Chiefs’ rookie regulars ready for playoff debuts

Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill, left, celebrates with teammates Trent McDuffie (21) and Jaylen Watson (35) after intercepting a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have been in this situation before, ready to embark on a postseason run that the past four years has landed the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game and twice ended in the Super Bowl.

So it’s easy to assume that the rest of the Chiefs are a hardened bunch of playoff veterans.

Turns out they’re not.

Only the three-win Chicago Bears had more games played by rookies than the Chiefs this season, and only four teams had more first-year players start games than Kansas City.

That includes defensive end George Karlaftis, who started all 17 of his games, and cornerback Trent McDuffie, who started each of the 11 games for which he was healthy.

In fact, each of the Chiefs’ 10 draft picks was active for at least one game. Eight of them started at least once.

“I mean, it starts with the organization and the coaches. They’ve set a culture here,” explained Mahomes, who at 27 years old is suddenly among the elder statesmen of the franchise.

“We have a lot of veterans on our team, and when you bring in new guys, you just show them by the way you act.”

Mahomes did his part with wide receiver Skyy Moore, inviting him to voluntary offseason workouts at his home in Texas. Moore responded by catching 22 passes for 250 yards while also contributing on special teams.

Defensive end Frank Clark likewise took Karlaftis under his wing in training camp, showing the first-round pick the nuances of the game. Karlaftis had six sacks, trailing only Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston for tops among rookies.

And safety Justin Reid was instrumental in helping along a group of defensive backs that includes four rookie cornerbacks and a rookie safety, all of whom have been on the field at the same time.

Jaylen Watson had a 99-yard pick-6 that helped Kansas City beat the Chargers in Week 2, and McDuffie, Josh Williams, Nazeeh Johnson and Bryan Cook all have had moments.

The fact that they were pressed into service so often means that, at least as far as Reid is concerned, they’re no longer rookies at all as they prepare to face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs.

“They’ve had enough experience. They’ve had enough games under their belt,” Reid said. “They’re first-year players but that title — ‘rookie’ — we really want to throw that out the window because of the experience and snaps under their belt.”

The Chiefs had 154 games played by their rookie class this season. Sixty-one times a rookie was in the starting lineup.

“I just went in yesterday again and spoke to the group and just let them know, ‘Hey, you’re at a point in the season that you’re not rookies any longer,'” added Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt.

“The guys have got to understand that it’s a faceless opponent every time. … Technique-wise, you have to make sure you’re executing, and hopefully throughout the season you continue to get better. And that’s what they’ve done.”

It’s not just on defense where rookies have shined either.

Moore was the most-touted offensive draft pick in Kansas City, and he’s been helpful despite fumble problems that got him pulled from punt return duties.

But the breakout star has been seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco, who has seemingly spent every game making every team pay for passing on him in those first six rounds.

Despite not starting the first six games, Pacheco has run for 830 yards and five touchdowns, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry. That’s the fifth-best yardage total among rookies and his TD total is tied for second among first-year players.

The most impressive thing about Pacheco, and the rest of the Chiefs rookies, might be that they keep getting better.

“I’m not a big rookie wall believer-type deal. It’s professional football. This is your job,” Chiefs running backs coach Greg Lewis said with a shake of his head. “(Pacheco) has been playing football, as all the other rookies have too, their whole life.”

Never with these stakes, though. Mahomes was able to deal with the pressure; he’s never lost in the divisional round of the playoffs as an NFL starter.

So have other players that have helped Kansas City reach four straight AFC title games.

Will their latest — and perhaps largest — group of first-year contributors manage to do the same?

“I think you’ve seen as the seasons gone on, those rookies are getting better,” Mahomes said with a smile, “and then the veterans are starting to hit the right moment going into the playoffs.”


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