impressive as Bolton’s productivity is his efficiency. Bolton put up those numbers while starting only 12 of 17 games and ranking eighth on the team in defensive snaps, drawing praise from his head coach.
“He did the same thing at Missouri where he led the conference in tackles,” Reid said. “He’s a good tackler. He’s a humble kid, so he knows what he doesn’t know and he’s willing to work on it. There’s something to be said about that.”
That’s what excites Reid about Bolton and his future. The Chiefs envisioned Bolton playing a backup role as a rookie, learning the ropes from Hitchens. If all went well, Bolton would be groomed to be the middle linebacker of the future in Kansas City. But injuries opened the door for early playing time for Bolton, and he made the most of his opportunities. He also proved ready to take responsibility earlier than expected.
When a triceps injury kept Hitchens out of the team’s Week 7 game at Tennessee, Bolton stepped into the Mike linebacker role in the middle of the defense, calling plays and setting pre-snap alignments. The Chiefs lost 27-3 but Bolton excelled, tallying 15 total tackles including four for a loss as the Chiefs. Bolton won praise for helping the Chiefs defense limit Derrick Henry to just 86 yards on 29 carries as he demonstrated his football IQ and work ethic.
“He’s continued to do that throughout the season, and I would imagine he’ll do it throughout his career,” Reid said. “That’s something that you need to keep as you go forward. It’s a great tool to have—a mental tool to have. It’s even better when you had the success he has to continue to do that and keep working your game.”
It’s been a rookie season beyond Bolton’s wildest imagination. Yet even after a 17-game regular season with glossy numbers, Bolton is more focused on what still remains ahead for himself and the Chiefs.
“I’m not chasing stats, I’m just chasing wins,” Bolton said. “That’s kind of my mindset. It’s 1-0 every week and just trying to win championships from here on out.”