The annual reward for success in the National Football League is a late pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, but while that mechanism is designed to create parity, the Kansas City Chiefs have consistently found ways to uncover talent at the back end of the first round and beyond.
That track record includes cornerback L'Jarius Sneed at pick No. 138 in 2020, offensive guard Trey Smith at pick No. 226 in 2021 and tailback Isiah Pacheco with pick No. 251 in 2022 over the last three years, not to mention a slew of others in-between.
The Chiefs' recent success in the draft is all despite the fact that they've picked higher than the No. 30 overall pick just once since 2018. The one exception was cornerback Trent McDuffie at pick No. 21 last year, but outside of McDuffie – who started 11 games in 2022 – Kansas City has consistently found significant contributors late in the draft.
In fact, after selecting McDuffie, the Chiefs went on to pick defensive end George Karlaftis (No. 30 overall), wide receiver Skyy Moore (No. 54 overall), safety Bryan Cook (No. 62 overall), linebacker Leo Chenal (No. 103 overall), cornerback Joshua Williams (No. 135 overall), cornerback Jaylen Watson (No. 243 overall), Pacheco (No. 251 overall) and special teams' ace Nazeeh Johnson (No. 259 overall). Each of those players appeared in at least 11 games as part of the Chiefs' run to a world championship.
Karlaftis, in particular, finished third among all rookies with six sacks while Watson and Williams combined for five interceptions on the season (including the playoffs). On offense, Pacheco racked up 960 yards from scrimmage in just 11 starts.
It was nothing short of a tremendous showing from one of the league's best rookie classes, and when asked to explain the Chiefs' secret in discovering such a bevy of talent, General Manager Brett Veach provided a simple answer.
"It's difficult, because we're picking late every year. It's a problem that you have when you're a good team," Veach said. "When you're a good team, you have a lot of good players, so you don't have a ton of money to spend in free agency. At the same time, when you hit the draft, you're picking at the bottom of each round, but I also think there's hidden value in that: you don't overthink things. You just let good football players fall to you."
Veach certainly did that in 2022, but it was also part of a larger trend. The Chiefs didn't make a selection until No. 58 overall in 2021, but they turned that pick into linebacker Nick Bolton, whose 180 total tackles last season ranked second in the league. Kansas City went on to select Pro Bowl center Creed Humphrey (pick No. 63) and Smith (pick No. 226) in that same draft.
"There's reasons that we have [guys like] Nick Bolton and Creed Humphrey on our roster. You don't overthink it – you just take good football players," Veach said. "It really comes down to the amount of film that me and my staff watch. We make sure that every stack – whether it be our first-round stack, our second-round stack or even our seventh round and free agency stacks – they're combed through and vetted so many times."
Veach uses the term "stack" to describe groupings of players based on where he and his staff value them. It's a scouting process that takes years of meticulous study, and the result has led to numerous slam-dunk selections well beyond the fanfare of Round 1.
Perhaps the best example of that process culminating in tangible results was Pacheco, who rushed for 1,027 yards in 20 games last year (including the playoffs). Pacheco, who was the 22nd running back taken in 2022, finished fourth among all rookie tailbacks in regular-season rushing yards (830) and tied for the most 60-yard rushing games of any of them.
"When we get to the end of the draft, and we're in the seventh round and we're looking running back, we see an Isiah Pacheco," Veach said. "Again, it goes back to the time and commitment that the staff does in the offseason."
The Chiefs will look to cultivate some similar magic when the draft kicks off in Kansas City next month, and while they're not scheduled to make a selection until pick No. 31, the Chiefs' track record suggests another special rookie class could be on the horizon.