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Chiefs find themselves in a pickle on the offensive line

With surprise word that Eric Fisher is dealing with a back injury, the bad news for the offensive line gets worse.

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

When he spoke to reporters on Wednesday, Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s opening remarks included an announcement that left tackle Eric Fisher was held out of practice with a “tight back.” Reid used the same phrase to characterize backup right tackle Mike Remmers’ injury — one which forced him out of Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.

Oh, boy.

At the moment, we do not know whether Fisher’s holdout on Monday was simply precautionary — or if there is a serious chance he won’t be able to play against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the offensive linemen the Chiefs would have available in a worst-case scenario — one in which neither of the team’s current starting tackles are available.

Potential solutions

Let’s start with this: normal right tackle Mitchell Schwartz isn’t likely to be part of a solution for this weekend. While he is now eligible to return from injured reserve, there has been no indication that he is anywhere close to being ready. Even if he were, it would take a week or two of practice to get him prepared for a return to action. So at least for Sunday’s game, the Chiefs will very likely have to look for help elsewhere.

During Sunday’s game, undrafted rookie Yasir Durant came in for Remmers at right tackle — just as he did for brief periods in the games against the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers. So Durant is certainly someone the Chiefs could use at tackle against the Saints.

Martinas Rankin is also on that list. The former third-round pick actually started five games at left guard early in the 2019 season before he was injured in November and placed on injured reserve. It was a full year before he could make it back to the active roster, but he has been inactive on game day for two of three weeks since his return. Yet the Chiefs do list him as a tackle, so we’ll have to consider him to be in the mix on the outside.

Andrew Wylie also has experience at tackle but is currently starting at right guard. An interesting remark that Reid made on Monday seemed to suggest the Durant could move inside, which would leave open the possibility the Chiefs could kick Wylie out to tackle.

“Yeah, well [Durant is] a smart kid,” said Reid. “And I’m not telling you he’s not going to be in there — that’s not what I’m telling you. The one unique thing about him is that he plays guard and tackle for you — and he can do both at a good level, so I think he’s got great upside.”

But that’s it. The Chiefs have no additional tackles on the active roster. Veteran Daniel Kilgore — who has started at center for three games this season — has experience at guard but not at tackle. Nor do they have any tackles on the practice squad. Veteran players Stefen Wisniewski and Bryan Witzmann are both guards, while undrafted rookie Darryl Williams is also an interior lineman — nominally a center. The Chiefs also had veteran guard Danny Isidora on the practice squad — but on Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers poached him.

Built-in versatility

All of that said, the Chiefs routinely say that in order to give the team as much flexibility as possible, offensive line coach Andy Heck makes sure to give all of the offensive linemen work at other positions on the line. But getting practice time at tackle isn’t the same as playing tackle at game speed.

And then there’s an additional problem: twice this season, both Wisniewski and Witzmann have been given standard game-day elevations to the active roster.

This matters because under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed in the spring, an individual player can receive just two such elevations per year. We know that the COVID-specific CBA modifications that were hammered out before the season do allow for practice-squad elevations that are specifically designated for replacing players on the reserve/COVID list — which we assume are unlimited — but we don’t know if restrictions on the number of standard elevations have been relaxed for this season. We do know, however, that the Chiefs have not used standard elevations more than twice on any player.

So it’s likely that if the Chiefs want to have either Wisniewski or Witzmann on Sunday’s roster, they’ll have to put them on the active roster the old-fashioned way: activate them to the roster, which requires that they stay there for at least three weeks — and then pass through waivers before they can return to the practice squad.

The team currently has just 51 players on the active roster, plus 14 players on the practice squad. On Wednesday, Reid said that wide receiver Byron Pringle — who has been on injured reserve since November 24 — is practicing with the team. It’s a likely bet that Pringle will be activated to take the place of Marcus Kemp, who was released on Tuesday. So that leaves one spot open.

Will the Chiefs opt to activate Wisniewski or Witzmann into that final slot?

We wouldn’t bet against it — but as Reid would say, we’ll just have to see how it goes.

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