Kansas City Chiefs: Rishaw Johnson

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."
Since 2010, the Kansas City Chiefs have spent significant resources to build their offensive line. In the last four drafts, they've had 15 picks in the first three rounds and used five of those choices on offensive linemen. They also in the previous four years signed as free agents three offensive linemen who would go on to become starters.

While you can argue with some of their decisions, their commitment has been clear. The Chiefs have made building their offensive line a priority.

For all that maneuvering, the Chiefs still have a hole in their offensive line, this time at right guard. Four of those five recent draft picks will start next season, but they have no can't-miss candidate for the vacant spot. They recently signed Jeff Linkenbach as a free agent but may prefer because of his ability to play guard and tackle to have him come off the bench. They also have three developmental prospects worth a look: Eric Kush, Rishaw Johnson and Rokevious Watkins.

While it seems unlikely the Chiefs would go for an offensive lineman in the first round as they did last year, the possibility can't be dismissed. If the Chiefs don't select a lineman in the first round, taking one in a subsequent round becomes a better possibility.

In addition to their immediate uncertainty at right guard, only Eric Fisher among their top five veteran linemen is signed beyond 2015. The contracts of Linkenbach and center Rodney Hudson expire at the end of the 2014 season.

So whether the Chiefs draft an offensive lineman or two this year might do more than fill an immediate need. It also might serve as a statement on exactly what the Chiefs think of Kush, Johnson and Watkins.

Some options for the Chiefs' OL

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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.
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.