Kansas City, Mo. Nobody gave Kendrick Lewis much thought when the Kansas City Chiefs made him their fifth-round draft pick last year.
He wasn’t even the best player out of Ole Miss to be selected by the Chiefs — they also picked versatile running back Dexter McCluster in the early rounds. But Scott Pioli saw something in Lewis on video, so the Chiefs’ general manager called in to make Lewis the 136th overall pick.
Now, plenty of teams are forced to give Lewis a whole lot of thought.
The second-year safety has assumed a much bigger role with the Chiefs, who lost Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season.
Lewis has picked off a pass each of the past two weeks, returning one of them 59 yards for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. He also recovered a fumble in Monday night’s 23-20 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers that gave Kansas City a share of the AFC West lead.
“Kendrick ... became an important part of our team pretty quickly,” coach Todd Haley said.
“A lot of that had to do with his ability to be a leader, and communicate, and help other teammates around him, and it’s never been too big for Kendrick. This guy’s been pretty impressive from a leadership standpoint right out of the gate.”
Displaced by Hurricane Katrina in high school, the native of New Orleans wound up heading to Mississippi for college, where the former wide receiver excelled as a defensive back.
Lewis was elected team captain by his teammates, and coach Houston Nutt has lavished praise on him for helping the Rebels to Cotton Bowls after the 2008 and ‘09 seasons. Lewis not only led the team in tackles those two years, he also led Ole Miss in interceptions.
But during the NFL combine, he ran a 4.73-second 40-yard dash — and his stock plummeted.
Some analysts predicted he wouldn’t go until the seventh round, if at all. But the Chiefs’ scouts liked what they saw, and Pioli made the call to draft Lewis despite having already selected Berry — the much more highly touted safety — with their first-round pick.
It turned out to be a wise move right from the start.
Jarred Page was expected to be the starting safety alongside Berry last season, but he decided not to sign his tender and was traded to New England. Eventually, Lewis moved into the starting role after an injury to veteran safety Jon McGraw, and he hasn’t given up the job since.
His excellence in pass defense has never been clearer than in the four games Lewis missed last season due to injury; the Chiefs lost three of them.
“First and foremost, defensively, somebody in that secondary has to be the quarterback of what’s going on, and when you have someone you can trust like we trust Kendrick, understanding as the formations change, the tight ends flip, the technical jargon, a lot of adjustments that are going on at a high rate, you know, this guy is a comfort,” Haley said. “Kendrick is a comfort to have out there.”
His value has only grown with the loss of Berry, who started every game as a rookie and wound up representing the Chiefs in the Pro Bowl. It was Berry who emerged as one of the central figures on a rapidly improving defense before a torn ACL in his left knee abruptly ended his season.
Lewis has three interceptions this season, one of which he nearly brought back for a touchdown against San Diego and another he did against Oakland.