The Kansas City Chiefs announced the release of one of their biggest free-agent acquisitions of 2012 on Thursday. Right tackle Eric Winston started all 16 games for the Chiefs and made national news for scolding Chiefs fans who cheered when Matt Cassel was knocked from a game with a concussion.
While Winston may not have endeared himself to fans, he was a very good right tackle that the Chiefs may struggle to replace. John Dorsey and Andy Reid have made a flurry of moves recently, but the release of Winston leaves us with more questions than answers—especially when it comes to the construct of the offensive line.
The release of Winston is also the first time the Chiefs have subtracted from the roster. You would have figured Cassel would have been the first player released, but he remains on the roster for the time being. Perhaps the Chiefs are intentionally trying to mislead in hopes of trading down in the draft, because releasing Winston does not make a ton of sense.
Winston was not overly expensive and he was plenty productive last season. ProFootballFocus graded Winston as the second-best offensive player on the team last season and ninth-best right tackle in the league. Winston graded out equally well run-blocking and pass-blocking. The Chiefs averaged 5.1 yards per carry off right tackle and Winston allowed just four sacks.
Matt Miller graded Winston as the best right tackle in B/R NFL 1000 in 2012 and dropped to third in 2013. If it wasn’t for Winston defending a fallen teammate in what probably amounted to a big misunderstanding, Chiefs fans would be livid about his release. As it stands, Winston instantly vaults to the top of many teams’ offseason wish lists.
The release of Winston only makes the Chiefs’ plan on the offensive line more confusing. Branden Albert said he was strictly a left tackle on Twitter only to later delete his account (via ProFootballTalk). The release of Winston has only prompted more speculation that the Chiefs will draft an offensive tackle with the first pick in the draft.
Only one problem: teams don’t draft right tackle No. 1 overall. If the Chiefs are seriously considering drafting a left tackle, Albert will need to be traded or his franchise tag rescinded. It’s unlikely that any team would trade for a left tackle with an injury history like Albert, which makes giving him the franchise tag a curious decision if the plan was to draft a left tackle.
What seems more likely is that the Chiefs will pursue a right tackle in free agency. Jake Long natural fit would be at right tackle, but the Chiefs would have to pay him like a left tackle. Signing Long seems to go against what Dorsey learning in Green Bay, except that the Packers haven’t won fewer than four games since the year before Vince Lombardi became head coach in 1958.
The only other reasonable explanation is that the Chiefs are purging contracts written by the previous regime. Winston received a four-year, $22 million contract with $4 million signing bonus which was confirmed by Brian McIntyre of Yahoo! Sports. Joel Corry of the National Football Post put the cap savings on Winston at $3.5 million in 2013.
The Chiefs will have a very hard time finding a right tackle as good as Winston for $3.5 million, which makes the decision to release him a curious move even for cap considerations. It’s possible that the Chiefs just did not think Winston was worth his contract and decided to move on now rather than later.
The draft is deep at offensive tackle and several quality free agents are hitting the market like Sebastian Vollmer, Gosder Cherilus, Andre Smith, Phil Loadholt, King Dunlap (who played for Reid), Ryan Harris (who took over for Winston in Houston) and Long. Maybe the Chiefs feel they can spend less and find a player that fits Reid’s scheme better than Winston, who is much better in a zone-blocking scheme.
The Chiefs have everyone wondering what they are doing, but it seems like they have a plan and are executing that plan. Only time will tell if their moves will pay off or be ridiculed like Scott Pioli’s first moves upon taking over the team.