When Kansas City selected Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft it wasn't an indictment against former Oklahoma offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. Chiefs management said it was a best-player-on-the-board situation.
But after the Chiefs drafted Fisher, and used the franchise tag to re-sign former first-round pick Branden Albert, Stephenson was relegated to being the No. 3 offensive tackle.
The Chiefs re-signing Albert was a sign the organization believes Stephenson needs more seasoning even though he started eight games as a rookie.
For now, Stephenson is injury insurance. In the Chiefs' 17-16 win Sunday over Dallas, Stephenson played two series when Albert left with a shoulder injury.
“I know my role on this team,” Stephenson said. “I work hard at what I do. When I'm in there I have to play like a starter and prove I'm worthy of being a starter in this league.”
A third-round pick in the 2012 draft, Stephenson showed promise but at times was exploited by veteran defensive ends. Stephenson was responsible for nine quarterback hurries, seven quarterback hits and five sacks.
“No question I have some things to work on, but I did a lot of things right last year,” Stephenson said. “This is a fast league. It took some getting used to, the speed of the game. Once you experience it you don't have to think as much, you can just go play.”
Last week's game against Dallas was an example Stephenson must raise his level of play. Stephenson was overmatched against Dallas' seven-time All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
While Stephenson was in the game Ware recorded a sack. Ware was so disruptive the Chiefs offense sputtered with two three-and-outs.
“It's tough sitting on the sidelines and if someone goes down it's all of a sudden, ‘Go in there and block DeMarcus Ware,'” Stephenson said. “But that's my job. I have to be ready.”
Fisher's arrival has pushed Stephenson to a reserve role, but he played 239 snaps last season as a rookie.
“That was huge,” Stephenson said. “It's all about experience in this league. To start some games means the world. The more you play the more the game slows down.”
First-year Chiefs coach Andy Reid said offensive linemen like Stephenson are invaluable over the course of a 17-week regular season grind.
“He plays an important position,” Reid said. “We're lucky we have Donald Stephenson. He can swing back and forth. If we needed, he could play guard for us. Donald gives us a little flexibility.”
Management evidently wasn't overly concerned with Stephenson. There were reports the Chiefs were close to trading Albert to Miami for a second-round pick. The deal fell through the second day of the draft when Oakland made a similar deal.
One factor that could work in Stephenson's favor is some decisions are based on salary cap numbers.
Earning $9.8 million this season, Albert, the No. 15 overall pick in 2008, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Stephenson costs only $664,000 this season, $755,000 in 2014.
Having signed Fisher to a five-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $22.2 million, the Chiefs might not want to invest major money in both starting tackles. Another possibility is KC could let Albert walk and draft an offensive tackle the first three rounds to compete with Stephenson.
“Nothing is ever certain in this league,” Stephenson said. “I have to prove every day I'm worthy. Right now I have to do that in practice and the chances I get into games.”
Choosing the Sooners over Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska, Stephenson was a two-year starter at OU at left tackle protecting quarterback Landry Jones' blindside.
Stephenson, 6-foot-5, 312 pounds, has quickness, broad shoulders and long arms to keep rushers off his body. The one area that needs work is better footwork to handle speed rushers like Ware.
The Blue Springs, Mo., product is thrilled just to have the opportunity. Having played high school football 12 miles from Arrowhead Stadium, Stephenson is living the ultimate dream. He grew up idolizing KC offensive linemen Will Shields, Willie Roaf, Brian Waters and John Tait.
“This is so awesome,” Stephenson said. “But last year wasn't fun. It was a tough year for us. But this year I'm seeing how much of a good thing this could be, how excited my mom, friends, everyone in Kansas City, would be if we made the playoffs.”
The playoffs aren't an unrealistic goal despite a 2-14 finish last season. Playing a soft schedule is a huge advantage in the AFC, which doesn't have nearly as many playoff contenders as the NFC.
“Last year was kind of depressing. But this year could really be special,” Stephenson said. “We're all excited about what could happen.”
And Reid's impact?
“It was huge,” Stephenson said. “As soon as they told us Andy Reid was coming here a lot of players' confidence went up immediately. Everyone knew the potential this team had. We just needed somebody to help us put it all together.”
Stephenson is in the second year of a four-year deal that runs through 2015. Next season he could be a starter. At worst, Stephenson is a salary-cap friendly “swing” tackle on the team he rooted for as a kid.
“All I can do is keep working hard,” Stephenson said. “Whatever decisions they make in the future it will be what's best for this team. I've just got to be ready when they put me in. When I get my chance I have to do what I'm supposed to do.”