When the Kansas City Chiefs visit the San Francisco 49ers for their first preseason game on Saturday night, all eyes will be on an offensive line featuring five new starters. Per head coach Andy Reid, the starters are slated to play the entire first quarter.
Three rookies will almost certainly start on the offensive line. Based on their work in the offseason program, center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith entered training camp as starters. Right tackle Lucas Niang, however, likely would not be starting now if the original starter Mike Remmers were available.
Following the disastrous performance if the offensive line in Super Bowl LV, the team seemed to have a solid plan in place for their offensive tackles as camp opened. Keystone offseason acquisition Orlando Brown and the returning veteran Remmers would be starters, with Niang — a 2020 third-round pick — ready to come off the bench as the swing tackle.
Through the offseason program and the early part of training camp, all signs suggested these players would fulfill these roles into the regular season. Yet in the NFL, all such plans depend greatly on health.
Early in camp, Remmers received treatment for back spasms. He then missed nine consecutive practices — a significant concern, given that he missed a game last season with the same ailment. After last season’s situation with longtime starter Mitchell Schwartz — who left the Chiefs’ Week 6 game against the Buffalo Bills with back spasms and missed the rest of the season — Remmers’ situation threatens to loom over the revamped offensive line.
Though he did not participate in the team activities, Remmers returned to practice on Thursday. Having missed so much practice, he will almost certainly not be available against the 49ers on Saturday. At 32 — and after playing in 92 games across eight seasons — any issue with his back is likely to be a recurring problem for the remainder of his career. Health permitting, he will probably be on the final roster — and still possibly start. But a potentially chronic injury makes Remmers a dangerous player for a Super Bowl contender to depend upon.
By all accounts, Niang is taking advantage of his time on the first unit and improving at right tackle. Over the long term, the opportunity to have a starting right tackle on a rookie contract could prove invaluable — especially with the large contract Orlando Brown might command next offseason. But the downside for Niang starting at this time is that all of his practice reps are coming on the right side; if Brown were to miss time for any reason, it makes Niang less of an option to fill in on the all-important left side of the line.
Niang also has his own injury concern: a surgically repaired hip that he injured during his last season at TCU. He last appeared in a game in October of 2019.
So in the event of an injury to Brown or Niang, what appeared to be a strength coming into camp could easily be exposed as a weakness; the other tackles on the roster are less than inspiring.
Prince Tega Wanogho was reported to be working with the second team on Thursday. While analysts almost universally ranked Wanogho more highly than Niang before the 2020 draft, the former Auburn Tiger plummeted to the sixth round after undergoing knee surgery that kept him from participating in the Senior Bowl or scouting combine. Wanogho missed practice on August 6 due to a knee injury — though he returned to practice the following day.
Kyle Long — who made the 2015 Pro Bowl during his one season playing right tackle — remains on the team’s physically-unable-to-perform list. If he remains there through the final cutdown, he will miss the first six weeks of the season. In any case, it’s difficult to imagine a player with Long’s substantial injury history being an option at tackle after missing all of camp — especially after spending a year in retirement.
After Niang was promoted to the first team during camp, Andrew Wylie lined up more at right tackle than at guard. While he can be quality depth and knows the system, his performance in the Super Bowl cannot be forgotten — and he ended the 2020 season with an overall PFF grade of 54.9.
The roster’s remaining offensive linemen profile as interior players who could line up outside only in the most desperate situations — meaning that the Chiefs could again be two injuries away from fielding the same tackle combination that was unable to rise to the occasion in February.
Perhaps solutions will surface — or even better, be unneeded. Over the next three weeks, Wanogho should have plenty of opportunities to play himself onto the roster. In the event of a short-term injury, Joe Thuney would be a candidate to finish a game outside; he played left tackle during his senior year at North Carolina State and was an in-game injury replacement at right tackle for the Patriots in 2019. If needed, Thuney could even be a candidate for a spot-start at left tackle — as Chiefs legend Will Shields once did in 2000.
As teams trim and finalize rosters in the coming weeks, however, the Chiefs should also carefully monitor any newly available players with tackle experience.
So while all eyes will be on the starting five on Saturday night, we should pay equal attention to the players lined up in front of Chad Henne during the second quarter — and how long those players remain in the game.
The starting five appears all but set, so with three exhibition games — and three rounds of cuts — the question has transitioned to whether the right depth is in place to avoid repeating 2020’s costly disaster.
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