Sep 8, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (72) blocks Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin (58) during the game at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Line: Promise Or Problem?

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The Kansas City Chiefs have had a pretty uneventful offseason in 2014. There was no big name free agent signings. There were no draft day trades. The contract extensions that many are expecting for players like Alex Smith, Justin Houston, and Eric Berry have yet to happen. This relatively boring offseason has left little for die hard KC fans to discuss and debate as the days until training camp slowly pass by. Since the 2013 season came to a close fans have discussed Alex Smith, the #2 WR spot, the 2014 draft class, the pass rush, and most recently the loss of Pro Bowl CB Brandon Flowers. While all of those topics are interesting and important to the team, I’m not sure any one of those things will have a greater impact on the 2014 season than the development of the offensive line.

While I understand that the offensive line isn’t the most exciting part of a team to watch and/or discuss, their importance simply can’t be denied. While I’m certainly no expert when it comes to offensive line technique I do try my best to not be one of those casual fans that only notices the offensive line when something goes wrong. Like many of you, when I’m watching a game live my eyes usually follow the ball which makes it easy to overlook what the offensive line is doing unless it happens right by the QB or RB. That’s why when I re-watch a game I often turn my attention to the trenches to see what I may have overlooked. In recent months I have made an effort to pay special attention to the four players from last season who are almost assured to be starting on the OL for KC next year: Rodney Hudson, Donald Stephenson, Eric Fisher, and Jeff Allen. These four will make up 80% of KC’s OL next season with the RG spot up for grabs.

So what should KC fans expect from this group? Many casual NFL fans and less credible media members are acting like KC has a whole new offensive line after losing “three starters” in Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz, and Jon Asamoah. However, as most of you reading this know, Schwartz and Asamoah split time at the same RG spot and because of injuries to both Albert and Fisher, Stephenson played over 500 snaps last season and has experience starting at both tackle spots. Therefore, KC is really only looking for one new starter on their OL so the question isn’t as much “who” will start for KC, but will the group be able to get the job done?

If you were to just look at the Pro Football Focus ratings for KC’s returning four starters it doesn’t look very encouraging. Here are the ratings for each of those four from last season and where that ranked them in the NFL:

Rodney Hudson: +4.4 (17th out of 35 centers)
Jeff Allen: -10.7 (60th out of 81 guards)
Donald Stephenson: -10.7 (61st out of 76 tackles)
Eric Fisher: -21.5 (70th out of 76 tackles)

Those numbers are downright scary. If you were to simply base your entire opinion of KC’s OL off of those numbers that would give you a middle of the road center, a starting guard and both tackles that rate amongst the worst starters in the NFL, and the final guard spot likely to be filled by a former undrafted player with one career start (Rishaw Johnson), a veteran journeyman who had a -7.0 PFF grade last season (Jeff Linkenbach), or a rookie 6th round draft pick (Zach Fulton). That’s a pretty depressing situation when you look at it from that angle.

So should KC fans be predicting doom and gloom for their offense next season?

Maybe not just yet.

The good news here is that KC’s offensive line is likely going to be made up of very young players. The four likely starters mentioned above have an average age of just 24 years old. Despite that incredibly young average, they are not completely lacking in game experience. Hudson, Allen, Stephenson, and Fisher have appeared in a combined 112 games with 73 starts. That’s an average of about 28 games and 18 starts a piece. To have four players with an average age of 24 that are averaging almost two seasons of game experience and slightly over a full season of starting experience is actually quite encouraging. All four of those players were seen as having enough upside to use a quality draft pick on. In fact, the average draft slot of those four players was 43.5. Fisher was the first overall pick, Hudson and Allen were second round selections, and Stephenson was the latest drafted of the group at pick #74 in the third round.

My point here is that there is enough natural ability and athleticism in this group to believe that they all have a chance to be solid if not very good NFL players. The combination of this natural ability, some quality NFL experience for their ages, and a very well respected coaching staff should give KC fans some hope that this group could come together to form a very good up and coming offensive line.

After spending some time watching these four players recently, if I had to sum each one up in one word here is what I would go with:

Rodney Hudson: SOLID

Hudson isn’t a dominant player, but he’s not a concern either. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a physically imposing player, but he does seem to be a very smart one. That’s not a surprise as that was his reputation coming out of college. Having a player at center that seems to have a good understanding of what is going on is a must for a good OL. As long as Hudson is healthy I don’t really have any concerns with him and believe he’s a safe bet to be an average to above average starter.

Jeff Allen: UNINSPIRING

Jeff Allen is the player out of this group that I’m least excited about. There was a point in time that I thought he was just flat out bad, but after watching closer I have to admit that I was guilty of only noticing Allen when he got beat. Allen does have times where he plays solid and shows promise, but he also has some plays where he gets beat pretty soundly. I’d like to see him play with more strength and am encouraged by the news that he attended LeCharles Bentley’s OL offseason program that former Chief Geoff Schwartz credited with helping him. Allen could still become a very good offensive lineman, but with 27 starts already under his belt if he doesn’t take a step forward this season it may be time for the Chiefs to look elsewhere.

Donald Stephenson: PROMISING

I think you can make a pretty strong case that Stephenson is the second best returning lineman for KC after Hudson. In 32 games and 14 starts over his first two seasons he has shown good athleticism and promise in filling in at both tackle spots. I think that with the experience already under his belt he’ll only get better now that KC appears to be committed to him as one of their starting tackles. Stephenson also worked with LeCharles Bentley this offseason and I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of next season Stephenson could be the KC lineman that has taken the biggest step forward.

Eric Fisher: INCOMPLETE

Eric Fisher’s rookie season was a disappointment. The reason the word I picked for Fisher is “incomplete” instead of “disappointment” is because there are some excuses to be made for Fisher last season that are pushing back my opinion of him until he gets another shot. Fisher was transitioning from Central Michigan to the NFL, he was having to play RT for the first time in his career, and he was battling injuries all season long. Now, there has been many a NFL player that found their career over before they ran out of excuses for their poor play, so Fisher’s success is far from guaranteed. However, Fisher was seen my most evaluators as a safe pick as a long term NFL starter. Reports are that he has bulked up a lot in the offseason with more muscle to handle stronger NFL players than he had faced in college. He is also moving back to his natural LT spot so if he is 100% healthy there will be no more excuses to be made. If Fisher looks like a first overall pick this season the Chiefs line will probably be fine. If we have to make more excuses for him again next season then KC’s offense could be in trouble.

The final starting spot will be interesting to watch in training camp. I think KC would probably like it to go to either Rishaw Johnson or Zach Fulton. Either of these players would give KC yet another young offensive lineman to groom and give KC the possibility of keeping the same group together for a long time. Continuity is seen as one of the biggest keys to sustaining success on the offensive line and if KC can lock in their core group for the foreseeable future that would be a very good thing.

I’m not alone in my assessment of KC’s offensive line. In doing a quick search for offensive line rankings I found Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had KC rated #24 in his rankings but also had this to say about them:

The Kansas City Chiefs have the potential on the O-line to go from No. 24 to the top 10 at season’s end, but they are relying on a scary amount of youth and potential

Then over at footballsavages.com admitted Chiefs homer “Sully” broke down and rated all 32 offensive lines and ranked KC at #23. However, his summary was similar to Miller’s:

This group will live and die with the play of Fisher and could be ranked as high as 10 or a low as 30 by year’s end.

So what do you think Addicts? When you look at KC’s offensive line do you see more problems or promise? Do you think I’m overstating when I say that no other position group may impact KC’s success next season more than the offensive line? Do you think Fisher will step up and earn his draft spot this season? Who do you think will win the RG spot? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!

Follow me on Twitter: @LyleGraversen

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