Now that the 2020-21 season is in the books, it’s time to peek at just how good (or bad) Kansas City’s rookies were this past season on their way to Super Bowl LV.
The Chiefs got some serious success out of their rookies from last year’s draft picks–as well as from outside the draft–while others did not make much of a contribution, if at all, but now that the offseason is officially underway it seems an appropriate time to rank and review Kansas City’s Freshman Class from this season.
Round 1, Pick 32: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
Obviously, it goes without saying that Edwards-Helaire (i.e. “CEH”) was expected to start Week 1 and perform at an above-average level as a rusher and a pass-catcher–much like Andy Reid’s previous RBs–which he did, putting up 297 receiving yards on 36 catches, 803 rushing yards, and 5 total TDs during the regular season (according to Pro Football Reference).
Add in the two postseason games that he started (71 rush yds, 23 rec yards, 1 rush TD) and CEH ended his rookie season with 874 rush yds on 196 attempts (4.6 y/a), 320 receiving yds on 39 receptions (8.2 y/rec), five rush TDs, one TD reception and a PFF grade of 77.2.
Before the Chiefs brought in RB Le’Veon Bell after Week 6, CEH was averaging 84.2 rushing ypg, he had already registered two 100-yard games on the ground, and he was playing 66.3% of the snaps.
After Bell arrived CEH’s stats dipped heavily before injuring his hip and ankle in Week 15, recording zero 100-yard rushing games and only averaging 42.6 rushing ypg on 53.3% of the offensive snaps. His receiving numbers also fell after the addition of #26, slightly dropping from 177 yds on 21 catches (8.43 y/rec) to 120 yds on 15 catches (8 y/rec).
While the addition of RB Le’Veon Bell definitely put a damper on CEH’s it wasn’t hard to see that the rookie was not making much progress in certain areas of the offense like pass blocking or moving the O-line on short-down situations (especially the red zone) but there will always be the ‘playing behind a backup O-line’ excuse to camouflage CEH’s performance his rookie season.
After the entirety of the 2020-21 season, it is pretty obvious to see that CEH has the fire that Reid and Mahomes need, it just needs to be stoked carefully and more often to see if he was really worth the Chiefs’ 1st round pick.
Overall grade: B+
Round 2, Pick 31 (63): LB Willie Gay Jr., Miss. State
Willie Gay Jr. was picked high because he has huge upside and versatility at the linebacker position, a position that the Chiefs were pretty weak at before the draft, and because of his off-the-field issues there was criticism around taking him so high, but throughout his limited playing time this season, he showed that he has the raw talent KC needs.
With the major amount of injuries that plagued the Chiefs defensive front Gay Jr. was pushed into action quickly and cautiously, eventually starting eight games, which helped him show his talent and progression in small bursts.
One of those games where he showed his progression was the game against the Las Vegas Raiders during the Chiefs’ first (and only actual) regular-season loss where he recorded 6 total tackles–one for a loss–and his first career sack.
Gay only played over 50% of the snaps in three games this season he still showed a lot of promise before having to undergo surgery on his knee and because he is just barely going to be ready for the 2021 season there should be no reason why we shouldn’t see him starting again over the likes of Ben Niemann or Damien Wilson
Overall grade: B-
Round 3, Pick 32 (96): OT Lucas Niang, TCU
Niang opted out of the 2020 season (COVID-19) which ended up being a major factor in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV loss, one of the worst offensive line performances that any team has ever had in the big game.
The good thing? Not only will the Chiefs have a rested Niang, who played his final collegiate season with a hip injury that required surgery, but they will (hopefully) be able to combine him with a rested Duvernay-Tardif, a healthy Eric Fisher, and a healthy Mitchell Schwartz (who just had successful back surgery) which should yield good tidings considering the QB they’re protecting can do almost anything with good enough protection.
Overall Grade: N/A
Round 4, Pick 32 (138): DB L’Jarius Sneed, Louisiana Tech
Sneed ended up being one of the best late-round picks that the Chiefs have found in recent memory, he immediately made his presence known by grabbing two interceptions in the first three games–which was tied for the most in the NFL through Week 3–before injuring his collarbone.
After returning from his injury he grabbed another INT before the end of the season while he also showed his explosiveness and positional flexibility by sacking the QB four times in the Chiefs’ last five games (including playoffs).
Sneed showed multiple times throughout the season that he could do it all, in fact, he was the only player in the NFL this season to register an interception, a sack and have 3+ pass defenses in one game (Week 15 @ New Orleans) which definitely caught the attention of the sports world if they hadn’t already been watching.
At the end of the season, Sneed was ranked in the top 5 of all defensive rookies, regardless of position, by both the NFL and PFF, which just goes to show that the Brett Veach and the Chiefs front office once again hit the jackpot late in the draft.
If, God forbid, Tyrann Mathieu leaves in free agency then the Chiefs will still be pretty well-off in the secondary which is now filled with youth and exceptional talent like Sneed, not to mention a healthy Deandre Baker, a healthy Rashad Fenton, and Juan Thornhill who played out of his mind leading up to the Super Bowl.
Overall Grade: A+
Round 5, Pick 32 (177): DE Michael Danna, Michigan
While the defensive pressure was one of the only areas of concern before the Super Bowl there were definitely a few bright spots throughout the season, one of them being Mike Danna…until the playoffs.
Even though he had a hamstring injury that sidelined him from weeks 5-8 he still managed to rack up six QB hits, four tackles for a loss, and 2.5 sacks–all of which came from his first 12 games–but then he essentially fell off the face of the Earth after Week 15’s game at New Orleans and did nothing during the playoffs.
His defensive snap percentage fluctuated throughout the season but it hovered around 36.5% (not counting the game he was injured in or Week 17 where he played over 50% for the first time) on top of his 13% average snap count on special teams, which could be heightened before the end of next season with or without injuries to the starting defensive line.
He obviously has a long way to go before he becomes a consistent starter, and a major player in “Sack Nation” like Chris Jones and Frank Clark, but he shows plenty of promise and will be a great addition to an already stacked defense (when healthy).
Also, if the Chiefs bring back a healthy DE Taco Charlton, who looked extremely different (and far better) than he did in Dallas, and a healthy Willie Gay Jr. (see above) then Danna will be a perfect hidden weapon that can attack at any time from any place on the field.
Overall Grade: C+
Round 7, Pick 23 (237): CB Thakarius “BoPete” Keyes, Tulane
Keyes didn’t bring much to the table during his rookie season but in his defense, he has some serious talent above him that will be hard to replace–or beat out for the position–and he spent 83% of his pre-Week 17 snaps on special teams.
Keyes seems to be a project for DC Spagnuolo and HC Reid but he also appears to have the talent and determination that makes for a good cornerback, which is not surprising considering Tyrann Mathieu was one of his role models growing up.
Overall Grade: D+
Undrafted: OL Yasir Durant, Missouri
Durant was most likely going to ride the bench and play strictly for special teams for the 2020 season if injuries to the offensive line had not rushed him onto the field where he eventually played in four games, only starting one (Week 17).
Throughout his 91 snaps this season he allowed four pressures and one sack which could be better, but for a rookie on one of the most prolific passing teams in NFL history, it’s better than one might have expected asked of him so swiftly.
Next season, if the starting O-line can remain healthy, Durant can be weaved into the LG and RG positions with ease which will boost his experience; eventually, he will go from #3 on the depth chart to #2 but hopefully, if he can prove he’s worthy, he could be a starting guard for the Chiefs sooner rather than later.
Overall Grade: C
Undrafted: OL Darryl Williams, Mississippi State
Williams didn’t even make the 53-man roster this season, instead, he spent the entire season on the practice squad before being cut and re-signed in January before the Super Bowl.
Overall Grade: N/A
Undrafted: P Tommy Townsend, Florida
Townsend was outstanding during the regular season and for all intents and purposes seems to be the punter of the future–especially after Kansas City cut their 15-year P Dustin Colquitt–but his postseason performance, specifically the Super Bowl, should be concerning to KC coaches and fans alike.
Townsend’s 35.6 yards/punt in the Super Bowl was abysmal and his inability to get a good footing on the ball led to a terrible 29-yard punt midway through the 2nd quarter which inevitably ended in a Tampa Bay TD six plays later.
But, as stated before, his regular-season statistics and consistency were impressive which is nice considering the Chiefs front office has plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball already.
Townsend had 20 of his 67 punts downed inside the 20-yard line during the regular season (29.8%) and averaged 45 yards per punt, which seems worse than it actually is considering where Mahomes and the offense constantly left him to punt from when they were stopped.
Although his postseason only contained one punt before the Super Bowl, he had some amazing performances throughout the season, like his game against New Orleans where he had three punts within the 20-yard line, a 60+ yard punt, and a well-placed kick late in the second quarter that was fair caught at the 5-yard line
Townsend will have to make up for the poor performance in the biggest game of the season but, being a punter, it can easily be a fixable situation if his 2021 season were to emulate the Super Bowl more than the regular season.
Overall Grade: B
Undrafted: DT Tershawn Wharton, Missouri S&T
One of the only Chiefs rookies to play in all 16 games did so after going undrafted and overlooked by the rest of the league. He proved he was better than his draft status that preceded him by grabbing three sacks, 22 pressures, 4 TFL, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
While Wharton wasn’t the most obvious candidate for a starting DT or EDGE position it now seems like he could easily take over DE Tanoh Kpassagnon’s spot next season if he continues on the path he consistently stayed on throughout all 19 games* this season.
*Not only did Wharton play in all of the Chiefs’ 19 games, but he played at least 20% of the snaps in every single game and at least 50% of the snaps in half (8) of the regular-season games.
Needless to say, Wharton looks to be on a similar level as Sneed (see above) and could be a familiar face and could very easily be the starter by the end of the 2021 season–especially since the current starter, Derrick Nnadi, could test free agency next offseason.
Overall Grade: A-
The Chiefs once again hit the jackpot with most of their pickups from the 2020 draft class and in doing so have set themselves–as well as their $500 million QB–up for future success and growth.
In the unlikely event that every single rookie listed above stays as beneficial to the team, or better than they already are, then it is the Chiefs’ Super Bowl trophy to lose for years to come, but knowing the likelihood of players’ talents diminishing and the risk of injury it is illogical to imagine that everyone progresses in an upward fashion.