The Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line has remained a point of interest in the 2020 season, given the opt-outs, injuries and struggles. Let’s take a look at how we got here — and how things might change in the postseason:
A rough start to the season
Things didn’t start well. Longtime veteran Stefen Wisniewski — who had performed admirably filling in at left guard for Andrew Wylie during the final weeks of the 2019 season — left for his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency. Starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and third-round rookie tackle Lucas Niang exercised their options to opt out of the 2020 season on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chiefs moved quickly to supplant the line, acquiring two longtime veterans. Guard Mike Remmers signed on to become the team’s swing offensive lineman and former All-Pro guard Kelechi Osemele was acquired to be the new starting left guard. Wylie — back from injury — moved over to take Duvernay-Tardif’s place at right guard.
These players joined returning left tackle Eric Fisher, center Austin Reiter and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to start the season.
While few would have mistaken this offensive line for the bruising lines the Chiefs fielded in the early 1990s and 2000s, it proved more than serviceable at the beginning of the season.
But it lasted only four weeks.
Early in the Week 5 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Osemele suffered season-ending injuries in both of his knees. Remmers stepped in to take his place. And while he finished the Raiders game, Reiter sat out the next three weeks with what head coach Andy Reid called a “tender knee.” Former Miami Dolphins center Daniel Kilgore — who had been signed to the team in late August — started those games, although Reiter had some snaps against the Denver Broncos in Week 7 and the New York Jets in Week 8.
Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, another starter went down. After just eight plays, Schwartz left the game with a back injury. Schwartz had suddenly been listed as questionable on the previous Friday’s injury report with a back injury; it appeared that playing had aggravated the problem. Remmers moved to right tackle to take his place, while second-year player Nick Allegretti came in at left guard for the first significant offensive snaps of his career.
Following Reiter’s return in Week 9, Fisher, Allegretti, Reiter, Wylie and Remmers have been the base players of the offensive line.
More recently, the Chiefs have had two scares.
One was when Remmers injured his back in the third quarter of the Week 14 game against the Miami Dolphins.
By this time, Kansas City had re-signed Wisniewski to the practice squad. The 31-year-old had suffered a pectoral muscle injury during his Week 1 start for the Steelers — but had not played since then, so Pittsburgh released him in early November. Though the Chiefs had elevated Wisniewski to the active roster the week before, he had seen no action. Elevated again for the Dolphins game, the Chiefs could have used him to take Remmers’ place. But instead, they chose to have undrafted rookie Yasir Durant finish the game at right tackle — just as he had done for brief periods against the Broncos and Jets.
The second scare came the following week when Fisher missed two days of practice with — you guessed it — a back injury. With Remmers still out — and Durant not having shown much against the Dolphins — a serious question arose about how the Chiefs would handle things for the Week 15 game against the New Orleans Saints. In the end, Fisher battled through and played (albeit not at his normal level), while the Chiefs dealt with the right side of the line by transferring Wisniewski to the active roster and starting him at right guard, moving Wylie to right tackle.
But the following week — with Remmers back — the Chiefs returned to their normal five offensive linemen for the Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons.
What’s to come in Week 17
With the first seed of the postseason secured, Andy Reid has already said that for Sunday’s Week 17 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, backup quarterback Chad Henne will start in place of Patrick Mahomes — and that other key players will ride the bench to get some rest, too. But which offensive linemen will get rest — and who will take their places?
Since both have recently had back issues, Fisher and Remmers will very likely sit this one out. Martinas Rankin — who has been active for just two of the five games since he returned from last year’s knee injury — would be in the mix to replace them as starters, as would Durant. From what we’ve seen, Kilgore could easily replace Reiter for the game. Wisniewski could certainly step in for either Wylie or Allegretti.
But the Chiefs are short on backup guards, so it’s not clear if both Wylie and Allegretti could sit down. Practice squad guard Bryan Witzmann has already been elevated for two games, so unless the team uses a COVID replacement designation to bring him up — which they could do because linebacker Anthony Hitchens remains on the team’s reserve/COVID list — he would not be available.
Last Saturday, the team signed veteran guard Patrick Omameh to the taxi squad, but while he has plenty of experience — he’s started 57 games in his career — whether they would elevate him for a game with only a week’s worth of acclimatization is open to question.
In any case — simply because the team is so thin across the line — it’s likely that at least one starting guard and tackle will be active for the game, ready to play in case one of the backups is injured.
What’s to come in the postseason
Among Chiefs fans and observers, it has become an article of faith the team needs a very good offensive line to protect Mahomes; back in May, I joked on Twitter that the line should hereafter be called “the Department of Mahomeland Security.”
But it’s not entirely clear that the Chiefs don’t already believe they have a line that can at least adequately protect their superstar quarterback.
It might surprise you to learn that according to Pro Football Focus statistics — and let’s be clear: these are statistics, not grades — the Chiefs have allowed just 140 total pressures on 662 dropbacks. That’s good for an efficiency rate of 88.7, which ranks sixth-best in the league behind the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.
Would it further surprise you that among all offensive linemen with at least 50% of a team’s passing snaps, Reiter ranks second in this metric, with only seven pressures on 554 dropbacks for a rate of 99.4? Among the Chiefs, Mike Remmers is 51st with 97.9, followed by Nick Allegretti at 74th (97.5), Eric Fisher at 94th (97.2) and Andrew Wylie at 100th (97.1).
To be sure, having Mahomes as the team’s quarterback probably skews these numbers a bit. Because he knows he can be successful outside the pocket, he’s more inclined to skedaddle before a pressure attributable to a specific lineman can be noted. (When Alex Smith was Kansas City’s quarterback, we called this phenomenon “happy feet”). But Mahomes’ instincts also work against the offensive line; he continues to be prone to dropping back deeper than he really should, making his lineman work harder because they have to defend more ground.
This is not to say that the offensive line is perfect as it is — in fact, it is far from it. As just noted, the line could be better at protecting Mahomes, who is easily the league’s most valuable asset. Meanwhile, the team has averaged 4.5 yards per rush on the season — eighth-best in the league — but can’t always generate yards on the ground at the most critical times, such as when the team is protecting a late-game lead or when they need to punch in a touchdown. Given the talent we have already observed from rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (not to mention Le’Veon Bell) the team definitely has room to improve.
But at this point of the season, how could the team even do that? It’s not as if there are many quality linemen available for them to acquire — or even return from injury. Mitchell Schwartz remains on injured reserve — where he been since the bye week — and has not been designated for return. We do not expect him to be available in the postseason. Stefen Wisniewski might be an improvement over Wylie, but the fact remains that after playing him in Wylie’s position during Week 15, the Chiefs returned to Wylie for the next game.
Still... the Chiefs might learn something from what they see their reserve linemen do on Sunday. It remains possible that with a couple of weeks until the next game, they could decide to make a change or two to the line.
But for better or worse, the Chiefs will probably ride this line through the postseason.