Just a few weeks ago, Chiefs offensive lineman Jeff Linkenbach’s hold on a roster spot appeared tenuous at best.
He was submerged on the depth chart as rookie Zach Fulton seized the right guard spot, and veteran Ricky Henry was rotating with Fulton and left guard Jeff Allen in training camp.
But the impending four-game suspension of right tackle Donald Stephenson and the trade of guard Rishaw Johnson had a ripple effect on the offensive line.
Linkenbach, signed as an unrestricted free agent from Indianapolis in the offseason, surfaced as the starter at left guard Saturday night against Minnesota, while Allen moved to Stephenson’s spot at right tackle.
Linkenbach participated in 33 snaps against Minnesota, while Henry took part in 28 plays, and that appears to be the pecking order for the final preseason game on Thursday night at Green Bay.
“I don’t have any say,” Linkenbach said of the shuffling of the line. “It’s my job to come to work every day. … Next man up, I guess.”
Linkenbach has made a career of being next man up. He made the Colts’ roster as undrafted rookie from the University of Cincinnati in 2010 and appeared in 60 games for Indianapolis, including 33 starts at four different positions.
With the departures of tackle Branden Albert and free agent guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, the Chiefs signed Linkenbach on March 12, the second day of free agency, for his versatility.
“He can play guard, can play tackle, he’s a swing guy for you, and you need those guys who can play multiple positions up front … centers who can play guard, guards who can play tackle,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson.
“The other night he did a nice job. First of all, it was his first action there with the (starting) offensive line. … And he’s a smart guy, he understands his assignments and he puts himself in the right positions to make the blocks.”
In his career, Linkenbach has started seven regular-season games at right guard, four at left guard, five at left tackle and 17 at right tackle. He’s also started two playoff games — one at left guard in 2012 and one at right tackle in 2010.
“It’s been a blessing, just to have the versatility to be able to slide, wherever the need may be,” said Linkenbach, a 6-foot-6, 325-pounder. “It’s definitely helped my career.”
Linkenbach said once he gets his footwork down, it doesn’t matter which position he plays. He worked at left guard with the first team and right guard with the second team in Tuesday’s practice.
“Wherever I get the most reps during the week, I feel most comfortable at during that week,” Linkenbach said. “In college I was a tackle, but the past couple of years I played more guard. I have the long-term experience at tackle but more recent experience at guard.”
The youth of the Chiefs’ offensive line — the average age of the starters before Stephenson’s suspension was 23.8 — and the shuffling of players has contributed to uneven performances by the offense. Center Rodney Hudson is the only offensive lineman in the same position as a year ago.
Consequently, the starters have not scored an offensive touchdown in 16 possessions, the team has a total of just three offensive touchdowns in three games, and Chiefs quarterbacks have been sacked 14 times.
“That’s what OTAs (organized-team activities) and training camp are for,” said Linkenbach. “We’ve been flipping around a little bit. You lose some of that non-verbal communication once you lose (someone). You work with a guy for so long, you start the non-verbal communication.
“But there are no excuses in this league. We have to execute better with whoever is out there.”
Linkenbach, 27, is the oldest member starting on the offensive line, and while he’s fighting for a job, he can also mentor players like Fulton and second-year tackle Eric Fisher.
“You never know in this business how things are going to work out,” Linkenbach said when the Chiefs signed him. “I’m not here to replace anybody necessarily. I’m just here to compete. I’ve been around a while, but I’m still young enough to play for a long time, but I’m old enough to be able to help some younger guys.”
Blocking might get a little easier once running back Jamaal Charles returns to the lineup for the regular-season opener. Charles, the AFC’s leading rusher last year, has missed the last two preseason games with a bruised foot.
“He’s a dynamite playmaker,” Linkenbach said. “When he gets the ball in his hand, either running the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s just a tremendous player. As an offensive lineman, you love running backs that can make you look good.”