When Donald Stephenson was drafted by the Chiefs four years ago, it was a neat story; the homecoming of a local kid who played high school football at Central and Blue Springs.
But with Stephenson set to hit unrestricted free agency on March 9 — other teams are free to speak with his representative as soon as 11 a.m. Monday, the beginning of the NFL’s legal tampering period — he will soon know for sure whether the next phase of his career will occur in his hometown.
“I’m going to go with the flow, however it turns out,” Stephenson said at the end of the season. “I had a lot of fun here ... I will always keep my eye on the team if I’m not here. And if I do get blessed to come back, I’ll weigh my options.
“I’m happy how things turned out, how I finished and how the team finished. I had a blast.”
A parting of ways would make sense, however.
Stephenson, 27, has played plenty of football for the Chiefs since he was selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He's started 21 games in four years, including seven in 2015, and he has shown versatility along the way — earning snaps at left tackle, right tackle and even left guard.
But even though he has moonlighted as a semi-regular starter, Stephenson could likely benefit by finding a new home this offseason, with a team that sticks him at one place and leaves him there.
But that's not to say he hasn't had an opportunity in Kansas City. To be fair, Stephenson was penciled in as the starting right tackle in 2014, but a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in August derailed that. Once he returned, he curiously struggled to get off the bench that year, even though the line struggled at times, and his replacement at right tackle — Ryan Harris, who went on to start for the Broncos this year — was not retained in the offseason.
But Stephenson bounced back in 2015, as he was deemed talented enough to earn the starting nod at left tackle, replacing banged-up 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher to open the season. Stephenson lasted six games there until an ankle injury slowed him down and he ended up yielding the starting spot back to Fisher.
Both Fisher — who made some promising growth in 2015 — and starting right tackle Jah Reid are under contract for 2016, which means Stephenson would likely be competing in a swing-tackle role again if he were to return. That means Stephenson, who is in the middle of his prime, would be wise to see if he could find a better situation elsewhere.
One other factor lining up against his return is the fact the Chiefs’ current regime — which arrived in 2013 — has shown a tendency to let many good offensive linemen to walk in free agency. The list of solid linemen who have found new homes since then includes center Rodney Hudson, guard Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, Branden Albert and possibly Jeff Allen.
“It’s a testament to how good the coaches are here,” Stephenson explained. “They coach us up pretty good. The next-guy-up attitude is a culture here, whether it be an o-lineman or a receiver or on defense. That’s just how it is here.”
Which explains why Stephenson, whose combination of size (6 feet 6, 307 pounds), athleticism (4.94 40-yard dash) and experience should be attractive to potential suitors, seemed acutely aware of the fact he might be elsewhere in 2016.
But if that indeed proves to be the case, he will harbor no ill will.
“I’m always going to be a Chief,” Stephenson said. “I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, the ups and downs. That’s a part of it. There’s going to be some memories I’ll keep with me for a long time.”
Randy Covitz, special to The Star, contributed to this story.