Sporting a new full beard and a confident demeanor, Eric Fisher stood in front of reporters Wednesday and spoke about his recent position switch and the pressure of living up to his status as a former No. 1 overall draft pick.
“I’m past that,” said Fisher, who was moved this week from left to right tackle by Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “I definitely went through my growing pains, putting myself in unnecessary situations by putting pressure on myself. I’m over that, I’m confident in what I’m doing now.
“They need me on the right, I’ll go to the right. Need me on the left, I’ll go to the left. I’ll do whatever it takes to help our team win.”
But while things haven’t been easy for Fisher since the Chiefs drafted him first overall in 2013, teammates say he’s handling the move well.
“I think everybody respects what a team player he is,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “He’s stepping up, he’s going to do what’s best for the team. …
“I think he’s grown up a lot in these three years. I think you have to, having gone what he’s gone through.”
Fisher struggled as a rookie at right tackle, dealing with injuries as he adjusted to the speed of the NFL out of Central Michigan.
He healed and was moved to his more natural left tackle position last season. Fisher was healthy enough to appear in all 16 games, but he allowed seven sacks and 24 hurries in pass protection and still felt the pressure of living up to his draft status.
“It’s kind of something you almost have to go through, you can’t really have somebody talk you through it,” Fisher said. “You have to learn things on your own sometimes. You get kicked down and get back up again. I’m feeling good now.”
This season, the hope was that Fisher — who is noticeably stronger — would be bigger and better, ready to break out in his third year like other highly drafted left tackles, such as Dallas’ Tyron Smith, Washington’s Trent Williams and Seattle’s Russell Okung.
But a high-ankle sprain that Fisher suffered Aug. 17 halted his momentum. While he was out for three weeks, replacement Donald Stephenson started twice and did well enough to provoke a change at left tackle.
“I was kind of on a roll there last year with no injuries.” Fisher said. “But stuff happens in this game, you can’t really do anything about it, so why get negative about it? Once this happened with my ankle, I try to stay positive, knock it out, and here I am, I’m back.”
Reid said one of the reasons he chose Stephenson at left tackle was because he still believes Fisher can play any position on the line at a Pro Bowl level, whereas Stephenson is clearly more comfortable on the left.
The switch could make the line stronger as Stephenson has been slightly less effective on the right side during his first three years in the league.
“It’s natural,” said Stephenson, who played his entire college career at left tackle. “I’ve been playing it all my life.”
Stephenson said some underestimate the difficulty of switching between tackle positions and playing both effectively. Footwork, timing and angles are different. Still, he says he could play the right side if needed.
“Yeah, if you look at it, there’s not a lot of tackles that can do it,” Stephenson said of playing both tackle spots. “You tell some of the tackles in the league they’ve got to play the right (side), and they might lose it. It’s definitely a blessing to be able to do both.”
Yet now Stephenson finds himself at the spotlight position on the O-line, and it’s a huge jump for a player who didn’t start last season after returning from a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Reid was asked multiple times last year why Stephenson didn’t deserve more playing time on a line that was shaky in pass protection. Each time, Reid said veteran Ryan Harris had done well in Stephenson’s place and didn’t want to disturb the line’s chemistry. Harris left the Chiefs as a free agent this offseason, presumably leaving the job to Stephenson.
On Wednesday, Reid was asked why Stephenson is starting now, at the expense of Fisher.
“Well, he was able to go through camp” this year, Reid said. “Last year was a little bit up and down for him, so this year, he came back in good shape, he got in there and did a nice job. I thought he felt more comfortable on the left side than the right side.”
Stephenson said he didn’t necessarily see the move coming after the season he had last year — though Reid has long maintained he’d play the best five guys this year.
“I mean, it was tough,” Stephenson said. “But it made me work harder this year. Luckily I’m one of the five Coach Reid talked about, (so) I’m just grateful for that.”
Just like Fisher is for the opportunity to keep helping the team this year.
“In the end, it’s (about) the guys in this building, the coaches, the staff,” Fisher said. “That’s really all you need to prove yourself to, instead of the whole world.”