Chiefs mailbag: Setting training camp battle lines

Undeniable electricity is in the air with Chiefs rookies, quarterbacks and select players reporting for training camp on July 28, followed by veterans on July 31.

Indeed, football is set to make its return with the team’s first full practice on Aug. 1, and questions for this edition of the mailbag, which is broken down in two parts, reflect the current mood.

Here is Part I with a view to training camp:

The offensive line will be under scrutiny throughout training camp when the pads come on when considering quarterbacks Alex Smith (45) and Chase Daniel (4) combined for 49 times sacked in 2014.

Nov. 20, 2014; Oakland, CA: Raiders outside linebacker Sio Moore sacks Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during the fourth quarter at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Nov. 20, 2014; Oakland, CA: Raiders outside linebacker Sio Moore sacks Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during the fourth quarter at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Chiefs mixed and matched personnel with the first-team offense during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. But the left side is virtually set with tackle Eric Fisher and guard Ben Grubbs, who offers a major upgrade over Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach.

Third-year pro Eric Kush appears the frontrunner at center after taking the majority of first-team snaps during OTAs and minicamp, while the same applies to Donald Stephenson at right tackle.

Given those scenarios, the right guard position commands attention.

Jeff Allen opened OTAs with the first unit, and then did the same to close mandatory minicamp. Allen also enters his fourth year in the scheme, but he faces competition.

The Chiefs have options in second-year pro Zach Fulton, who started all 16 games at right guard as a rookie in 2014; fifth-year pro Paul Fanaika, who joined the team as a free agent on a three-year deal and has familiarity with the scheme as a former Philadelphia Eagle; second-year pro Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who took first-team repetitions at right guard during OTAs; and rookie Mitch Morse, who could also push Kush at center.

Allen should have the edge, however, and there is another factor at play in the form of a contract year.

There are millions of reasons for Allen to stay motivated entering training camp and to seize the starting job early in camp.

The other aspect to keep in mind with the offensive line competition surrounds versatility: Allen can play tackle and guard; Fulton took snaps at center during OTAs; and Stephenson can play both tackle positions.

The Chiefs have additional depth entering camp with tackles Derek Sherrod and Tavon Rooks, guards Marcus Reed and Jarrod Pughsley, and centers Garrett Frye and Daniel Munyer.

The right guard position is one of the position battles to watch as pointed out in the first response.

And there are plenty of high-profile hot spots sure to draw attention, including No. 2 wide receiver, left cornerback, nickel cornerback and No. 3 running back.

But step out of the box for a few moments.

An area that intrigues surrounds the long snapper competition, which is often easily overlooked until a bad snap late in the game results in a loss or blows an opportunity to put points on the board.

James Winchester is set to battle rookie Andrew East, and the 2015 season will mark the first time in seven seasons the Chiefs will have a new long snapper.

Don’t forget the Chiefs experienced long-snapping issues late in the 2014 season with Thomas Gafford, leading to the signing of long snapper Charley Hughlett to the practice squad in Week 16.

The Chiefs signaled a different direction by signing long snappers Jorgen Hus and Brandon Hartson to reserve/future contracts at the end of the 2014 regular season, and Winchester to a free-agent contract in March. East signed as an undrafted free agent.

Gafford, who played the 2014 season in the final year of his contract, was not re-signed.

Kickers and holders can be very particular with the snap, and there’s a rhythm the kicker, holder and snapper rely on. Chemistry is important for the trio, and keep in mind the extra point moved back this season to the 15-yard line, which essentially made the point-after-touchdown a 33-yard field goal attempt.

As for depth, it is night and day this season compared to the past two seasons under general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid. Even more so when compared to the final years of the regime prior to Dorsey’s and Reid’s arrival.

Top to bottom, this is arguably the deepest roster the Chiefs have had in recent seasons and a reason why there is so much optimism for a good campaign in 2015.

Interesting question on a pair of former first-round picks in third-year tackle Eric Fisher and second-year outside linebacker Dee Ford.

How about neither?

It is extremely difficult to fault Ford for his lack of meaningful playing time on defense last year. Ford sat behind Justin Houston, who went on to lead the NFL in sacks, and Tamba Hali, a duo with a combined seven Pro Bowl appearances.

The good news is Ford had an opportunity to learn from two of the NFL’s best pass rushers while he transitioned from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker.

Nevertheless, not naming a player between Ford and Fisher would be the easy way out, so let’s lean to Fisher if a choice must be made.

Fisher’s third season should let the Chiefs know if he is the long-term answer at left tackle, but even now there should be optimism.

Keep in mind Fisher didn’t have the benefit of offseason workouts leading to training camp in 2014 while recovering from shoulder surgery, and he worked his way into shape as the season progressed.

That scenario didn’t apply in 2015 as a fully healthy Fisher incorporated boxing into his workouts to improve his punch and footwork.

The other factor to consider surrounds the player now on Fisher’s immediate right. Fisher played next to Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach last season, and that pair combined to allow the most sacks on the offensive line (McGlynn crediting with 7; Linkenbach credited with 2 ½).

Enter Ben Grubbs, a nine-year veteran and a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Grubbs’ savvy presence will settle the left side and his experience should certainly assist Fisher’s growth and more importantly, Fisher’s performance.

All is quiet so far from NFL headquarters when it comes to a possible suspension on cornerback Sean Smith, who pleaded guilty on March 9 to a 2014 DUI incident and was given two years probation.

That said, a suspension notification may not happen before training camp.

Go back to 2014 for a reference when the NFL announced a one-game suspension on then-Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe on Aug. 15, and tackle Donald Stephenson’s four-game suspension was announced on Aug. 22.

The good thing is the Chiefs are prepared in the event the NFL hands down a suspension to Smith.

“That’s in their hands and we will be ready either way,” coach Andy Reid said on April 20, which marked the first day of the offseason workout program. “If he is suspended we will handle it from there. And if he’s not, then he will be in there playing.”

[UPDATE, July 24: The NFL officially suspended Smith for three games, a day after the publishing of this mailbag.]


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