Why Patrick Mahomes may have three first-year Chiefs protecting him

Lucas Niang's NFL draft profile (0:42)

Check out highlights from TCU offensive lineman Lucas Niang as he dominates in the trenches. Niang is a top prospect in the 2020 NFL draft. (0:42)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Lucas Niang have never taken a snap in a regular-season NFL game. The young trio -- Niang at 23, Humphrey and Smith at 22 -- would barely qualify for Medicare if you combined their ages.

But they have looked like veterans to the Kansas City Chiefs during training camp and the preseason. The three will likely protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the regular-season opener against the Cleveland Browns (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) as starters: Humphrey at center, Smith at right guard, Niang at right tackle.

"It doesn't matter to us that we're rookies," said Niang, technically in his second year after opting out of 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns. "It's just football. We're always together, learning together, working together, making sure we communicate."

Their inexperience doesn't seem to matter to the Chiefs either. Rookies Humphrey, a second-round draft pick, and Smith, a sixth-round choice, opened training camp as starters and kept their jobs throughout.

Niang was a third-round pick in 2020, and since he didn't play, the Chiefs refer to him as a rookie on their roster, though technically he's a "first-year player" according to the NFL. Niang replaced the incumbent, Mike Remmers, when the veteran missed several days in camp because of a back injury. Niang remains the starter even though Remmers has returned.

The Chiefs went heavy on veterans for the offseason rebuild of their offensive line. They signed three free agents, traded for another player and had another veteran and former starter return from an opt-out.

In that sense, it's a surprise the Chiefs are starting two rookies and a third player who essentially is a rookie too.

But Humphrey, Smith and Niang each played in a lot of games in college. Smith started 41 games at Tennessee, Humphrey 37 at Oklahoma and Niang 27 at TCU.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid likes more than that about them.

"They came from teams that threw the ball," Reid said. "So they've got an understanding of the pass game. I've mentioned this before, but these college kids coming out of these offenses where they are throwing the ball helps them at this level. You can see that with them. At the same time, they're doing a pretty good job in the run game.

"They'll be tested as we go with all the [stunts] that take place. [The Cardinals game] was good work for us because [they] showed us a few different things and it was good for those young linemen to see it."

Niang would have been in the Chiefs' lineup last season had he not opted out, given how injuries crumbled the offensive line. Instead, he worked out at home in Connecticut.

He played so well in replacing Remmers that the Chiefs saw no need to pull Niang once Remmers returned.

"Lucas has definitely demonstrated the physical abilities," offensive line coach Andy Heck said. "He's everything we hoped for in a draft pick: a big, athletic guy that will use his hands well in protection. He's off to a good start."

The Chiefs signed free agent Austin Blythe to be their starting center but despite that didn't hesitate in drafting Humphrey, who has been the starter since the first day of offseason practice. He has particularly impressed the Chiefs with his pass protection and his ability to make the correct adjustments to blocking assignments before the snap.

"I'm not a guy who necessarily wants to come in and be a role player," Humphrey said. "I want to be able to get out there and play the game. That's how everybody's mindset is in the NFL. So I know that only comes if I prepare right and take every day the way I should take it."

Smith started for four seasons at Tennessee but dropped in the draft because of concerns over blood clotting that forced him to miss some games in college. The Chiefs like his willingness to be physical.

"It's just the way I play the game," Smith said. "I love to knock someone down and roll over them, get in their head after the play is over with. It's sort of my personality. I'm sort of a goon. I just really enjoy the violence aspect of playing football."

The Chiefs haven't started a rookie lineman in a season opener since guard Parker Ehinger in 2016. Three other rookie linemen have started a season opener for the Chiefs since Reid arrived in 2013.

"I've started a number of rookies in there and they've done a good job, but sure, you like to have experience," Reid said. "It's kind of individually based in how they step up and communicate and how willing the veteran players are to share with them their experiences."

According to Elias, only two teams in the Super Bowl era have started three rookies on the offensive line in a season opener and none since the Atlanta Falcons did it in 1969.

Those '69 Falcons went 6-8. The Chiefs are coming off two straight Super Bowl appearances and otherwise look ready to make a run at another one.

But neither their actions nor their words would indicate they're intimidated by going with so much youth on the line. "I feel very good," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "I know those guys are going to be ready. I'm not concerned at all."