Straightening The Line

Since the retirements of Willie Roaf and Will Shields, the Chiefs' offensive line has been in a state of flux. Mixtures of high-priced free agents, journeyman cast-offs, high draft choices, and unproven young players have been the norm. In order for the Chiefs to once again become competitive, and eventually contend for a championship, the offensive line must be a priority.

Opinions differ on the current state of KC's offensive line. Some argue that it was much more consistent and displayed solidarity in the second half of 2008, after the Chiefs went to the pass-heavy spread offense with quarterback Tyler Thigpen. Others point to a continued struggle to run the ball effectively as a sign that more changes are needed.

I am of the opinion that it will only take one or two moves in the offseason to not only strengthen KC's line, but bring it back toward the tradition of dominance Chiefs fans knew for so many years.

Initially, the weaknesses in the line must be identified. This is the easy part - center, right guard, and right tackle have been the concern. Center Casey Wiegmann was allowed to leave following the 2007 season, making room for Rudy Niswanger. It had been determined by the Chiefs that Wiegmann was either too old, or did not fit well enough with the Chiefs' new offensive direction.

Wiegmann ended up in Denver, where he promptly played well enough to receive recognition as a Pro Bowl alternate. Ironically, had he remained in Kansas City, he may well have flourished when the spread offense came into play in the season's second half.

Instead, the Chiefs went with Niswanger, who struggled at times trying to hold up against dominant defensive tackles (San Diego's Jamal Williams being the popular example). While Niswanger provided the larger size and strength the Chiefs were seeking in replacing Wiegmann, he is unusually tall and long-limbed for an NFL center, which allows many defensive linemen to out-leverage him and move him off of the ball.

The right guard position was split between Adrian Jones and Wade Smith. Jones, who played for Herm Edwards with the New York Jets, was wildly inconsistent. Smith, while providing valuable backup at multiple positions along the line, did not provide an overwhelming improvement when filling in due to an ankle injury suffered by Jones. Holding any player to the legendary status of Will Shields is foolish, but right guard is an obvious place in need of an upgrade.

At right tackle, Damion McIntosh struggled early on, but rebounded late in the year, stringing together strong performances. The obvious play that comes to mind is McIntosh's double-pancake block to spring Jamaal Charles on a long catch and run against the Dolphins. If McIntosh had displayed that level of effectiveness all season long, there would be little outcry for improvement at right tackle.

Rookie sixth-round draft choice Barry Richardson has the potential and size to be the overpowering right tackle the Chiefs would like, but his development can hardly be counted on by a team looking to make significant strides in the offseason.

So, we've identified the prime locations for upgrade. Now what? Opinions vary. One school of thought favors a "keep things the way they are and allow young players to develop" approach. While such a plan has merits, I would be in favor of a more aggressive blueprint.

Moving left guard Brian Waters to center makes too much sense. Waters began his time with the Chiefs as a center, backing up Tim Grunhard. Few may remember that he actually filled in as the starting center for the season opener in 2001, as Wiegmann recuperated from appendix surgery.

The fact that Waters contributed to a pair of fumbled snaps in that game doesn't change the fact that he presents the Chiefs with a much better fit at center than Niswanger. Waters has the type of stout, squatty build that lends itself to the position, as well as the leadership and the brains that go along with making protection calls for the line. Long mentioned among the strongest players in the NFL, Waters would provide a better matchup against mammoth nose tackles like Williams, Vince Wilfork, or Kris Jenkins.

Some may voice disapproval about moving Waters from left guard, where he has earned three trips to the Pro Bowl. Others may point to his age, arguing that it wouldn't be practical to make a position switch so late in his career. However, there is precedent for success in such moves.

The great Bruce Matthews, after nine straight trips to the Pro Bowl as a guard, moved to center for the last several years of his career and qualified for another five Pro Bowls. Expecting Waters to emulate the success of a Hall of Fame player may be asking a lot, but we shouldn't doubt Waters' physical ability.

At left tackle, Branden Albert has shown he is more than capable of manning the left tackle position for the Chiefs, but that shouldn't keep them from using another high draft choice to lock down the right side. The upcoming draft is expected to feature a number of highly-regarded offensive tackle prospects. Drafting a player like Alabama's Andre Smith, Ole Miss' Michael Oher, Baylor's Jason Smith, or Virginia's Eugene Monroe (Albert's college teammate) would give the Chiefs a pair of bookend offensive tackles for the next decade, providing an ideal situation for protecting whatever quarterback the Chiefs put on the field.

Another attractive target is Oklahoma guard George "Duke" Robinson. One of the more dominant guard prospects to enter the NFL draft in some time, Robinson will likely be a fixture at guard for years to come. However, spending high-round draft choices on offensive guards can be wasteful, as the recent list of guards picked in the middle or later rounds of the draft reads like a "who's who" of the top guards in the league. If a player like Robinson is available when the Chiefs are on the clock early in the second round, the decision-makers would have to weigh the pros and cons of using a premium draft pick on a guard.

Also factoring into the equation are players like Richardson, as well as Herb Taylor, who held his own at left tackle in place of Albert during both the preseason and regular season. He also saw spot duty at right tackle and at guard. With Herm Edwards and the Chiefs crowing so much about the team's "youth movement," it was surprising to see veterans like Jones, Smith, and McIntosh receive so much playing time while a promising young player like Taylor was on the sidelines.

If the Chiefs do not make any significant additions to the offensive line through the draft or free agency in the offseason, we should be shocked if Herb Taylor is not given every opportunity to earn a spot at either right guard or right tackle entering 2009.

It may seem like a fantasy, but an offensive line of Branden Albert, Duke Robinson, Brian Waters, Herb Taylor, and Michael Oher would be a foundation for offensive success for a number of years. Domination of the line of scrimmage was at the heart of the strong Chiefs teams in the 1990's under Marty Schottenheimer, as well as the high-powered teams led by Dick Vermeil from 2001-2005. Building a better offensive line equals building a better, stronger, more competitive football team. This offseason, the Chiefs can make it happen again, with only a few moves.

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