The Chiefs are not a superteam. After trading Tyreek Hill in the offseason, general manager Brett Veach, orchestrator of the mega deal himself, probably knew it would take borderline heroic efforts from those other than Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones to get back to the Super Bowl in a loaded AFC.
Sure, the free-agent acquisitions of decently well-known names like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were important, but the 2023 draft class would be heavily leaned upon, and the play of those youngers would likely shape the season for the Chiefs.
The collective effort Kansas City received from its burgeoning class of rookies in the AFC title-game win over the Bengals was a microcosm of how impressive it was all season. Now, it's absolutely the appropriate time to give the Chiefs rookie class its due.
RB Isiah Pacheco (Round 7, Pick 251)
The thunderous back with an agitated running style only accumulated 26 yards on 10 carries against the Bengals, but as has become customary in his debut season, he found a way to positively contribute. The Rutgers alum caught five passes for 59 yards, including a tremendous 16-yard scamper on a simple checkdown with fewer than five minutes to go in the game during which he bounced off two Bengals defenders.
Because of serious training camp brilliance, Pacheco garnered buzz almost instantly but started the season behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon on the depth chart. Veteran Ronald Jones was lurking, too. Heck, the Chiefs signed Melvin Gordon to the practice squad in late November.
Pacheco kept his head down literally and figuratively on his way to a 4.95-yards-per-carry average in the regular and postseason combined. His 60.3 yards from scrimmage per game average is second on the team only to Travis Kelce. Mad respect to the seventh rounder and the 23rd running back selected last April. Amazing.
CB Jaylen Watson (Round 7, Pick 243)
Pacheco's story has been well documented. His fellow seventh-rounder Watson's hasn't. He was another "measureables" pick in the final round by Veach -- a 6-foot-2, nearly 200-pound cornerback with gangly 32-inch arms who played on an island often at Washington State.
No, his rookie season didn't rival Sauce Gardner's. But the Chiefs got otherworldly return on this seventh-round selection. He had a critical jump-ball pass breakup late in the first half in the end zone against rebounding extraordinaire Tee Higgins that forced the Bengals to kick a field goal. That came after a leaping interception earlier in the second while covering Higgins.
And remember, way back in September, Watson intercepted Justin Herbert in the end zone and sprinted into the end zone for what was ultimately the game-winning score in the fourth quarter of the tie game against the Chargers. Heck, that could've been the difference between this conference title game being in Kansas City instead of a neutral site. Altogether, Watson has played 679 snaps, reeled in three picks, defended four other passes and allowed just one touchdown in his coverage area.
CB Joshua Williams (Round 4, Pick 135)
Williams genuinely might have the best story in this epic Chiefs draft class. As a fourth-round pick, he entered the league with more draft pedigree than Watson but played his college ball at Fayetteville State, a Division II school in North Carolina.
Like Watson, Williams is an awe-inspiring physical specimen at the cornerback spot -- nearly 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with long, almost 33-inch arms and 4.53 speed. But he made the transition from Division II to the NFL in a flash and rarely looked overwhelmed or completely out of place. He had the enormous interception off a tipped pass in the fourth quarter and has a total of six pass breakups along with no touchdowns allowed on just under 500 snaps to date this season.
CB Trent McDuffie (Round 1, Pick 21)
Then there's the first-round pick. You know, the one everyone expected to come in and thrive instantly. Well, with McDuffie that didn't happen. A Week 1 injury sidelined him all the way until Week 9. Since then, however, he's been steady beyond his years in Steve Spagnuolo's defense playing mostly outside corner while moonlighting inside at nickel.
While he's yet to secure an interception and has surrendered three scores in his coverage area, McDuffie had two pass breakups -- and a near pick -- in the victory over the Bengals on Sunday. He's logged close to 800 snaps this season.
EDGE George Karlaftis (Round 1, Pick 30)
Karlaftis, Kansas City's other first-round pick in 2022, hasn't been a menacing, consistent one-on-one winner around the corner rushing the passer. But he does enter the Super Bowl with the third-most quarterback pressures on the team with 49. And of course, he deployed a spin move for a sack of Burrow in the second quarter.
WR Skyy Moore (Round 2, Pick 54)
Many, including myself, thought Moore would be an instant star as one of the Hill replacements in Mahomes' offense. That never materialized this season. He only caught 22 passes and never reached even 70 receiving yards in a single game during the regular season.
But true to form in this conference-title win, Moore did his part with two big punt returns in the second half -- one a 25-yarder and another that went for 29 yards to set up the eventual game-winning drive.
S Bryan Cook (Round 2, Pick 62)
Cook largely had an inauspicious rookie campaign behind Juan Thornhill and the lone big-ticket free-agent acquisition on defense, Justin Reid. It was a challenge for Cook to get playing time as a rookie. Totally understandable.
But that gigantic Williams interception in the fourth quarter was made possible by a tip from Cook. The play was a double move vertical route from Higgins, and Cook bit on the initial fake. He then slammed on the breaks and hit the afterburners to close on the catch point before getting his right hand on the football. Another rookie contributing in a big way for Kansas City. Outstanding.