The reshaping of the Chiefs has continued with the release of offensive tackle Eric Winston.
Winston, who spent just one season with the team, confirmed the club’s move by phone Wednesday night. But he said until he meets with general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid on Thursday, he did not want to comment further other than to express his appreciation for his time in Kansas City.
“Even though it was an incredibly tough year on and off the field last year, I wouldn’t trade the relationships I made in Kansas City and the overall experience I had for anything,” Winston said on his Twitter account. “It was an honor to be a Chief.”
The release of Winston, 29, and the club’s applying the franchise tag to veteran left tackle Branden Albert, clears the way for the Chiefs to select Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel with the first pick of the NFL draft. Joeckel , the Outland Trophy winner, was a three-year starting left tackle in college but could be converted to the right side. Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, who rose up the draft boards after his outstanding play at the Senior Bowl, might be another candidate to be the first overall pick.
Winston was one of former Chiefs’ general manager Scott Pioli’s major free agent signings in the 2012 offseason. He signed a four-year contract worth $22 million and was due to earn $4.9 million in 2013 and count $6.5 million against the salary cap.
Winston started all 16 games for the Chiefs last season, 15 at right tackle and one at right guard due to an injury to Jon Asamoah.
He helped block for running back Jamaal Charles, who led the AFC in rushing with 1,509 yards, but the Chiefs still ranked 24th in the NFL in total offense and last in scoring.
Though Winston spent just one season with the Chiefs, he will be remembered most for his criticism of Chiefs fans for cheering when quarterback Matt Cassel suffered a concussion in a game against Baltimore.
In addition to Albert — who has insisted left tackle is his position and he does not care to shift to guard or even right tackle — the Chiefs also have second-year tackle Donald Stephenson on the roster. Stephenson, a third-round draft choice last year, started one game at right tackle and five at left tackle when Albert was out with a back injury.
If the Chiefs want to bring in another veteran tackle to replace Winston, they could look to a glut of available free agents at the position, though some like Jake Long, are left tackles. High-priced tackles Andre Smith, Bryant McKinnie and Sam Baker will be on the market along with Phil Loadholt and Gosder Cherilus. Two tackles who played for Andy Reid — King Dunlap and Winston Justice — also will be free agents.
Albert and Stephenson expressed their feelings for Winston — who also was the club’s union representative — on Twitter.
“I have a lot of respect for (Winston),” Albert tweeted. “One of my favorites I have met on this journey. Hope the best for you.”
Stephenson tweeted: “Gonna miss ya, buddy. Learned so much from you in one year. It was definitely a pleasure.”
Winston spent his first six NFL seasons with the Houston Texans, starting 87 games and blocking for three 1,000-yard rushers. However, he was released by the Texans after the 2011 season and signed with the Chiefs on March 19, 2012.
Of the Chiefs’ four key free-agent signings last summer, none are expected to return and play for the new regime. Winston and tight end Kevin Boss, who played in just two games before suffering a concussion, have been let go. Cornerback Stanford Routt was released at midseason. Fullback Peyton Hillis signed a one-year contract and likely won’t be retained.
Another free agent signed by the Pioli regime in 2011, wide receiver Steve Breaston, also recently was released.