Pending free agent Donald Stephenson shifts focus to offseason with desire to start

Jan. 3, 2016; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs offensive lineman Donald Stephenson (79) blocks Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) at Arrowhead Stadium. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Jan. 3, 2016; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs offensive lineman Donald Stephenson (79) blocks Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) at Arrowhead Stadium. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Offensive lineman Donald Stephenson enters a period of uncertainty.

The Chiefs’ third-round pick (74th overall) out of Oklahoma in the 2012 NFL Draft played the 2015 season in the final year of his contract and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 9.

While it remains to be seen if he returns or is with another team in 2016, Stephenson covets an opportunity to be a full-time contributor.

“That’s still my goal to be a starter for a full season,” Stephenson said. “I know I can do it, so I’m just getting back to work and focus on next year wherever I am.”

Regardless of landing spot, the 6-6, 312-pound Stephenson offers experience.

Stephenson appeared in 60 games with 21 starts over the past four seasons, showing versatility at left tackle and right tackle.

He projected as the starting right tackle in 2014 before having to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances.

Upon his return in Week 5 of that season, however, Stephenson didn’t crack the starting lineup and logged just 30 total snaps on offense.

Stephenson quickly rebounded in 2015, starting seven regular-season games (six at left tackle, one at right tackle) and two postseason contests at right tackle. He logged a career-high 555 regular-season snaps on offense, adding 83 snaps on special teams.

But while he appeared in all 16 regular-season games, Stephenson once again dealt with adversity when the Chiefs took him out of the lineup after he started the first six games at left tackle.

Stephenson kept himself ready and waited for an opportunity to contribute, which arrived in Week 13 when he stepped in at left guard during the game for the first time in his career and started the season finale at right tackle.

The past season of ups and downs provided a large takeaway.

“Fighting through adversity, it was huge for the team and individually,” Stephenson said. “As you know, I got sat down after the sixth game and I just kept working. When I was called upon, I performed as well as I wanted to, so I’m happy how the season turned out.”

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey also appeared pleased with how Stephenson handled the past season, complimenting the offensive lineman’s growth.

“He’s matured, he understands what it takes to fulfill his role with the offense,” Dorsey said. “It allows him to mature and nurture and develop. I think when he stepped in at various roles, either at guard or at tackle, he played very well.

“I mean, he did what he was expected to do, and that’s what we talk about, the next man up. When it was time for him to step up when he was needed, he stepped up and fulfilled his job.”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs will have an estimated $32 million in available salary cap space and have 14 pending free agents: Stephenson, safety Eric Berry, linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Sean Smith, guard Jeff Allen, defensive end Jaye Howard, quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jason Avant, safety Husain Abdullah, safety Tyvon Branch, defensive end Mike DeVito, linebacker Frank Zombo, cornerback Jamell Fleming and linebacker Dezman Moses.

Stephenson, a native of Blue Springs, Mo., wouldn’t mind staying home when considering he grew up in the greater Kansas City area.

But he understands there is a business side to football, an area Stephenson prefers to not worry about in the coming months of the offseason while he trains in Arizona.

“I’m just going to let it flow, just watch and see how things play out,” Stephenson said. “I feel like if I worry about it too much, it affects wherever I am, how I play next year. I’m just going to get back to work and let my agent and teams worry about all that other stuff.”

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Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and The Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.

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