As the 2018 season began, the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line appeared to be pretty much set. Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz were well-established at left and right tackle, along with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif at right guard and Mitch Morse at center.
Left guard, however, had been a question mark throughout training camp. But just as the season got underway, the Chiefs traded Parker Ehinger to the Dallas Cowboys for Charvarius Ward, released 2017 starter Bryan Witzmann and signed swing lineman Cameron Erving to a two-year contract extension.
Erving became the starter at left guard.
Among those backing them up were Jordan Devey, Andrew Wylie and Austin Reiter. Of the three, only Devey — beginning his third year with the team — was a familiar name to Chiefs fans; Wylie and Reiter were both unheralded offseason signings.
But just weeks later, all three names would be familiar.
Duvernay-Tardif was lost for the season when he suffered a leg fracture in Week 5. Devey stepped in to take his place. The following week, Morse had a concussion. Devey shifted to center, and Wylie took over at right guard. A week after that, Devey was lost for the season when he tore a pectoral muscle.
Then it was Reiter’s turn at center.
“Things happen. That’s the National Football League,” said head coach Andy Reid when Devey went on injured reserve. “Brett has done a good job of bringing guys in. Reiter is here and he has experience, so he can step in if needed, and Jeff Allen can play if needed. [Offensive line coach] Andy Heck does a great job of rotating those guys during practice, now, [during] OTAs, and [during] training camp. Everyone can kind of work into all the positions. We don’t get concerned about that, we just try to move forward. If you can go then you can go, if you can’t you can’t, and we move on.”
Reiter hadn’t brought an impressive resume to the Chiefs. A seventh-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2015, he spent a year on their practice squad before being signed by the Cleveland Browns. In two seasons there, he appeared in 17 games and started just one — where he tore his ACL. Waived by the Browns at the end of training camp, the Chiefs claimed him to provide depth after the departures of Ehinger and Witzmann.
Morse would return after five weeks in the NFL concussion protocol, but Reiter made his mark for the Chiefs during his four starts.
“I will say I thought the kid Austin Reiter did a hell of a job,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said on November 29. “He stepped up. The good thing is, sometimes without any bad luck, you wouldn’t have any good luck at all. He had an opportunity to step in and play and show that he can perform at a high level when needed. That’s going to help us moving forward as we progress through the season because you never know when something may come up and he may have to step up and play.”
Just a week later — with the Morse’s contract expiring at the end of the season — the Chiefs signed Reiter to a two-year contract extension. When Morse was signed to a free agent deal by the Buffalo Bills in March, Reiter became the presumptive starting center for 2019.
But speaking to the media after Wednesday’s minicamp practice, Reiter spoke like a man who had never been concerned about whether Morse would remain.
“First off, I was extremely happy for him,” he said of Morse’s departure. “Mitch is an awesome guy — great player. With my role here, it didn’t matter to me if he was here or not, because it was going to be a battle for the center position either way, but when I saw that, I was extremely happy for him. He was well-deserving of that.”
Reiter was asked how he would grade his performance from last season. His answer demonstrated both humility and confidence.
“I don’t know what letter grade I would give myself,” he said. “In some situations, I think I did well. There’s obviously always things I could work on. That’s what keeps a pro at this level: not being comfortable, and always finding stuff to work on. But like I told myself before I got in to this league, I know I’m a capable player. I know I can play at this level.”
To be sure, Reiter is facing competition. 2019 seventh-round pick Nick Allegretti — who played guard at Illinois but was the team’s backup center — saw snaps at center during rookie minicamp, and Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said that it was Allegretti’s play at center that “caught our eye” during Allegretti’s appearance at the East-West Shrine game.
Also in the mix at center will be 2018 sixth-round pick Kahlil McKenzie, whom the Chiefs are converting to an offensive lineman. McKenzie was a defensive tackle at Tennessee, but the Chiefs think he can be a great offensive lineman — so much so that even though he was wasn’t active for a single game, they kept him on the 53-man roster for all of 2018. That’s a sign the Chiefs believed other teams would jump on the chance to poach McKenzie from their practice squad.
While the Chiefs see McKenzie as a guard, he took snaps at center during 7-on-7 work on Wednesday. Reiter spoke highly of his progress.
“Kahlil McKenzie has made good strides,” he said on Wednesday. “Very strong player. I mean, we’ve all seen his lower body. I don’t know what his calf size is — I think we took bets on that one day — but to come from a defensive line and to be now an offensive lineman... I don’t know how that would be for me. I’ve been on the offensive line since high school. But he’s making really good strides. There are definitely some things I think he does really well.”
But despite the competition, Reiter — at least for now — appears to be the favorite to win the starting center job for the coming season. On Tuesday, Duvernay-Tardif spoke of himself, Reiter and Wylie as “growing as the middle three” in the offensive line. And on Wednesday, Reiter spoke with the quiet confidence of a man who knows that — never more so than when he was asked about the chemistry building between himself and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“I think over the weeks as we’ve practiced, especially in the protections aspect, he and I are basically saying the same thing — which is awesome,” he replied. “It’s been more consistent. When he says this, I’ve already said that — and I’m like, ‘Okay we’re seeing things the same way now’. That lets us play faster [and] looser and we can execute things. It takes more off of him which is going to let him play faster.”