ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The presumptive favorite to win the starting right guard spot with the Kansas City Chiefs worked out with the third team on Monday. The guy who is challenging him for the spot slid over to center during another portion of the workout.
Rishaw Johnson and Zach Fulton are just the start of the offensive line shuffle.
After watching three linemen who started last season depart in free agency — all within hours of each other — the Chiefs are trying to cobble together some sort of protection for quarterback Alex Smith that can also manage to open up running lanes for Jamaal Charles during training camp.
And with lingering questions about the health of left tackle Eric Fisher and an ankle injury to starting right tackle Donald Stephenson, that job hasn’t gotten a whole lot easier.
“People are saying that we are really young and we’ve got something to prove,” said Fulton, a sixth-round pick who could end up starting the Chiefs’ season opener Sept. 7 against Tennessee. “In a sense that’s good. It shows that we can be relied on because that was one of the concerns.”
There are only a few of spots on the offensive line that appear nailed down as the Chiefs prepared to take their first day off from training camp on Tuesday.
Rodney Hudson is entrenched at center, though several guys are getting a look at backing him up. Jeff Allen is back to reprise his role at left guard, while Fisher — the No. 1 overall pick two years ago — will switch to the blind side after starting at right tackle last season.
Stephenson is getting the first crack at replacing Fisher on the right side, but his ankle injury has created a hole there for the time being. And a heated race between Johnson and Fulton at right guard could carry into the final preseason game Aug. 23 at Green Bay.
It surely won’t be decided by the preseason opener against Cincinnati on Aug. 7.
“Right now we’re working on being competitive. This is where you earn a spot,” said Allen, who along with starting at left guard has also spent some time backing up Fisher at left tackle.
“Eventually we’ll find that top five, the best five to play,” Allen said, “and then we’ll develop that camaraderie that it takes to play at a high level.”
The Chiefs managed to develop that last season, when they were able to rely on a handful of veterans to coax it along. But when Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert joined guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah in a massive free-agent exodus, it left the Chiefs with what will likely be one of the greenest offensive lines in the league — regardless of who is on it.
Hudson was drafted by the Chiefs in 2011. Allen was picked the following year. That makes them a pair of veterans compared to most of the guys trying to earn a job alongside them.
“To us they’re the older guys because they’ve been here longer than we have. They help you through it,” Fisher said. “They’re surprisingly really helpful with younger guys.”
Likewise, Chiefs coach Andy Reid praised Hudson for holding everything together.
“Rodney just gives you complete confidence that everything is taken care of,” Reid said. “Not only is he telling guys when they need to pick up the pace, but he’s also coaching them up about any transition that takes place with the defense, and you’ve got to abort what you’ve got on and relocate the strength of the defense. He can handle all that stuff and he’s doing it in seconds.”
Now, the challenge is to find five of them who can do it.
“It’s constantly a work in progress. It never ends,” Smith said of the competition. “You could be in December or January. With those five guys, it’s always going.”