As a lead-in to the Chiefs’ training camp in St. Joseph, which begins when rookies and quarterbacks report on July 20, The Star will rank the 10 most interesting position battles.
2. Starting right guard
Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey are old-school football men in the sense they believe in building a team from the inside out.
That’s why both men have shown a predilection toward investing high draft picks in linemen in the past, and that’s a major reason the Chiefs took left tackle Eric Fisher No. 1 overall in 2013 and outside linebacker Dee Ford No. 23 overall in May.
So, on the surface, it might seem odd that after the Chiefs simply let two perfectly capable guards in Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah walk via free agency. Asamoah opened the 2013 season as the starting right guard and was adequate, but he was injured and saw the beefier Schwartz emerge as an above-average starter and a nice fit in the Chiefs’ zone-blocking running scheme.
The performance of the offensive line seemed to improve when Schwartz took the job, and Schwartz, who graded out as the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman with a Pro Football Focus grade of 18.9, parlayed his career year into a nice deal with the New York Giants.
And despite being Wally Pipped by Schwartz, Asamoah also landed on his feet, securing a deal with the Atlanta Falcons, who hired former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli as an assistant general manager this offseason. Like Schwartz, he is expected to start with his new team.
Given the Chiefs’ well-noted cap issues this offseason, the fact Asamoah and Schwartz bolted wasn’t a terribly big surprise. However, the fact the Chiefs didn’t invest big money or a high draft pick in a player who could help fill that suddenly-large hole at right guard has to be considered a bit of an upset.
Chiefs fans can only hope the Chiefs did so because they feel comfortable with the man currently tabbed to replace those two, second-year pro Rishaw Johnson. After going undrafted in 2012, Johnson eventually landed on the practice squad of the talent-rich Seattle Seahawks, where he spent a season before he was released in late August.
The Chiefs signed him to their practice squad shortly thereafter, and it took less than a month for Johnson to be signed to the 53-man roster. He slowly started to earn a handful of a reps in a reserve role, and toward the season, he was ahead of even Asamoah on the depth chart. It all culminated with his first career start, the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers in which he and the rest of the reserves almost pulled out a victory against a playoff-bound team.
Now, the Chiefs will get a chance to see if he can play for real. But if the way organized team activities played out is any indication, he better not get too comfortable. Johnson may have started out OTAs as the starter, as Reid said he would, but by the end of the manadatory minicamp a month later, sixth-round rookie Zach Fulton was earning his fair share of reps with the first team in Johnson’s place.
At 6 feet 5 and 323 pounds, Fulton is how Reid likes his linemen — big, strong and tough. However, the knock on him coming out of Tennessee was his athleticism, and Reid’s linemen have to be able to move on the run to maximize his scheme, which features a healthy amount of screen passes and zone blocking.
To his credit, Fulton seems to understand his limitations, and said at the outset of OTAs that he will work with the Chiefs’ strength coaches to increase his flexibility. It could be hard for him to see significant improvement in this area as a rookie, but a full offseason under the Chiefs’ supervision will likely do him some good. In the meantime, he could earn some valuable on-field experience this season, especially if Johnson fails to rise to the challenge and seize the job outright.
The Chiefs also have a veteran to throw into the mix if both youngsters falter. Former Colts guard Jeff Linkenbach, a fifth-year pro, has played in 60 NFL games during his career at a variety of positions along the offensive line. But although he’s listed at 6 feet 6 and 325 pounds, Linkenbach can be overpowered at times, and his average PFF grade of negative-13.85 across four seasons isn’t exactly inspiring. He might best be suited for a backup role as a swing tackle.
A handful of other guards remain on the roster, including second-year pros Otis Hudson and Rokevious Watkins. Hudson is a big body, at 6 feet 5 and 330 pounds, but has spent most of his career on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad and has much to prove if he wants to earn playing time.
Meanwhile, things would seem to be fairly dire for Watkins, who got a chance (like Johnson) to start in the finale against San Diego but seemed to fall behind in the pecking order during OTAs. He is now facing a four-game suspension for substance abuse, which surely won’t help his cause.
At the end of the day, the Chiefs have to hope either Johnson or Fulton can win the job in a clear fashion, because both have upside. If neither can, the progress the offense showed toward the end of last season might prove to be difficult to replicate.
Next up: Backup quarterback