Will this Chiefs offensive line be better as a unit than the 2014 version?
Short answer: I can fairly confidently say YES.
Last year’s unit had major issues with depth. The Chiefs let three decent-to-good offensive linemen walk in free agency, and only added a pair of sixth round draft picks. They had a potentially solid starting unit but nobody pro-ready or reliable behind them.
Losing Jeff Allen to injury Week 1 and Donald Stephenson to suspension / benching was too much for this already thin group to handle.
They intended to enter 2014 with a starting lineup of: Fisher / Allen / Hudson / Fulton / Stephenson, but they actually opened up 2014 with Fisher / McGlynn / Hudson / Fulton / Allen (and by the end of the first game, Harris)
John Dorsey and team made adding to the OL a priority in 2015, with a major addition via trade (Ben Grubbs), a minor addition via free agency (Paul Fanaika) and a potentially major addition early in the draft (Mitch Morse).
Looking at the individual pieces, I believe it’s clear that this Chiefs line will be improved in at least three spots, the same in one and potentially a bit worse at one. As long as this group stays healthy and begins to gel as a unit, it’s hard to see how they will be worse than the 2014 version.
Left Tackle: I’ve begun watching Eric Fisher from 2014, and I’m genuinely excited about his progression. Yes, I know Andy Reid trolled us all by giving Donald Stephenson reps at left tackle But I believe this is more about Stephenson being prepared for a possible "swing tackle" role than anything else.
Left Guard: Ben Grubbs is locked in as the starter, and will clearly be an upgrade over Jeff Allen and the emergency backups that held down LG in 2014, Jeff Linkenbach and Mike McGlynn.
Center: Losing Rodney Hudson may hurt but they have a couple of good young replacement candidates in Eric Kush and Mitch Morse. Kush seems to be taking the early hold on the position in OTAs, getting the bulk of the 1st team reps. Morse is a talented rookie who has a real chance to start this year. This will most certainly be one of the key battles to watch in training camp. Either way we know the center will at least be patriotic and ripped, right?
Right Guard: This will either be an improved Zach Fulton or one of a few guys (Fanaika, Allen, LDT) that beat him out in a camp competition. Either way, this spot should be better than in 2014 … and the depth at both guard positions will include more talent and experience.
Right Tackle: This will either be Allen, Stephenson or Sherrod … any of them should be equal to or better than Ryan Harris last season. Stephenson is the early leader, but don’t count out Allen if he isn’t the RG. I firmly believe Allen will be a starter at one position or the other. Derek Sherrod is the real wild card here, as his once promising career has been derailed by a major leg injury back in 2011. He’s played in 20 games so far in his career, with only one start. So, we don’t really know what the Chiefs have in Sherrod but if he is healthy, he could be a factor.
How long has it been since there has been genuine continuity along the OL? Is this the year it begins?
Continuity is HUGE for offensive lines. But what does continuity really mean? To me, it gets to the core of the idea "the whole is greater than a sum of the parts". You need talent on the offensive line, no question. But you also need those talented players to be able to communicate, work together, and be on the same page when it comes to assignments, combination blocks and picking up blitzes. It takes time on and off the field to develop a good sense for how the man next to you will react in the heat of battle.
Kush, as the center of all this both literally and figuratively, recognizes that prosperity along the line starts with a close-knit group, and it appears the message has already gotten across to the team.
"We have to bond as a unit, we have to trust each other, know what each other's going to do, know what each other's thinking," he said. "Being together, hanging out certainly helps when something's going down and you have to make decisions fast."
More so than pretty much any position group, the performance of the line is also only as good as the weakest link. It does matter who lines up next to you and whether or not they can do their job. Never has this been more obvious to me than 2014. In the games I’ve studied so far, the LG position was literally the downfall of the entire OL. Yes, Fisher could have been better … but I’ll contend that with a very solid veteran at LG, (along with another year of strength and technique work) we might very well see the former No. 1 pick look like he has truly developed into the long-term starter we all expect. Grubbs and Fisher have been bonding on and off the field, according to Grubbs, and hopefully, that will translate on the field when preseason games begin August 15th.
If you look at continuity as the same players returning year after year to play together, the last offensive line that has real continuity in Kansas City was arguably the greatest OL in the history of the NFL. Continuity was one of the things that made them great (other than an elite collection of talent, of course). Will Shields, Brian Waters, and Casey Wiegmann were the core of those lines from 2001-2006.
"When I came to Kansas City as a rookie, it was Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields, John Welbourn," he said. "Those guys would make calls with hand signals. Those guys wouldn't have to make calls because they were in each other's head."
Taking a look back at the last 10 years or so of Chiefs offensive lines, the average number of starters that carry over from year-to-year is three. Arguably some of the worst years of line play we've seen were 2007, 2008 and 2011, when only two starters returned each season.
In 2014, the Chiefs returned 3 of the 5 starters from the prior year
Eric Fisher/Mike McGlynn/Rodney Hudson/Zach Fulton/Jeff Allen
2013: 3 starters from 2012
Branden Albert/ Jeff Allen/ Rodney Hudson/ Jon Asamoah(Geoff Schwartz)/ Eric Fisher
2012: 3 starters from 2011
Branden Albert/Ryan Lilja/Rodney Hudson/Jon Asamoah/Eric Winston
2011: 2 starters from 2010
Branden Albert/Ryan Lilja/Casey Wiegmann/Jon Asamoah/Barry Richardson
2010: 3 starters from 2009
Branden Albert/Brian Waters/Rudy Niswanger/Ryan Lilja/Ryan O’Callaghan
2009: 4 starters from 2008
Branden Albert/Brian Waters/Rudy Niswanger/Mike Goff/Damion McIntosh
2008: 2 starters from 2007
Branden Albert/Brian Waters/Rudy Niswanger/Adrian Jones/Damion McIntosh
2007: 2 starters from 2006
Damion McIntosh/Brian Waters/Casey Weigmann/John Welbourn/Chris Terry
2006: 3 starters from 2005
Jordan Black/Brian Waters/Casey Weigmann/Will Shields/Kevin Sampson
2005 was the last of the GREAT OL, returned all 5 starters from 2004, and only the RT was different from 2003
Willie Roaf/Brian Waters/Casey Weigmann/Will Shields/John Welbourn
Doug Pensinger / Getty
Looking ahead to this 2015, it's possible that only 2-3 Chiefs starters will be returning on the OL, depending on who wins the camp competition at C, RG and RT.
For 2015, I’ll call this the "continuity line": Eric Fisher/Ben Grubbs/Eric Kush/Jeff Allen/Donald Stephenson
Given that the left side of the line is already set, this is the C-RG-RT combination that gives the Chiefs the most experience, and the group of guys that are most familiar with each other from prior years.
Allen and Stephenson came into the league together in 2012, and were the second team LT and LG that year before Allen took over as the full time LG. Kush is entering his third year, and is reportedly showing signs of leadership on the line.
Continuity has to start somewhere, right? Maybe returning starters isn't the ONLY measure of continuity. As long as guys have played together and know the offense, they at least aren't starting from scratch.
Going into 2015 with this line, which not coincidentally was the way they lined up on day one of OTAs, would have only one newcomer starting, and he is a two time Pro Bowl player (Grubbs). The other four have had at least a couple of years in the offense, albeit not all "on the field", and should know each other fairly well. I think most of us should be reasonably comfortable with this starting five with some solid depth behind them that could develop into future starters (Morse, Fulton and LDT)
Even If guys like Fulton and Morse win starting jobs based on their ability to master the offense and their talent on the field, this is a group that can help a young player or two get acclimated quickly, and hopefully there are at least four or five players that will be together for years to come.
The pattern has emerged: Chiefs GM Dorsey is OK letting quality offensive linemen leave in free agency in favor of "cheaper" options. Right?
Well, it seems like a pattern: Albert, Schwartz, Asamoah, Hudson … those are some quality players that went on to get nice contracts with other teams. All but Schwartz were here from the Pioli regime, and Schwartz was a nice budget free agent signing in Dorsey’s first year.
Perhaps Andy Reid and John Dorsey took over the Chiefs after the 2012 season when they gave up 40 sacks but rushed for nearly 2,400 yards and decided the offensive line needed a full rebuilding? It seems counterintuitive, or in some ways unsuccessful, as the 2014 version allowed 49 sacks and only rushed for 1,900 yards.
But maybe this was a long term project that is only now nearing completion? The first draft pick of the Dorsey era was Eric Fisher, at No.1 overall. We can debate whether he was "BPA" or whether OL was seen as a huge need, but one could argue that Dorsey saw an OL that had some good players, but either wasn’t sustainable, or wasn’t in the mold that fit Andy Reid’s offense.
Dorsey has now drafted four new lineman in his first three drafts, all of which are still with the team and will likely be contributors in 2015 / 2016. It’s been said that it takes a new regime three years to get "their guys" in place … and it’s clear that every new GM and coach tend to "clean house" from prior regimes.
Could it be that this is the first year of the Dorsey / Reid era that the Chiefs offensive line looks similar going into the following season? Well, Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson are set to be free agents after this year. Both were Scott Pioli draft picks, and have had their ups and downs with this team. It’s reasonable to expect at least one if not both of them to move on after (or even before) the 2015 season.
However, those two guys represent the last of the prior regime’s picks on the line. It’s possible that the Chiefs will continue building the offensive front in the mold imagined by Reid and Dorsey, and guys like Fisher, Kush, Fulton and Morse will represent the new core of a line that will achieve a level continuity and competency that hasn’t been seen here in 10 years.
Disclaimer: I am in NO WAY predicting that this group will end up with three Hall of Fame players like the 2003 unit … but this COULD be a Chiefs offensive line that we can actually enjoy watching in the future. And that would be a welcome change.
[H/T to my friend Kevin, a die-hard Chiefs fan who helped identify the questions for this piece.]