Kansas City Chiefs: Donald Stephenson

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Three months after losing three of last season's regular offensive linemen to free agency, the Kansas City Chiefs are still trying to sort through their options to replace them.

Offensive line combinations have often changed day to day and sometimes within practice periods. The Chiefs have worked seven linemen with their starting group at offseason practice, and that's not including starting left tackle Eric Fisher, who hasn't been able to participate in full team drills because of recent shoulder surgery.

"You know you need more than five," said coach Andy Reid. "You need to make sure you've got a good 10 of them ready to go ... and see what you've got there. So we've been challenging them as much as you can challenge them here, which isn't much.

"We've always tried to make sure if somebody goes down we've got that next guy up that can go."

The Chiefs look set at both tackle spots, as well as left guard and center. Fisher will start at left tackle, though it's unlikely he won't participate fully this week as the Chiefs wrap up their offseason work with a three-day minicamp that begins Tuesday. The Chiefs are hopeful he will be cleared for work when training camp begins next month.

Donald Stephenson will start at right tackle, Jeff Allen at left guard and Rodney Hudson at center. Including Fisher, all started at least seven games last season.

The scramble is at right guard, where the Chiefs have looked at various times in the starting lineup at developmental prospect Rishaw Johnson, free-agent addition Jeff Linkenbach and rookie Zach Fulton, a sixth-round draft pick. The Chiefs are also sorting through candidates for the backup positions.

That's difficult to do during offseason practice, when the Chiefs work without pads. But the competition should get interesting beginning next month at training camp.

"That's one group that's improving," Reid said. "We had some guys that were in there and then moved on and the guys have stepped up with the exception of Fisher, who can't do anything. The other guys have grasped it pretty well."
To say the Kansas City Chiefs weren’t concerned when three offensive linemen walked out the door in the moments after the free-agent signing period began wouldn’t be accurate. But they certainly didn’t go into a panic mode. This was part of their plan.

The Chiefs have tried to fortify at the five line positions in recent seasons. They drafted center Rodney Hudson in 2011, guard Jeff Allen and tackle Donald Stephenson the next April and tackle Eric Fisher last year. They also signed a developmental prospect, guard Rishaw Johnson, last year.

Those are the probable starters next season.

"We kept a load of offensive linemen on the roster knowing something like this could happen," coach Andy Reid said. "Some of them are young guys but ... they were able to get some experience and they’ll have an opportunity to compete in there."

Because of their work through the draft and free agency in recent years, the Chiefs are better off with regard to their offensive line than a lot of people believe. That's not to say there aren't concerns.

One is a glaring lack of experience. In terms of age, Jeff Linkenbach and Ricky Henry are at 26 the oldest among their 12 offensive linemen. Linkenbach will at least begin practice as a backup, while Henry will compete for a backup spot.

The five probable starters have a total of 74 career NFL starts, led by Allen with 27.

The offseason surgeries for Fisher, recently installed as the starting left tackle, don't help. The Chiefs aren't concerned that Fisher will miss much if any in terms of practice time for the season, but he needed to get stronger in his upper body during the offseason. So shoulder and sports hernia surgeries have limited him in that effort.

The depth took a big hit by losing three linemen. The only proven backup is Linkenbach, who started 33 games in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Chiefs this year as a free agent. The rest of their linemen are developmental prospects.

But the Chiefs have six draft picks to use this year and, given their strategy of recent years, it makes sense they would bring in at least one more lineman.

As far as the starting right guard spot, the Chiefs seem comfortable with Johnson. The Chiefs got a good look at him as a starter in the final regular-season game last year in San Diego. The Chiefs rested many of their starters that day against the Chargers, who needed to win to get into the playoffs.

"We'll open it up and let them go," Reid said. "We signed a kid (Jeff Linkenbach) and he’ll get in the mix and compete there."
Here’s this week’s Kansas City Chiefs mailbag based off questions taken from Twitter. To ask a question for a future edition, tweet questions to me (@adamteicher) and use the hashtag #ChiefsMail.

 
After spending his rookie season as a right tackle, Eric Fisher will head over to the left side in 2014, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid confirmed at the NFL meetings Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.

Fisher
The move is not a surprise. The Chiefs drafted Fisher last year from Central Michigan with the first overall pick with the idea he would eventually be their left tackle.

But Fisher began his NFL career on the right side. The Chiefs had veteran Branden Albert to play left tackle last season. But Albert signed with the Miami Dolphins this month as a free agent, leaving the spot open to either Fisher or Donald Stephenson. Stephenson started four games at left tackle last season while Albert was out of the lineup with a knee injury.

The Chiefs opted to move Fisher to left tackle. Stephenson will be the starter in Fisher's former spot at right tackle.

Fisher didn't play well as a rookie. He missed three starts with various injuries and didn't play in the playoff loss to Indianapolis because of a groin injury.

Fisher struggled early in the season to the point the Chiefs probably should have benched him. His play generally improved as the season progressed. He showed tremendous athletic ability but he never played to the level expected from the first overall pick.

Still, it's far too early to call Fisher a bust and, in fact, it's reasonable to believe Fisher can eventually play as well as Albert did last season. Fisher came to the Chiefs lacking the necessary upper body strength to be a polished player. An offseason in Kansas City's weight program should help him develop into a productive player.

There could be rough moments for the Chiefs until Fisher fully develops. In the short term, the better move might have been to play Stephenson at left tackle, at least early in the season. But Reid and his coaching staff obviously believe the time is right to make move.

Some options for the Chiefs' OL

March, 10, 2014
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The NFL’s free-agent signing period begins Tuesday. Though teams have been able to talk with the representatives of prospective free agents since Saturday, no contracts can be signed until Tuesday.

Once that moment arrives, it shouldn’t take long for the Kansas City Chiefs to lose their left tackle of their last six seasons, Branden Albert. He reportedly will sign with the Miami Dolphins shortly after the signing period begins.

The Chiefs have two other free agent offensive linemen who could strike a deal with another club. Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah shared the starting right guard spot last season and one or both could depart as well. Though Albert is a Pro Bowler and plays a premium position, it would hurt the Chiefs more to lose Schwartz and Asamoah than Albert. The Chiefs began preparing for the eventuality they would lose Albert from the day they drafted Eric Fisher with the first overall choice last year. The Chiefs have Fisher and Donald Stephenson to play tackle and they believe both will soon develop into high-quality players.

The Chiefs don’t have that kind of depth in the middle of their line. In center Rodney Hudson and left guard Jeff Allen they have two young players in the same category as Fisher and Stephenson. But the rest of their offensive linemen are in the developmental category.

If the Chiefs lose Schwartz or Asamoah or both, they could turn to the draft to replace them. The Chiefs have the 23rd pick, but that’s their only selection among the top 86. They traded their second-round pick to San Francisco in last year’s deal that brought quarterback Alex Smith. One of the best guards is Stanford’s David Yankey. The Chiefs could plug him in as their right guard from the start. One problem with using a rookie there is that the Chiefs already have a young offensive line. If the Chiefs lose Albert, Asamoah and Schwartz, Stephenson becomes the oldest of their linemen and he doesn’t turn 26 until September. Hudson, with three years of experience, is the eldest of the group in that regard.

Free agency is another option for the Chiefs. The problem there is that, according to Pro Football Focus, Schwartz and Asamoah are the best available free-agent guards. PFF has them rated 1 and 2, so the Chiefs would be taking a step or two backward no matter whom they sign, in theory at least.

The Chiefs could also promote into the starting lineup one of the developmental linemen on their roster. They have three: Eric Kush, Rishaw Johnson and Rokevious Watkins. The Chiefs got a peek at all three when they started the final regular-season game last year in San Diego. Each had a negative grade in the game, according to PFF’s system. Watkins particularly struggled with his pass blocking and Kush his run blocking. Johnson distinguished himself in neither area.

One of them could wind up in the Chiefs’ starting lineup next season. Those chances increase if the Chiefs fail to re-sign either Asamoah or Schwartz.
On to this week's questions:
 

Franchise/transition tags: Chiefs

February, 17, 2014
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It makes no sense for the Kansas City Chiefs to use the franchise or transition tag on any of their prospective free agents this year. None of those players could be considered essential for the Chiefs next season or beyond. The Chiefs will also be tight to the salary cap and would find it difficult to take on another bloated, one-year salary.

The only potential free agent worthy of the franchise tag is veteran left tackle Branden Albert. He played in 2013 as the franchise player at a one-year salary of almost $10 million, but the Chiefs drafted another tackle, Eric Fisher, with the No. 1 overall pick last year. Fisher started as the right tackle last season and could move over to the left side to replace Albert in 2014. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have in backup Donald Stephenson a player they believe to be good enough to be a starter.

The estimated one-year cost for the Chiefs to retain Albert in 2014 is more than $11 million. Albert, who is a good player, made the Pro Bowl last season for the first time in his six-year NFL career.

But he missed five starts in 2012 because of back spasms and four games in 2013 because of a hyperextended knee. He has played in all 16 games for the Chiefs just once, so his durability is a question.

Fisher wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Pro Bowl tackle last season. He struggled as a rookie on a few occasions to the point he probably deserved to be benched. But the Chiefs believe Fisher has Pro Bowl potential. Another year in their weight program should help him progress as a player next season.

Likewise, Stephenson will never be a Pro Bowler, but he is an adequate player who will cost the Chiefs a little more than $750,000 against their cap next season. There’s isn’t more than $10 million worth of difference between Albert and Stephenson.
Kansas City radio station 610 KCSP is reporting the Kansas City Chiefs will let left tackle Branden Albert, their franchise player in 2013, become an unrestricted free agent as opposed to signing him to a long-term contract.

Albert
That wouldn't be a surprising move. We've already told this is going to be a different type of offseason for the Chiefs. For a change, they won't have much wiggle room under the salary cap and have possible replacements lined up and already on their roster for four of their main free agents: Albert, wide receiver/punt returner Dexter McCluster, defensive end Tyson Jackson and free safety Kendrick Lewis.

In a recent interview with KCSP, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt wasn't speaking specifically about these players, but alluded to some roster upheaval.

"In the NFL today, it's constantly a building process," Hunt said. "You can count on over 20 percent of your roster turning over in any year. That's just life in the National Football League. We'll be looking to get better. Part of that will be through free agency and a big part of it will be through the draft."

The Chiefs began preparing to lose Albert on the April day last year they selected another tackle, Eric Fisher, with the first pick in the draft. The Chiefs have Fisher and Donald Stephenson to play tackle and won't have room under their salary cap to re-sign Albert at a big price.

The same may ultimately hold true for McCluster, Jackson and Lewis as well.

No room for their own free agents?

February, 11, 2014
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The Kansas City Chiefs were over the NFL’s estimated 2014 salary limit by about $2 million last week, before they released veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson. Now that Robinson’s gone, the Chiefs are under the estimated cap of about $126 million, but not by much.

They will find enough wiggle room as they move along to sign their draft picks and dabble in free agency as well. But this will be a different year for the Chiefs than they’ve had for some time as far as offseason spending. Last year, for example, they re-signed wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a lucrative, long-term contract, made left tackle Branden Albert their franchise player at a hefty price tag, picked up a big salary when they traded for quarterback Alex Smith and then forked over significant cash in signing free agents like cornerback Sean Smith, defensive lineman Mike DeVito, tight end Anthony Fasano, wide receiver Donnie Avery and backup quarterback Chase Daniel.

So, yes, things will be different for the Chiefs this year. There may be no room for some of their own free agents. The Chiefs appear to be grooming Sanders Commings, a rookie last season who will make the minimum salary in 2014, to replace Kendrick Lewis at free safety. The Chiefs signed CFL veteran wide receiver/kick returner Weston Dressler, also at the minimum, perhaps to replace Dexter McCluster. The Chiefs might make an effort to re-sign defensive end Tyson Jackson, but if he’s too expensive the Chiefs have Allen Bailey ready to step in.

Albert is perhaps the most productive player of the bunch. He was a Pro Bowler last season, a more than capable left tackle.

But the Chiefs drafted tackle Eric Fisher last year with the first overall pick anticipating this scenario. Fisher can move to the left side and the Chiefs have Donald Stephenson, who they believe is a capable starter, to play right tackle.

Albert wants to be paid a premium salary and there’s no shame in that. If he’s ever going to get a huge long-term contract, it’s going to be at this time of his career.

He’s just not going to get it from the Chiefs. In that respect, he could be like a lot of his teammates who are prospective free agents. He could be playing for another team next season, perhaps even against the Chiefs.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- We're looking today at the offensive line, where it might be time for the Kansas City Chiefs to part with one of their better players.

Roster (14): Branden Albert, Jeff Allen, Jon Asamoah, Chandler Burden, R.J. Dill, Eric Fisher, Ricky Henry, Rodney Hudson, Rishaw Johnson, Colin Kelly, Eric Kush, Geoff Schwartz, Donald Stephenson, Rokevious Watkins.

Potential 2014 free agents: Albert, Asamoah, Schwartz.

The position: Some decisions await the Chiefs here, none bigger than what to do about Albert, their long-time starting left tackle. The sides were never close on a long-term deal last year, when Albert also was headed toward free agency, and the Chefs eventually kept him as their franchise player at a cost of almost $10 million. The decision at the time made sense. The Chiefs hadn't yet drafted another tackle, Fisher, with the number one overall pick. The franchise player option exists for Albert again. But the Chiefs have Fisher now and though his rookie season wasn't particularly productive, he should return as a much-improved player after a year in Kansas City's strength program. Fisher could move to Albert's spot at left tackle and Stephenson, who the Chiefs have viewed as a starter-quality player, can step in at right tackle. That's the Chiefs' best plan for this situation.

The money they would save on Albert's contract could go a long way toward solving problems elsewhere on the roster. Albert is a solid player and this year he's participating in the Pro Bowl for the first time. In a perfect world, the Chiefs would keep him as their left tackle but in the real world it's time for them to move on from Albert, who missed five starts in 2012 and four games this season because of injuries. Asamoah and Schwartz, the Chiefs' two best guards, both are eligible for free agency. The Chiefs need to sign at least one of them. Asamoah began the season as the starter at right guard but Schwartz replaced him midway through the season and played so well he retained the spot even after Asamoah returned. Hudson is the starting center and Allen the starting left guard and they are under contract for next season.

The Chiefs should keep: Allen, Asamoah, Fisher, Hudson, Kush, Schwartz, Stephenson and Watkins. It might be difficult for the Chiefs to re-sign Asamoah and Schwartz. Both could want starter's money. If so, Asamoah should be the priority. At 25, he is two years younger than Schwartz. Kush and Watkins have shown enough to at least keep around and compete for backup positions.

The Chiefs should dump: Albert, Burden, Dill, Henry, Johnson and Kelly.

Free agency/draft priority: The Chiefs invested heavily in these positions in recent years. Since 2010, they picked Allen, Asamoah, Fisher, Hudson and Stephenson in the top three rounds. Particularly after drafting Fisher with the top pick last year, there's no reason to invest a high pick this season. If the Chiefs retain at least two among Albert, Asamoah and Schwartz, there's also no reason to spend in free agency.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs remained hopeful that outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who has had swelling in his knee, would be available for Saturday's wild-card game against the Colts in Indianapolis (4:35 p.m. ET, NBC). Hali was listed as questionable, meaning he has a 50-50 chance of playing, on the Chiefs' injury report.

Hali
Hali didn't play in last week's game in San Diego nor did he practice this week. The Chargers' game was only the second of his career that Hali has missed because of injury, the other happening in 2008.

The Chiefs are still hoping to pair Hali with outside linebacker Justin Houston, who on Saturday will play for the first time in six weeks. Houston dislocated his elbow in a Nov. 24 game against the Chargers. Both players had 11 sacks this season.

If Hali can't play, he would be replaced by veteran Frank Zombo. Zombo did a nice job of filling in for Houston. Zombo had two sacks and an interception in five starts.

The Chiefs will play against the Colts without rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, the first pick in this year's draft. Fisher injured his groin in practice this week and was listed as out for the game on the injury report.

He will be replaced by Donald Stephenson, who started three games for Fisher this season and four for Branden Albert at left tackle. Albert missed the last four games with a hyperextended knee and will play on Saturday for the first time since the injury.

Chiefs will need their OL depth

January, 1, 2014
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One of the underrated reasons for the Kansas City Chiefs’ success this season is their ability to build high-quality depth on their offensive line. Tackle Donald Stephenson had to start seven games, three on the right side and four on the left, and guard Geoff Schwartz came off the bench in the middle of the season and played so well the Chiefs left him in the starting lineup.

That depth may be put to use in Saturday’s wild-card round playoff game against the Colts in Indianapolis. Right tackle Eric Fisher injured his groin, did not practice Wednesday and his availability for the game is in question.

Stephenson, who started the last four games at left tackle for the injured Branden Albert, would start in Fisher’s place. Albert will start for the first time since hyperextending his knee in a Dec. 1 game against the Denver Broncos.

“It’s very hard to do,’’ Albert said of Stephenson bouncing from side to side. “You’ve got to be a special person to do it. There’s different mechanics on different sides.’’

But the Chiefs began making preparations for this eventuality long ago when offseason practice started in May.

“You start targeting certain guys,’’ offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “You begin to work those techniques and fundamentals and so, in their minds, they now know they have an opportunity to play either side of the ball.

“You have to have those guys. You have to have those swing tackles and swing guards and guards that can play center. This time of year, you go with it and everybody’s ready to go.’’

Roster moves have improved KC's depth

December, 13, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With the obvious exception of quarterback Alex Smith, many of the key players for the Kansas City Chiefs were with them last season, before the arrival of general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid.

Where Dorsey and Reid went to work was on Kansas City’s depth. Much of Kansas City’s considerable roster turnover was in backup players and, according to Pro Football Focus, their efforts have paid off.

PFF ranked the 32 NFL teams with regard to the quality of their depth and the Chiefs came in a surprising sixth (ESPN Insider access is necessary to read the story) Insider.

On offense, the Chiefs have been hammered by injuries at tight end. They were counting on veteran Tony Moeaki and rookie Travis Kelce. Neither played a snap this season and starter Anthony Fasano has missed five games, but their losses haven’t been crippling.

The Chiefs plucked Sean McGrath off waivers from Seattle to start the regular season. He's fifth on the Chiefs with 23 catches.

Because of injuries at times to tackles Eric Fisher and Branden Albert and guard Jon Asamoah, the Chiefs have had to dip into their offensive line depth. The play of tackle Donald Stephenson and guard Geoff Schwartz prevented the line from collapsing.

Schwartz, signed as a free agent from Minnesota in the offseason, played so well in recent games that he’s retained the starting job at right guard even with Asamoah healthy and back.

On defense, the Chiefs added linebacker Frank Zombo as a free agent from Green Bay. He replaced the injured Justin Houston the past couple of games and had a sack in last week’s win against Washington.

Two of the better pickups have been in the secondary. Rookie Marcus Cooper, claimed off waivers from San Francisco at the same time they picked up McGrath, played well as the third cornerback before a recent slump. He bounced back with a strong game against the Redskins.

The Chiefs signed veteran Quintin Demps in the spring and he’s played well as the nickel safety. Demps has four interceptions, to say nothing of his work on special teams.

Demps is second in the league in kickoff return average. He brought one back 95 yards for a touchdown in last week's win against Washington.

Line spurred offensive growth

December, 12, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs' first play from scrimmage in last Sunday's win over the Washington Redskins looked just like their coaches drew it up. Right tackle Eric Fisher and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jeff Allen cleared out Washington's defensive linemen. Left tackle Donald Stephenson and center Rodney Hudson did the same with a pair of Redskins linebackers and Jamaal Charles had little resistance on his way to an eight-yard rushing gain.

Plays like that from the Chiefs' offensive line have been frequent in recent weeks. Sacks of quarterback Alex Smith are down. Yards per carry from Charles are up, and so are points from Kansas City's offense.

Fisher is beginning to play like the first pick in the draft, as he was this year. Schwartz has played well since taking over as the starting right guard. Hudson is having a nice season and, as a whole, the line has started to become as productive as the Chiefs imagined it might when the season started.

"It just takes time," Schwartz said. "We're fortunate that now it's starting to click, just at the time we need it to. We've done a better job up front with the little details, with us working with the back, knowing what the back is going to do."

The Chiefs have plenty invested in their offensive line. The Chiefs had the first overall pick in the draft this year for the first time since the joined the NFL and used it on a lineman, Fisher. Injured left tackle Branden Albert is a former first-round draft pick making almost $10 million this season as Kansas City's franchise player.

The Chiefs also drafted Hudson, Stephenson, Allen and Jon Asamoah in the first three rounds of the last four drafts. Schwartz was signed this year as a free agent.

So their line has been an area of huge expectations for the Chiefs and it's growing, as Schwartz said, not a minute too soon.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Eric Fisher's three best games of his rookie season have come in the last four, according to the grades assigned by Pro Football Focus. The Kansas City Chiefs have taken note of Fisher's recent play and this trend could have an impact on their decision-making process at offensive tackle beyond the rest of this season.

Fisher
The first pick in this year's draft, Fisher's play early in the season was frequently so bad the Chiefs had to be tempted at times to get him out of their lineup, for his safety as well as that of quarterback Alex Smith. But other than in the Nov. 17 game against the Broncos in Denver, Fisher has played better and graded higher of late.

He still needs to get much stronger, something a year in the Chiefs' weight program should fix. But Fisher's athletic skills stand out, as he showed on Jamaal Charles' 5-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of last week's win in Washington. Fisher got down the field quickly on the screen pass to throw the key block on Redskins linebacker Perry Riley.

"He did that well," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "He’s long and he can run. He got out there and was able to block (a linebacker). You feel comfortable with him getting up on linebackers."

Fisher made a similarly athletic move on Kansas City's first play of the game. He was able to get out and take out Washington defensive end Kedric Golston to spring Charles for an 8-yard carry.

Fisher will finish the season where he started it, at right tackle. The Chiefs have had ample opportunity to shift him to the left side and could have done so against Washington with Branden Albert out of the lineup because of a knee injury. For now, the Chiefs are content to use backup Donald Stephenson as their left tackle in those situations.

Longer term, Fisher is a left tackle. The improvement in Fisher's play would allow the Chiefs to move him to left tackle next season and use Stephenson on the right side.

The Chiefs can feel more comfortable in letting Albert leave as a free agent, if that's what they choose to do. Albert is playing this season on a one-year contract worth almost $10 million and the Chiefs will be better off next season letting him go.

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