There is no shortage of reasons why the Kansas City Chiefs could take a step backward in 2014. Some will cite a tougher schedule and others, like Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com, will cite certain projectable statistics. The third contingent is concerned about the players the Chiefs lost in free agency—most notably left tackle Branden Albert and offensive guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah.
While the first two concerns are probably legitimate, the latter is a lot harder to peg. It’s not that there isn’t reason to be concerned about how the offensive line will come together, but rather if it’s so much a concern that it raises serious red flags.
Every team has concerns this time of the year, but it’s the big ones that truly matter. For example, a concern at the quarterback position is a lot different from one at punter. There’s also a difference between having a terrible punter and one who’s just average.
Pivotal to the argument is that if the offensive line gets worse, then so will the entire offense. The degree is also important because small fluctuations happen every year. The Chiefs are making a conscience decision to roll the dice, so it’s a huge swing in performance that could potentially be worrisome.
How Important is Offensive Line Performance?
Conventional wisdom says to build teams from the inside out. That means the offensive and defensive lines prior to the players at the skill positions.
For this to be true, offensive performance should track with the performance of the offensive line. Football Outsiders has a couple metrics that can help us test this: adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. One statistic attempts to measure an offensive line’s impact on the running game and the other its performance in pass protection.
What’s clear is that points scored and yards per play are correlated with both of these statistics. Correlation is not causation, but no one is arguing that offensive lines have no impact. Great quarterbacks and running backs could be influencing these numbers but not in every situation.
Most would probably agree that having a quality offensive line matters a great deal. It’s also worth noting that Football Outsiders is at least trying to isolate offensive line play from the rest of the offense.
Last season, the Chiefs finished in the 112th percentile of NFL teams in adjusted line yards and 109th in adjusted sack rate. Since these stats seem to track with points scored (115th percentile in 2013) and yards per play (97th percentile), the performance of the offensive line is going to be scrutinized if it doesn't perform at least close to its 2013 levels.
As expected, there is reason to believe the offensive line is useful and important when it comes to gaining yards and scoring touchdowns. How much so is tough to say because of the unique relationship of the offensive line to both the passing and running game.
The Chiefs lost two offensive guards in free agency, but only one of them was starting for a time in 2013. That means the offensive line is dealing with losing a left tackle and right guard, which isn’t a huge problem by NFL standards.
When the Chiefs used the No. 1 overall pick on tackle Eric Fisher in 2013, this likely became the plan for better or worse. Albert was an expensive stopgap, so Fisher cut his teeth on the right side for a year.
|Chiefs Offensive Line Shuffle|
|Position||2013 Starter||2013 PFF Grade||2014 Projected Starter||2013 PFF Grade||Backup||2013 PFF Grade|
|LT||Branden Albert||10.5||Eric Fisher||-17.8||Donald Stephenson||-8.7|
|LG||Jeff Allen||-12||Jeff Allen||-12||Rishaw Johnson||-2|
|C||Rodney Hudson||1.9||Rodney Hudson||1.9||Eric Kush||-3.8|
|RG||Geoff Schwartz & Jon Asamoah||26.5||Jeff Linkenbach||-8.1||Zach Fulton||Rookie|
|RT||Eric Fisher & Donald Stephenson||-26.5||Donald Stephenson||-8.7||J'Marcus Webb||2.7|
What maybe they didn’t expect was Fisher to struggle as much as he did as a rookie. If Fisher isn’t up to the task at left tackle, the Chiefs will need to have Donald Stephenson play left tackle, and someone else will have to take over at right tackle.
Fisher’s development is also being limited because of two offseason shoulder surgeries. According to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star, Fisher still hasn’t been cleared for full practice despite the non-contact nature of organized team activities.
Rishaw Johnson may now be the favorite to start at right guard, and the recently signed J’Marcus Webb was getting time at right tackle with Fisher sidelined. Veteran Jeff Linkenbach and rookie sixth-round pick Zach Fulton could also compete for playing time at guard.
The Chiefs have what coaches like to call competition; they just don’t have many quality options. Of the projected starters and backups, only center Rodney Hudson and Webb had positive Pro Football Focus grades last season (subscription required). Webb only played 108 total snaps, so his grade was based on a terribly small sample.
Only time will tell if the Chiefs can find five quality starting options in 2014. Their best bet is going to be if the projected starters can stay healthy. Given the importance of the offensive line, no one should feel comfortable headed into 2014 in Kansas City.