Jeff Allen understands the difficulty of starting as a rookie guard in the NFL as much as anyone.
Allen was thrust into the Chiefs starting lineup in his fourth game, but current rookie Zach Fulton may have him beat. Fulton, a sixth-round draft pick from Tennessee this year, vaulted up the depth chart in training camp and has staked his claim at right guard.
Fulton’s the only member of the 2014 rookie class listed in the starting lineup heading into the Thursday night preseason opener against Cincinnati.
But he doesn’t play like a rookie.
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“He isn’t making mistakes, that’s what is standing out to me,” Allen said. “He’s a fast learner, a physical guy. … He doesn’t come off as a rookie at all.”
Just like an opportunity opened for Allen, when a series of injuries led to his taking over at left guard in 2012, Fulton came into a situation of need.
Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, the two primary starters last season at right guard, departed in free agency, and though it appeared on the outside that the Chiefs didn’t do much in the offseason to plug the gap, they may have found a sleeper in Fulton, the 193rd player taken in the draft.
“It was good to know I had an opportunity to come in and get playing time,” said Fulton, a 6-foot-5, 316-pounder. “That was the only thing on my mind, to come in and take advantage of every chance I could get.”
Fulton was a quick learner in college as well. He started five games in 2010 as a freshman, all 12 games as a sophomore, 11 games as a junior and all 12 games in 2013. By starting 40 games, mostly in the SEC against NFL-caliber defensive linemen, Fulton was as prepared for the NFL as any first-round pick.
“I credit my coaches at Tennessee,” said Fulton, twice named SEC offensive lineman of the week in his college career. “They taught me to be consistent. That’s been my main goal here, being consistent.
“The biggest adjustment here was getting into the playbook and learning all the plays and being consistent.”
Fulton began training camp rotating with second-year man Rishaw Johnson, who started the Chiefs’ regular-season finale last year at San Diego. But it didn’t take long to seize the starting role.
“He can play big-boy football,” said Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. “He’s a big fella. It’s important for inside guys to be able to play big. He does that. He’s got an innate physical and mental toughness, and he’s got a high degree of intellect. I applaud where he is right now, I think he’s done a marvelous job, but let’s see how he plays in the preseason games.”
The Chiefs are also giving Fulton a cursory look at center. Fulton, who had not played center in a game situation in college, took a few snaps on Saturday, and with backup center Eric Kush excused from practice on Sunday, he took a regular shift with the backups.
Although he bounced a couple of shotgun snaps to the quarterback, Fulton could make backup center part of his job description as well.
“At Tennessee he had some snaps in practice situations at center,” said offensive coordinator Doug Pederson. “And we are always looking for those guys up front who can play guard, center and tackle.
“The swing-type guys and the more guys you get exposed to different positions just helps your football team and gives you more depth.”