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Chiefs’ Eric Fisher may be in line for a switch from right tackle to left

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at 7:57 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, at 4:40 p.m.

Photos

Scouting Stephenson

If the Chiefs don’t bring back Branden Albert, Eric Fisher’s primary competition at left tackle could be 2012 third-round pick Donald Stephenson. His Pro Football Focus grade was negative-9.5, but he served as Albert’s primary backup — starting four games on the left side — and Chiefs general manager John Dorsey values Stephenson’s versatility.

“I think Donald made really huge strides,” Dorsey said. “We’ve always talked about guys that can make strides from year one to year two. The strides that he made were … he showed he can play left, he can play right. There are times I think he can play guard if he had to. He could probably play every position along the line except center.

“When his number was called, he stepped up admirably and did a wonderful job. That’s very positive for the Kansas City Chiefs moving forward.”

One of most crucial decisions for Chiefs general manager John Dorsey this offseason is at left tackle, where Branden Albert is a free agent.

Dorsey faced a similar conundrum last year, when he explored trade options for Albert, 29, and signed him to a one-year franchise tender of nearly $10 million. Albert played pretty well, but with the cap numbers for several key players expected to increase significantly, Dorsey might understandably be hard-pressed to do the same this season.

That’s why conventional wisdom suggests right tackle Eric Fisher could get a shot at the position despite an underwhelming rookie season. Teams don’t take offensive tackles No. 1 overall to play on the less-demanding right side. But Dorsey, while high on Fisher’s talent, isn’t ready to make any public proclamations about his long-term position.

“Right now, he is the right tackle,” Dorsey said of Fisher. “I think he showed that (things) slowed down for him (during) the final third of the season. He began to get comfortable and realize there were different types of pass rushers in the National Football League.”

The numbers seem to bear that out, though Fisher’s overall body of work wasn’t stellar. According to Pro Football Focus, Fisher — who played on the left side at Central Michigan and was moved to the right side with the Chiefs to accommodate Albert — allowed seven sacks and 35 hurries this season, both team highs. Fisher’s run-blocking grade of negative-6.5 ranked 55th among the 76 NFL tackles who logged 25 percent of their team’s snaps, and his overall grade of negative-17.8 ranked 70th.

Fisher, however, seemed to improve as the season went on. Through his first seven games, he posted a brutal PFF grade of negative-17.9. His grade over his final seven games was 0.1, which is roughly the league average.

“When I saw him early in the year against Philadelphia, I thought he was really inconsistent,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “But when I saw his later season tape, he looked much more solid and consistent to me.”

It’s not as though Fisher’s overall struggles weren’t expected, said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, Philadelphia’s former director of pro personnel. The jump from the Mid-American Conference to the NFL is huge, and while Fisher’s raw talent was substantial, it was raw, nonetheless.

“With Eric, you knew he was going to need time to develop his strength (and) develop his technique, particularly his hand placement in pass protection because it was something that was an issue for him in college,” Riddick said. “You thought he was starting to get it corrected in college, but it reared its ugly head again in the pros.”

Riddick added that injuries — Fisher hurt his shoulder, groin and thumb and suffered a concussion this season — also didn’t help.

“Obviously that affects his ability to maintain the strength he did have in season, ” Riddick said. “So it wasn’t like he was gonna make the kind of gains during the season that he’ll make now, where his body can heal up and he can really make that jump that you hear everybody talk about from year one to year two.”

Count Dorsey among those who think Fisher who is primed to take that step.

“He understands that he’s got an offseason to get bigger and stronger,” Dorsey said of Fisher, who is listed at 6 feet 8 and 305 pounds. “Size will help him a little bit. … I think he can gain 15 or 20 pounds. I think he can (weigh) 315 to 320 (pounds). That’s a big deal.”

Mayock said Fisher also needs significant work on his technique.

“He’s got to get his cleats in the ground and not play so tall,” Mayock said. “One of the reasons he was the first pick in the draft is because he’s a natural bender with good feet. He’s got to trust that and just play lower, play with his feet and punch with his hands.”

But even though some expect Fisher to develop, a number of other factors — including injuries — can conspire to keep a player from reaching his full potential.

“Is there concern? Sure there’s concern, because it’s not a given that players develop,” Riddick said. “You hear everybody say that all the time — well, this guy needs to develop. But not everybody does. You’re hoping that he does, you’re thinking that he does, you projected that he will. But until he does, you worry about it. That’s what you do, as personnel people and as coaches, you worry.

“Especially when you draft a guy No. 1 overall.”

But if Dorsey is worried about Fisher, he sure isn’t giving any hints.

“I’ve always said this … if I had to do it over again, that was the guy I’d still take because I think he’s got as talented of feet, lateral agility and balance of any tackle I’ve seen in a very long time,” Dorsey said. “We all knew going in that he’d be able to function and play his first year and he’d have to learn certain techniques it took to play in the National Football League.

“We also knew that in year two, he would come in and be a really good player. That’s what we’re banking on.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.

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