This time of year is flooded with various awards and accolades recognizing the best that the NFL has to offer, but as significant as those honors may be, it's the individual team awards that often mean the most. These awards are voted on by the players themselves, demonstrating the respect that the locker room has for their own while metaphorically lifting the recipients up on the shoulders of their peers.
The Kansas City Chiefs annually vote on two such honors: the "Derrick Thomas Award," which recognizes the team's most valuable player, and the "Mack Lee Hill Award," which is presented to the team's top first-year player. The Chiefs announced both recipients on Tuesday, naming safety Tyrann Mathieu as the winner of the "Derrick Thomas Award" and linebacker Nick Bolton as this year's "Mack Lee Hill Award" recipient.
Mathieu, who also won the award following the Chiefs' championship campaign in 2019, was undoubtedly one of the leaders of Kansas City's defense this past season. He recorded six passes defensed and three interceptions on the year, but even more importantly, Mathieu refused to let the Chiefs' early struggles on defense define their season. In fact, his leadership helped ignite one of the greatest mid-season turnarounds in NFL history, as Kansas City posted the top scoring defense in the league following Week 6. For context, the Chiefs ranked last in the NFL during the five-week span that proceeded that turnaround.
The Chiefs have recognized a team MVP in each of the last 40 seasons, naming the accolade in honor of the late Derrick Thomas following his untimely passing. Thomas was the heart and soul of Kansas City's defense from 1989-99, establishing himself as one of the greatest pass-rushers of all-time and a franchise icon whose legend still echoes throughout Chiefs Kingdom today. Mathieu's efforts over the last three seasons, each of which have resulted in a trip to at least the AFC Championship Game, would certainly have made Thomas proud.
Another player who played a major role in the Chiefs' defensive turnaround this past season was Bolton, who earned the "Mack Lee Hill Award" as Kansas City's rookie of the year. Bolton was nothing short of tremendous in 2021, racking up the most tackles (112) for any rookie in franchise history. He was one of only three players this season to record at least 110 tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss, becoming just the ninth rookie to hit each of those marks since 2000.
The award – which has been annually presented to the Chiefs' most outstanding rookie or first-year player since 1966 – is named in honor of the late Mack Lee Hill, who passed away at the age of 25 following two impressive seasons at running back for Kansas City. The award is meant to recognize a young player who embodies the spirit that Hill carried with him every day, which is something that Bolton demonstrated ever since he arrived at One Arrowhead Drive.
Both individuals played a critical role in Kansas City's fourth-straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game this past season, and while the statistics were impressive, it's the respect that they earned from their teammates that truly stands out.