In this week’s AAMA I pointed out that the offensive line is one of the biggest areas of concern after the draft, particularly in terms of depth. The losses of Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz, and Jon Asamoah have taken away the the Chiefs swing tackle (Donald Stephenson) who will not have to start at right tackle and depleted the Chiefs’ interior offensive lineman depth. It’s an obvious point of concern.
This doesn’t not mean the offensive line is a dumpster fire. The narrative surrounding the Chiefs’ offensive line has gotten a little too far away from the reality of the situation. Yes, there are concerns, but there are some positives along the line that have been boosted by the developments from the draft. These positive notes should push feelings about the offensive line towards neutral as opposed to panic.
One place to start is… starts. The lazy thing for commentators to say about the Chiefs is they lost three starters along the offensive line. This is true in the sense Albert, Schwartz, and Asamoah did start games, but this is a misleading statement. Kansas City is actually returning more starts from 2013 along the offensive line (49) than they are losing (28). The combination of Stephenson, Eric Fisher, Jeff Allen, and Rodney Hudson started three of the final four games the Chiefs played in the regular season. Further, Hudson, Allen, and Fisher finished as the top three offensive linemen in total snaps while Stephenson played only six fewer snaps than Schwartz.
There is something to be said about returning three of the four offensive linemen who registered 800 snaps or more from them previous season. This isn’t a complete rebuild job like last season when the Chiefs lost a combine 2,108 snaps between Ryan Lilja and Eric Winston* plus were returning Hudson off injury. Hudson, if you recall, had started only four games in his career entering 2013.
Even with the lost talent it is not as if the Chiefs’ line will be full of scrubs. Between Fisher (1), Allen (44), Hudson (55), and Stephenson (74) the Chiefs will have four players drafted in the top 75 picks of their class on the offensive line. This is a significant amount of resources and talent poured into the offensive line. Kansas City isn’t replacing Albert with a sixth round developmental pick but with the first overall pick in his class. Right tackle will be occupied by a a guy who some thought would be a fringe first round pick if he had stayed in school another year. There is still a lot of talent on the line even with the losses.
Adding to the experience and the talent positives, this is the first time this group of talent will be playing together in consecutive seasons. For once the Chiefs will not be heading into the summer learning a new scheme are getting to know a new head coach. Not only did the new offensive line of 2013 have to learn who they were lining up next to but they also had to learn where they were supposed to go and who they were supposed to block. Everything was new.
2014 will be a lot different. Again, four returning members of the offensive line, same scheme, same quarterback, same general manager, same head coach, same offensive coordinator, same offensive line coach. There is more reason to think the Chiefs will be building on their offensive line than re-building. Plug in a new right guard, flip Stephenson and Fisher and there really isn’t too much change.
Add to the mix what John Dorsey brought in over the offseason. Jeff Linkenbach has experience starting a both left and right tackle in addition to starting games at right and left guard. He’s doesn’t have the upside of Schwartz, but he’s a valuable and versatile player.
Zach Fulton was a three-year starter for Tennessee at a position of need for the Chiefs. Assuming he can grasp the offense quickly, he’s physically capable of being a plug-and-play right guard for the Chiefs. If not, Rishaw Johnson or Linkenbach are capable stopgaps until Fulton is ready.
Then there’s the Canadian kid, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who some project will be the Chiefs starting right tackle a year or two from now. Everything being said about him leads one to believe the Chiefs got a steal in LDT so long as they willing to take the time to develop him. So between Fulton and LDT there is reason to think the Chiefs have two future starters on their bench.
Compare this situation to the one the Chiefs were facing a year ago and the perspective changes. As mentioned earlier the Chiefs lost over 2,000 snaps between Winston and Lilja, who were rated as the top two offensive lineman for the Chiefs in 2012 by Pro Football Focus, and were breaking in a new center in Hudson. Additionally, their left guard, Allen, was entering just his second season in the NFL and was playing guard for the just the second season in his life. Albert was coming off injury and a contract dispute that nearly led him to be traded. And the best interior backup lineman on the roster, Schwartz, had played only 160 snaps over the past two seasons.
Throw into all of that the new coaching staff, new scheme, and new management, a rookie right tackle who was coming into the league unpolished, and the knowledge that their best offensive lineman was going to be a free agent at the end of the season.
No, the offensive line situation for 2014 is not perfect. We don’t know if a move to the left side means better performance from Fisher or what the Chiefs plan to do if either Fisher or Stephenson get hurt. There are signs of optimism for Allen but his first two years in the league have not been good. And there is the obvious question of what will happen at right guard. All of these are valid concerns.
However, the Chiefs are better off now than they were a year ago, even with all of the departures. Dorsey proved he can find value in the free agent market to add depth to the offensive line and Andy Reid proved he can maximize the talent he has available to him on the roster. The sum of talent may not be substantially better than a year ago but it is not worse. With the mixture of experience and consistency, the Chiefs should be fine in 2014.
*For comparison sake: Albert, Asamoah, and Schwartz combined to play in 2,022 snaps in 2013.