The beginning of the Chiefs’ offseason workouts is still a month away, but that didn’t stop coach Andy Reid from addressing every position on the offensive line Tuesday during the annual NFL meetings at the Arizona Biltmore.
This was no coincidence. Along with wide receiver, the offensive line was one of the biggest problem spots during a 2014 season in which the Chiefs finished 9-7 but had some obvious limitations on offense.
And while this year’s draft — in which the Chiefs have 10 picks — could easily bring a round of reinforcements, the Chiefs have been aggressive to add players to the line since the start of the new league year March 10. That means competition at three spots, excluding left guard and left tackle, where former No. 1 draft pick Eric Fisher needs to add strength this offseason, Reid said.
Ben Grubbs, who was acquired from New Orleans for a fifth-round draft pick, appears to be the new left guard.
“He’s obviously a proven guy in the league,” Reid said. “He loves to play the game. So we’ll put him in there at the left guard position and let him go. That’s kind of home for him; that’s where he played. He’s smart; he’s physical. Everybody I talked to said he was a phenomenal guy in the locker room.
“We felt like we needed to buff up the offensive line just a little bit, and here you bring in a two-time Pro Bowler.”
But while Grubbs is a plug-and-play option at left guard, there will be competition at right guard. The Chiefs signed Paul Fanaika to a three-year, $8.1 million contract. He will compete with Zach Fulton, who started all 16 games last season as a rookie.
“He’s big, strong,” Reid said of Fanaika, who is listed at 6 feet 5 and 327 pounds. “I know him because we brought him to Philadelphia.”
Reid also said he liked Fanaika’s ability to pick up stunts, which was an issue for the Chiefs last season.
Right tackle is another competitive position. Veteran Ryan Harris started all 16 games there last season after Donald Stephenson, who served a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, couldn’t win back the job.
“You see that over and over again in this league,” Reid said, “that once you give a guy an opportunity and he’s successful, you don’t want to mess with that.”
Harris is a free agent and hasn’t been signed. But Reid said fourth-year pro Jeff Allen, a guard who was a starter in 2013 but missed most of 2014 because of an elbow injury, will also get some work at right tackle.
“Tackle might be his best position,” Reid said of Allen. “There should be great competition across the board there that I’m looking forward to seeing.”
One position that is less clear is center. Rodney Hudson, who was easily the line’s best performer in 2014, signed a free-agent contract with Oakland that made him the league’s highest-paid center.
Reid said Eric Kush, a sixth-round pick in 2013, could get an opportunity to step up.
“You don’t draft for backup players — you draft for guys that could be starters,” Reid said. “So we drafted Kush, and we said ‘Well, listen, maybe in a year or two, this guy has an opportunity to be a starter if he continues to progress,’ and now he has that opportunity, not that we weren’t gonna try to re-sign Rodney back.”
Hudson, Reid added, is a “phenomenal football player and person” who he admits hit free agency at a great time.
“There weren’t a lot of centers out there, so you go back to Business 101, cost and demand. He was the man out there, and he got paid like the man,” Reid said. “More power to him. … He made that move and we’re lucky that Dorse (general manager John Dorsey) had a plan with Kush stepping in there.”
The Chiefs, however, only have one center on the roster, which means reinforcements, via the draft or free agency, will still be on the way.
So aside from left guard, the only other entrenched starter on the line figures to be left tackle Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Fisher struggled at times in 2014 after switching from the right side, where he experienced significant growing pains during an injury-marred rookie year. But he also showed flashes of ability at left tackle — his college position — and started every game before heading into a career-defining offseason.
“There’s a whole mental side of the game, and he came from a bit of a smaller school, and all of a sudden now, he’s the No. 1 pick in the entire league. Your expectation level is out of the roof,” Reid said, “so for him to pound through all those things you need to do, mentally, to get through a season, I just thought it was big.”
So is the fact that Fisher will be able to strengthen his upper body this offseason, something he was not able to do last year because of shoulder surgery.
“That affected him,” Reid said. “He had to wear the brace and that whole deal. You see the athletic ability there, and he made it through the season. … He fought through some things that you have to do to survive in this league and be a good football player.”
Dorsey has said he believes that Fisher, who is listed at 6-7 and 315 pounds, can easily play at 320 pounds, and Reid agrees.
“We’re looking forward to him having the offseason and being able to lift and, like Dorse said, adding a little weight,” Reid said. “He was able to work his legs (last year); he was wasn’t able to work his upper body. And that was all the way up until training camp.”
Fisher’s issues are also related to technique and hand placement in pass protection, but Reid believes added strength and continued reps will help in those areas, as well.
“You just have to keep playing,” Reid said. “When Dorse talks about his strength and weight, some of that comes with that. You think you’ve got to deliver this blow (with your hands) from way down low and knock the guy backwards, and that’s not really what you have to do. Added strength gives you a little confidence in that area.”
Much in the same way the depth the Chiefs added this offseason should give Reid more confidence in his offensive line.
“We made some moves in free agency that can help us out, solidify some things,” Reid said. “So I think right now, before the draft, we have 10 draft picks, so we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position.”