Former Oklahoma Sooner offensive tackle Donald Stephenson one of many young players still learning in Chiefs training camp (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Signing a prized free agent like right tackle Eric Winston from the Houston Texans to replace last year’s starter Barry Richardson will do that for any team.
Barring preseason injuries, the Chiefs are set for regular-season action with left tackle Branden Albert, left guard Ryan Lilja, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Jon Asamoah and Winston.
So with starters in place, the spotlight shifts to the players at the all-important backup roles on the offensive line.
“There is good ability in the backup positions,” coach Romeo Crennel said of the offensive line during his Saturday morning media session. “They are still learning because they are all young.”
Two of the young players Crennel speaks of are currently lining up as bookends on the offensive line: Second-year pro David Mims and rookie Donald Stephenson.
Mims, who joined the Chiefs in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, spent part of the 2012 offseason in Hawaii training with his former college coach.
The 6-foot-8, 335-pound Mims entered training camp with lessons learned from last summer and said he’s better prepared.
“Knowing the playbook is the biggest difference and having the whole offseason to learn everything before we got to camp,” Mims said. “Last year we got here, we had to learn on the fly. I had an idea what to expect coming into it this year.”
Unlike Mims, Stephenson, who tips the scales at 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds, doesn’t have an NFL training camp under his belt.
The rookie’s only reference point is what he endured last season at Oklahoma and he admits training camp with the Chiefs is tougher.
“It’s the NFL, so it’s a step up,” Stephenson said of his biggest adjustment. “I’m trying to learn the playbook faster. It’s not as easy as it was at Oklahoma. I just have to bear down and bring it every day.”
Still, with youth often come mistakes as inexperienced players adjust to the game and sometimes new positions.
Stephenson has lined up at left tackle, a position he started at in his last two seasons at Oklahoma. While Mims, who played left tackle last year and in college, has lined up exclusively at right tackle with the second-team offense since the start of training camp.
Each has their moments when they catch the coaching staff’s eye, but they still have a way to go before achieving consistency.
“Sometimes you watch practice and they’ll do a good job against a guy, and then the next rep they look like a rookie,” Crennel said. “We have to develop some good consistency with those guys, so that they can perform at a high level.”
With Mims and Stephenson, along with versatile rookie Jeff Allen, who can play tackle or guard, the Chiefs have the luxury of developing backups behind established starters.
One of the biggest questions after the signing of Winston was who would back him up.
The Chiefs may have the answer with Mims, while grooming Stephenson to be Albert’s potential heir-apparent on the left side.
In the meantime, Mims and Stephenson acknowledged they receive assistance and daily encouragement from their veteran teammates, notably Albert, Winston and Lilja, as they continue to learn.
But they also take comfort in knowing they have each other for support, despite the competition for a roster spot.
“He’s pushing me a lot,” Mims said of Stephenson. “He’s a good young player, very athletic and smart. It’s going to make me better just having somebody competing with me like this.”
The respect from Stephenson is mutual.
“He knows the playbook and that’s something I’m trying to learn,” Stephenson said of Mims. “He has a year on me, so he knows a lot more than I do. I try my best to learn from him and we kind of push each other.”