Based on the depth charts of the 32 NFL teams in the second week of the 2014 preseason, the Kansas City Chiefs had the youngest starting offensive line in the league.
Through two preseason games, they look like an inexperienced group that's learning on the job. Whether they can improve enough to keep quarterback Alex Smith and running back Jamaal Charles off the injury report in the regular season remains to be seen.
In the Chiefs' 28-16 loss to Carolina, the No. 1 offense had five possessions in the first half. It wasn't pretty. The starters were unable to score a touchdown, just as they were shut out in the previous game against Cincinnati. Charles was back in Kansas City with a sore foot and after playing the first half, Smith was just sore. He was sacked twice, took several big hits just as he threw the ball and was chased from the pocket in all five possessions. He never appeared comfortable in the pocket.
In a game where Kansas City was flagged 13 times, four of those were holding calls, including penalties on starting left tackle Eric Fisher and starting right guard Zach Fulton. Left guard Jeff Allen could not handle the quickness and power of Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei who crunched Smith for a sack. Running back Knile Davis couldn't handle Luke Kuechly as the Carolina linebacker roared through the A gap and smothered Smith.
"We have a young offensive line and they are going to have to learn," said head coach Andy Reid. "We are going to feed them the things they need to get better. We are not hiding that part of it."
Whether judged by experience or age, the Chiefs are pro football's baby blockers, averaging 2.6 years of experience and 23.8 years of age with their No. 1 group. That includes rookie Fulton; right now he's one of 10 rookies that teams listed as starters last week.
Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Carolina, Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Seattle - all have a majority of young blockers in the starting lineup, but none as young as the Chiefs. Third-year right tackle Donald Stephenson is the oldest player in the starting offensive line; he's currently 25 years old and will turn 26 at the end of September. The oldest starter on the 31 other teams is at least 27 years old and there are 23 teams with a starter or starters that are 30 years or older. Among those other teams with young lines there are Super Bowl victories in recent seasons, including last year's championship run by the Seahawks.
Is this abundance of youth a good thing for the 2014 Chiefs offense? "It means I've got guys with fresh legs, they are hungry to learn and get better," said offensive line coach Andy Heck. "It also means they've got to grow up fast.
"There are no excuses in this league. We have to get out there and do our thing and do it well."
The baby blockers on the Chiefs' offensive line are a product of general manager John Dorsey and Reid's desire to build through the draft - all five starters are Chiefs draft choices. Three other teams have five of their own picks in the starting offensive line: Cincinnati, Green Bay and Seattle. To that group can be added Pittsburgh and San Francisco; both start four draft choices and the fifth starter is a college free agent they developed in house.
Developing a group of home-grown blockers is tough these days because of the salary cap and free agency. Given the maturing process young players go through, combined with the time necessary to create the continuity so important to good offensive-line play and the window for realizing a payoff with a young offensive line shrinks considerably.
Often the words, "we have a young offensive line" become an excuse for poor performances. That was the case in the first half of last season when the right side of the Chiefs line struggled with Jon Asamoah at guard and Fisher at tackle. The offense became more efficient and productive in the second half of the schedule when they went older at right guard, bringing in Geoff Schwartz to fill the spot.
This year, the Chiefs lost their best blocker when left tackle Branden Albert departed in free agency for Miami. They also lost both Schwartz and Asamoah to the Giants and Falcons respectively. Rather than sign linemen talented enough to challenge for a starting spot, Reid and Dorsey went after veterans that appear to have done little to push the starters for their jobs.
It's important for Smith and the few playmakers in the Chiefs offense to see consistency from the baby blockers so the line must mature beyond its years. Combined, the five starters have only 76 regular- and post-season NFL starts. That's an average of 15.2 starts per man, or less than one full-league season.
Is it possible for the coaching staff to speed up the maturation process?
"It happens, it happens because you get thrown into the fire," said Heck, who is in the fire himself. "You had better hit or you get hit."
--The Chiefs will not have wide receiver Dwayne Bowe for their regular-season opener on Sept. 7 when they host the Tennessee Titans. Bowe was handed a one-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league's rules on substances of abuse. The penalty was a result of Bowe's arrest just before midnight on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013 in Riverside, Missouri when he was charged with speeding (48 in a 35 mph zone) and possession of a controlled substance (marijuana).
In April, Bowe pleaded guilty to amended charges of operating defective equipment and littering, paying fines totaling $610. The plea bargain did not include Bowe admitting marijuana possession. It made his legal ramifications go away, but did not preclude the NFL from disciplining him for the incident.
Bowe will not appeal and issued a statement expressing his regrets: "I made an error in judgment. I take responsibility for my mistake, and it will not happen again. I hope that my teammates, coaches, and Chiefs fans accept my sincere apology."
For Bowe, it's the second league suspension of his career. He received a four-game slap in 2009 after he tested positive for a diuretic. That's considered part of the performance enhancing drug policy in the league; PED users have taken diuretics in an attempt to mask their use of banned steroids. At the time, Bowe said he took some of his grandmother's diet pills in an attempt to make weight at the start of training camp.
--Ask anybody that's done it and they'll tell you that the process of moving can physically hurt, whether carrying boxes or moving furniture. Just ask Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. He was held out of the team's preseason visit to Carolina because of a foot bruise he suffered while moving out of the dorms at Missouri Western State University.
The Chiefs were heading out after three weeks in St. Joseph, and Charles was carrying a box when he stepped off a curb and rolled his ankle. It wasn't serious enough in his view to do anything that day, but when he reported back to the team's facility 24 hours later, he mentioned his misstep to the trainers, who detected a bruise and some minor swelling. That's all it took for the Chiefs to leave Charles at home as a precaution.
Of course when it's Charles, the Chiefs are always very careful when it comes to his health, no matter how minor the situation. If the game against the Panthers had been a regular season affair, the Chiefs say Charles would have played.
--Veteran outside linebacker Tamba Hali was talking about Andy Reid and his coaching staff as training camp came to an end. Hali said the only difference in approach by the coaches from last season was they became more vocal about basic details.
"They've gotten a lot tighter on the little things, like being on time for the meetings, not weighing in, stuff like that," said Hali. "Last year they came in and let a couple things slide with us. Now we have to focus on the little things. They've given us the breakdown on teams that have success. After their first year usually it's much tougher and they start to slip on doing the little things. We aren't going to do that. Except for that, they're the same people, same coaches as last year. They still get on us if we're making mistakes. They're just doing what they do best as coaches, and we are going along with it."
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The No. 3 quarterback spot involving second-year man Tyler Bray and rookie Aaron Murray. The No. 2 spot behind starter Alex Smith seems to be safely in the hands of veteran backup Chase Daniel. The only question is whether general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid decide to use an extra slot on the 53-man roster and carry four quarterbacks.
Bray went undrafted in 2013 because of concerns about his maturity level after some off-field incidents at the University of Tennessee. In his rookie year with the Chiefs he did not display any of those tendencies and he has shown marked improvement in the 2014 training camp and preseason. Murray was considered a first- to third-round choice in last May's NFL Draft until he tore an ACL last November. That dropped him to the fifth round where the Chiefs selected him. He got a chance to get his first significant amount of playing time against Carolina and threw a touchdown pass and an interception. Bray did not play against the Panthers.
The Chiefs don't want to lose either Bray or Murray, but without an injury popping up with any of the four quarterbacks, they are likely to be forced to make a decision.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--S Kelcie McCray was traded by the Buccaneers Thursday (Aug. 21). to the Chiefs for G Rishaw Johnson.
Johnson (6-3, 313) originally entered the league as a college free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 and spent 13 weeks on Seattle's practice squad, before being promoted to the active roster for the final four weeks of the season.
After spending the 2013 offseason with the Seahawks, Johnson was waived in the final round of cuts, before being added to Kansas City's practice squad. After spending the first three weeks of the season on the practice squad, Johnson was promoted to the active roster. During the 2013 season, Johnson played in three games, with one start, and saw playing time in the Chiefs' AFC wild-card game at Indianapolis.
McCray played in 11 games for the Buccaneers last season, signing with Tampa Bay after being waived by the Miami Dolphins last season.
--RB Jamaal Charles was held out of preseason game No. 2 against Carolina as a precaution after he suffered a bruised foot in an off-field misstep. Charles was moving out of the dorms at Missouri Western State University when he turned his foot stepping off a curb. It's not considered a serious injury and he should be back on the practice field on Tuesday.
--S Eric Berry missed his second preseason game with a sore heel when the Chiefs visited the Carolina Panthers. Head coach Andy Reid calls Berry's problem tendinitis and they want him to be without any soreness in the back of that foot before they allow him to return to practice.
--WR Albert Wilson was held out of preseason game No. 2 against Carolina because of an ankle injury he suffered in the Chiefs' first game against Cincinnati. An undrafted rookie free agent out of Georgia State, Wilson has been traveling a path leading to a spot on the 53-man roster. Missing another opportunity to perform does not help his cause.
--RB Joe McKnight did not play in preseason game No. 2 against Carolina because of recurring problems with a knee that required surgery back in June. McKnight had been practicing over the last week and seemed to be moving about without problem.
--DE Mike DeVito is expected to get back to practice on Tuesday when the Chiefs continue their training camp in Kansas City. DeVito suffered a broken hand in practice 10 days ago and he's not practiced or played since then. Coach Andy Reid said the training staff believes they can protect the hand enough to allow DeVito to get back to football.
--DE Mike Catapano continued to be sidelined by a virus that he's not been able to shake over the last three weeks. Catapano has missed both of the Chiefs' preseason games and all but the first week of practices because of the malady. The second-year player out of Princeton has had every test in the book and visited specialists and the medical opinion appears to be that the virus will eventually run its course.
--WR Junior Hemingway suffered a hip flexor strain in the Chiefs' game against Carolina. Hemingway was just getting back to full speed after missing two weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury.
--MLB Joe Mays suffered a sprained wrist in the Chiefs game against Carolina. Mays has been nicked through most of the preseason, including trying to move beyond a knee that he had scoped during the offseason.
--TE Travis Kelce leads the Chiefs in receiving after two preseason games and has two long touchdown catches. Kelce produced a 69-yard touchdown play against Cincinnati and followed up with a 43-yard score against Carolina. He's caught six passes for 136 yards, a healthy 22.7-yard per catch average.
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