Chiefs’ offseason priority must focus on offensive line

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, left, is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, left, is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Chiefs enter an evaluation period with the 2014 regular season in the rear view mirror.

There are holes to fill on both sides of the ball from a season that saw the Chiefs finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs.

“We’ll go back and we’ll evaluate everything,” coach Andy Reid said. “That’s what takes place in the offseason. You go back and evaluate.

“You do your whole scheme evaluation, you do personnel evaluation from a coaching standpoint, and then obviously (general manager John) Dorsey spends all year doing that.”

Still, arguably the Chiefs’ top priority must surround the offensive line, a unit led by offensive line coach Andy Heck and assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung.

Protection issues from the offensive line and other players, such as running backs responsible for picking up blitzes, resulted in the Chiefs allowing 49 sacks on the season.

Quarterback Alex Smith was sacked a career-high 45 times, while backup quarterback Chase Daniel was sacked four times in the season finale.

“I wouldn’t necessarily focus on the sacks,” Reid said. “Those can be distributed around. I think you have to get in and look at each individual and that’s what you do. You evaluate each player and each individual and make sure that you’ve got the right people in the right position and you kind of go from there. That’s how you go about doing that. Some of these things, like a sack, could go a few different directions.”

While Reid indicated to not concentrate solely on the collective sacks, it is virtually difficult to ignore.

Outside of running backs or a tight end missing a blitz assignment, the offensive line was credited with allowing 33.25 sacks in 2014, according to statistics received from the Chiefs.

Position

Player 2014 starts

Sacks allowed

Left tackle Eric Fisher

16

8

Left guard Mike McGlynn

13

7

Jeff Linkenbach

3

2 ½

Center Rodney Hudson

16

3

Right guard Zach Fulton

16

3 3/4

Right tackle Ryan Harris

15

7

Jeff Allen

1

0

Donald Stephenson

0

2

Failed protection across the board in the past two seasons resulted in a whopping 90 combined sacks, which isn’t a recipe for success in a West Coast offense predicated on timing.

Opposing defenses got to Smith 84 times, which marked the most times sacked during a two-year span of his 10-year career. Daniel was sacked six times in two starts the past two seasons.

The Chiefs, of course, experienced numerous personnel changes on the offensive line in 2014 after losing left tackle Branden Albert, tackle/guard Geoff Schwartz and guard Jon Asomoah to free agency.

Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, moved from right tackle to his natural position at left tackle. Fisher’s slow start to the season is attributed to an offseason spent rehabilitating a shoulder injury, but his play gradually improved as the season progressed.

General manager John Dorsey believes Fisher is on track.

“He’ll need a whole year of strength and conditioning to get bigger and stronger,” Dorsey said, “but I’m happy with where he’s projected he should be.”

Fulton, one of two sixth-round picks of the 2014 NFL Draft, won the job at right guard in training camp.

But the Chiefs dealt with projected starting right tackle Donald Stephenson’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substance.

Starting left guard Jeff Allen was moved to right tackle, but suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 1. The Chiefs filled left guard with McGlynn, who signed with the team in late August, and then Linkenbach, who started the final three games.

Harris, who signed a free-agent contract before training camp, took over at right tackle after Allen’s injury.

“What those guys were asked to do this year, I thought they did an admirable job,” Dorsey said. “I thought they stepped up for what you had to do and what you asked those guys to step in there and do what they did, I think they did a very nice job.”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs appear set to go through another transition period.

McGlynn, Linkenbach, Harris and Hudson are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the league’s new calendar year starts on March 10, 2015.

The left guard position where McGlynn and Linkenbach combined to allow 9 ½ sacks should be fine with Allen returning.

Hudson should be a priority signing, but the Chiefs have second-year center Eric Kush on the roster in the event Hudson isn’t re-signed.

The right tackle position carries intrigue should the Chiefs part ways with Harris, and Stephenson’s situation proved a curious situation.

The third-year pro started seven games in 2013 (three at right tackle, four at left tackle), but never returned to the first-team unit after serving the suspension. A majority of his playing time was spent as an extra lineman in short-yardage situation and special teams.

Dorsey sidestepped a direct question surrounding the team’s plans for Stephenson in 2015, but he took a moment to characterize Stephenson’s 2014 season.

“We all know we started slow, and then he had to regain the trust of all the coaching staff for the things that he did,” Dorsey said. “You go along through the season, you have to regain that trust with those coaches in this thing and he has to prove to them.”

Dorsey appeared optimistic Stephenson could win back the coaching staff’s confidence.

“I think with Donald, with this coaching staff, what they’re going to do they’re going to put him in as positive light as they can,” Dorsey said. “He has a big challenge this year and I think, knowing Donald, he’ll step up to that challenge and accept that challenge.”

In the meantime, the Chiefs often preach about learning from an experience and the lesson along the front five in 2014 should produce action.

While Dorsey said he doesn’t believe the Chiefs miscalculated the unit’s depth before the start of the regular season, he commended the offensive line for battling through the adversity as the team looks to improve.

“We’d all like to have five Pro Bowl players on the offensive line, but that’s not going to happen,” Dorsey said. “Realistically and in the second year and the resources that we had, I think we did as admirable of a job as you possibly could go about and staying true.”

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