Two years, 2 Super Bowls: Chiefs’ stellar 2022 draft class essential in repeat drive – The Athletic

By Vic TafurFeb 10, 2024

Follow live coverage of Super Bowl LVIII between San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs

LAS VEGAS — Who can forget that crazy 2022 offseason? The Broncos gave up four draft picks and three players for Russell Wilson, the Chargers traded for the right to give Khalil Mack $58 million and the Raiders gave up a couple of casinos for Davante Adams.

But the big winner — just like it always is in the AFC West — was the Chiefs.

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They traded away Tyreek Hill and drafted 10 players, nine of whom made the opening roster that year. They have all taken on bigger roles, especially running back Isiah Pacheco, cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis, and are a big reason the Chiefs will be playing for their second straight Super Bowl championship on Sunday.

“We had a lot of first-year starters last year, and we’re trying to take that next step this year and hopefully, we’ve shown that we did that,” Karlaftis said Tuesday. “We just challenge each other to get better every single day.

“I think this can be a group of guys, a core group that can do some special things in the future, but right now we are focused on this game.”

Pacheco, a seventh-round pick (11 picks ahead of 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy), totaled 1,179 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in 14 games in the regular season. He has added 254 rushing yards and three TDs in the playoffs. McDuffie is half of one of the very best cornerback tandems in the league and Karlaftis had 10 1/2 sacks this season, tied with Chris Jones for the team lead.

Second-round pick Skyy Moore started eight games and caught for 244 yards before losing that role and then suffering a knee injury. Third-round pick Bryan Cook was starting at safety before an ankle injury ended his season, and linebacker Leo Chenal started 10 games. Cornerbacks Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson are also key role players.

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Chiefs general manager Brett Veach put on a masterclass in that draft, from trading up to get McDuffie in the first round to adding the hardest-running running back in the seventh.

“Brett is a big reason why we’re here, with his eye for talent and his relentless approach,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Wednesday. “It’s fun for the coaching staff to have so many good young guys to work with, and Brett knows what he wants for us as far as fit and upside, and does everything he can do to make it happen.”

Safety Bryan Cook, left, and cornerback Trent McDuffie are key members of the Chiefs’ fearsome secondary. (Denny Medley / USA Today)

McDuffie can cover receivers on the outside and in the slot, and his ability to move around helps defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo keep offenses nervous trying to guess what’s coming.

Together, with L’Jarius Snead (a fourth-round pick in 2020), the Chiefs have two guys who make receivers uncomfortable.

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“We’re some dogs,” McDuffie said Tuesday. “We’ll do the dirty work, we’ll go line up on an island, we’ll go blitz for you, we’ll go play safety for you. I mean, you look at LJ’s tape, this was the first year he really just played corner. Like, the last three years, he was all over the field.

“And also, just two dudes who ain’t afraid to go up and tackle anybody.”

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The Chiefs’ 2022 draft class started 61 games last season, the most since 1991 for a Super Bowl winner, according to NFL Research. That number was up to 79 this season.

And many of those players, like Pacheco, have gotten better as the season has gone on. His 14.1 yards after-the-catch average since Week 11 is second only to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.

“I hate to make comparisons, but Isiah reminds me of Roger Craig,” Reid said. “Both very violent runners with similar body types.”

Another comp comes to mind.

“Coach Reid calls him the Tasmanian Devil,” right tackle Jawaan Taylor said. “He just brings that energy every day. He always goes. He’s always going to go. We feed off that energy in the huddle. He has a high motor, man. All he knows is ‘Go.’”

That all comes from one place, Pacheco said.

“Understanding where I come from, being unsatisfied,” Pacheco said Thursday morning. “Being a seventh-round pick is a great feeling. Being at the bottom and then being wanted by the Chiefs meant a lot to me. That’s why I leave it all out there every day.

“You never know when it’s going to be over.”

Karlaftis also has a non-stop motor and thinks he and his defensive counterparts from that draft class owe big thanks to Spagnuolo.

“With Spags, it all starts with how much he cares about the guys (and) you could see that he truly cares about us. He loves us,” Karlaftis said, “He’s like a father figure, if you will. He’s a man that instills faith in our defense, just trusting in one another, and everything goes from there.”

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Spagnuolo will randomly call on younger players in meetings to explain responsibilities on a coverage or a blitz.

“He explains everything really well, and everybody takes notes,” Karlaftis said. “There’s a specific way we conduct our business in the defensive unit room, so he’s great.”

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The Chiefs’ defensive players have had extra homework this week to prepare for all of the 49ers’ offensive weapons.

“Man, they’re a dynamic offense,” McDuffie said. “They do a lot of things, and for a nickel, it’s going to be really important for me to not only understand my assignment but to be detailed. They’re going to do a lot of things where in the run game they’re pulling guards, they’re having receivers in orbit motion and stuff like that. For a nickel that doesn’t know what they’re doing, that can get really tough because things are going really fast.

“Just being disciplined in my assignment is going to be huge.”

At the same time, the Chiefs’ younger players also have to bring an edge.

“We’re hitting people in the mouth to start games,” Chenal said Thursday. “The first, second, third play, we’re blowing people back, whether it’s DBs, linebackers or D-line. Physicality is the most important thing.”

If it all goes to plan, the Chiefs’ 2022 draft class will have two rings in two years to show for it.

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(Top photo of Isiah Pacheco: David Eulitt / Getty Images)

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Vic Tafur is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Las Vegas Raiders and the NFL. He previously worked for 12 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and also writes about boxing and mixed martial arts. Follow Vic on Twitter @VicTafur

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