Chiefs Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line

Wrapping up the offensive portion of our breakdowns, today we dive head-first into the trenches.

It’s hard to fathom losing a former first round selection (Branden Albert), a former third round pick (Jon Asamoah) and a somewhat heralded free agent signing (Geoff Schwartz) all in one offseason and still living to tell the tale. Against all odds however, the Chiefs remain in relatively good shape up front.

Sidebar: isn’t it funny how much time we wasted worrying about losing Albert “for nothing” when ultimately he actually left town with the least amount of fuss of the three linemen we lost? People may have been more upset about Tyson Jackson departing than Branden Albert… never thought I’d be able to say that.

Back to business: at offensive tackle the safe assumption is that Eric Fisher starts on the left and Don Wayne Stephenson on the right… but even that seems to be up for debate in some circles.

After a stellar Senior Bowl, Fisher was the first overall pick in the 2013 draft but spent most of his rookie season battling a barrage of injuries. To my understanding, it was primarily his shoulder and wrist that gave him fits – arguably two of the most vital appendages for an offensive tackle. I’ve long-preached Andy Reid’s preference for thicker players on the OL, so Fisher’s rookie weight being at 306 was actually my biggest question mark about his selection. Thankfully, this offseason allowed him to reach 100% health and add nearly 30 pounds of muscle to what was a previously undeveloped frame.  Those major positives combined with a switch back to his natural position on the left side are a formula for him to take big strides forward in year two.

Stephenson seemed destined to be forever known as “Not Russell Wilson” in Kansas City, but the dialogue has changed after an impressive showing during spot-duty in 2013. Injuries to Fisher and Albert forced Stephenson into the lineup at both tackle spots throughout the season, collecting a total of seven starts and a considerable amount of praise.

The Chiefs have kept just one backup OT the past few years – a swing-tackle, as it’s been dubbed. Right now it looks as if that man will be 26-year old J’Marcus Webb, formerly of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Think John Dorsey knows a thing or two about this kid?

Despite being a seventh rounder from West Texas A&M, Webb started 12 games at right tackle as a rookie. His performance earned him the left tackle job in years two and three, starting all 16 games both seasons. He was waived during training camp last season, claimed by Minnesota and spent all of 2013 as a reserve. His imposing 6’7, 330-pound frame along with 44 career starts bodes well for making the final roster this year.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, former second round pick Jeff Allen will start at LG. Having 27 starts in his first two seasons is great experience but all-in-all he’s been an underwhelming performer. If Stephenson has to be known as “Not Russell Wilson”, Jeff Allen should be known as “Not Alshon Jeffery”. While he won’t be on a short leash per se, I would expect 2014 to be his final proving ground.

Rodney Hudson – the only Chiefs lineman to start 16 games last season – is also in a make-or-break situation at center. After a rookie season that ended in promising fashion, Hudson suffered a broken leg in week three of 2012, forcing him to miss the rest of the year. His performance in 2013 looked very much like a young, blossoming player – flashes of the elite athleticism that helped him become a two-time first team All-American at Florida State, followed by instances of obvious inexperience.

That leaves us with the starting right guard spot… and the dozen or so guys all vying to start.

Converted-tackle Jeff Linkenbach (signed this offseason from Indianapolis) is probably the favorite but Rishaw Johnson, Eric Kush and rookie Zach Fulton are all in the mix. Kush has added value being a former center, so he seems like a natural fit in what could be another swing type of backup role inside.

Rokevious Watkins recently got slapped with a four-game suspension so he may not even make it to camp… and what about rookie tackle/freak athlete/Canadian resident Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, M.D.? Should he be considered a threat to start inside? Your guess is as good as mine. The reports have been glowing (while in shorts and helmets) thus far, so it may be tough to stash a guy like that on the practice squad regardless of how raw he may be.

Long story short: the starting right guard position is the very definition of an open competition.

The theme of 2014 will be continuity. It’s been half a decade or more since the Chiefs have been able to start the same five offensive linemen for an entire season. This is a young, talented group that needs time to gel; playing next to the same guy(s) all year long is of paramount importance to their development.

Prediction: Chiefs keep 7 linemen

Starters: Fisher, Allen, Hudson, Linkenbach, Stephenson
Reserves: Webb, Kush
Practice Squad: Fulton, LDT (if he doesn’t get plucked away)
Outright release: Rokevious & Rishaw (BEST FRIENDS FOREVER!!!)

Have you been keeping tallies? So far the roster looks like this:

Quarterbacks – 4
Running Backs – 5
Wide Receivers – 5
Tight Ends – 4
Offensive Linemen – 7

Total offensive players: 25

The countdown continues Monday as we start taking a look at the defense:

July 14: Defensive Line
July 16: Linebackers
July 18: Cornerbacks
July 20: Safeties
July 22: Kickers
July 24: Training Camp Begins

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