In Year 3, it’s put up or shutdown time for Chiefs LT Eric Fisher
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Matt Herkenhoff has walked more than a few yards in Eric Fisher’s spikes. Big No. 60 played 125 games with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1976-85, starting 122, primarily as a left tackle. He loved, lost and wrestled with the Alzados and the Matuszaks and the Gastineaus in between.
And the take on his latest successor?
"First of all, I don’t think he’s a left tackle," Herkenhoff, now a sales executive with a printing company in Minnesota, recently told FOXSportsKansasCity.com.
"I hate to be critical. I think he’s a right tackle. And maybe they move him inside, maybe make a guard out of him or something. They obviously felt he was a talented kid, or else they wouldn’t have taken him there (in the first round)."
Regardless of where you happen to sit on the fence, this much is clear as spring (eventually) beckons: With Year 3 coming up, it’s officially put-up or shutdown time for Fisher, the Chiefs’ current left tackle and No. 1 overall pick in 2013, as a front-line, blind-side protector.
The Chiefs are sitting with the 18th pick of the first round of the upcoming draft, and if an impact wide receiver isn’t readily available, an impact offensive lineman — indeed, an impact left tackle such as T.J. Clemmings of Pitt or La’el Collins of LSU — just might be. And the latter might be just as needed: According to stats tracked by ProFootballFocus.com, quarterback Alex Smith was pressured on 36 percent of his total drop-backs last fall, the ninth-highest total among the 26 NFL signal-callers who took at least 50 percent of their team’s pass attempts, and was sacked on 22.4 percent of his pressures, the third-highest total among those 26 quarterbacks.
General manager John Dorsey has invested a reported $68 million in Smith through 2018. And that $68 million can’t help you if it’s lying on its backside.
If Fisher, a 6-foot-8 mountain of potential, is to cash in on said potential, the time is right here, right now. The 24-year-old tackle sports a cap number of $6.051 million this fall and $7.060 million for 2016; his total guaranteed take of $22.19 million over four years is 19th highest among 63 current left tackle contracts, according to the database at OverTheCap.com.
The concerns are over the returns on the investment, at least to this point. Fisher’s minus 17.5 overall rating by PFF scouts last fall was tied for 72nd out of 84 NFL tackles who appeared on at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, while the seven sacks allowed were tied for the sixth-most given up.
Fisher scored a minus 11.4 grade from PFF as a pass blocker, although his comfort — having spent most of last winter recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and a sports hernia — and improvement started trending upward in the second half of the season. During the Chiefs’ last nine contests, which included tussles with the salty defensive lines of the Jets, Bills, Broncos and Cardinals, the Michigan native received a positive PFF grade six times, compared with just one over the team’s first seven contests.
The former top pick had received a minus 21.5 grade as a rookie right tackle in the fall of 2013, scoring a positive grade just three times over 14 weeks. So either the train is lurching forward or the damage is minimizing, depending on how you want to spin the above. PFF also graded Fisher as allowing 24 hurries in addition to the seven sacks over 1,030 snaps, the most takedowns of Smith charged to any Chiefs blocker and the second-most hurries on the team to Ryan Harris’ 25.
"As you look at Fish, he didn’t have an offseason (in 2014); he was doing rehabilitation with his shoulder," Dorsey said. "I think he grew exponentially as the year went on. He’ll need a whole year of strength and conditioning to get bigger and stronger, but I’m happy with where he’s projected he should be."
Last winter’s rehab curtailed a chance to build on the frame or add to the upper-body strength. Fisher turned up at training camp with a brace on the aforementioned shoulder and sometimes appeared, during the preseason, as if he felt comfortable blocking with only one arm. And that’s an uphill climb for any NFL tackle, let alone one taking on the blind side at this level for the first time.
"If you’ve got a bad arm, bad shoulders, you don’t have enough left in the punch," Herkenhoff says. "If he’s fighting through injuries, maybe he just doesn’t have the power in the upper body to do that. And I’m sure he wants to play, he wants to tough those things out. But sometimes, you might be better off making sure that he’s healthy, making sure he’s got some rest."
Big Fish walked away from 2014 vowing to keep the positive trend lines — especially in terms of health and performance — on the uptick. But the question remains: How might he respond to competition, serious competition, at the tackle slot if Dorsey decides to shoot for more beef early in the draft?
"I think he’ll respond in very positive ways," offered Dan Enos, Fisher’s college coach at Central Michigan and the new offensive coordinator at Arkansas. "Again, having been around him for (several) years, I would anticipate that if he has had some adversity, he’s a guy that will dig deep, dig in real deep, and come out fighting and come out swinging and try to address whatever the thing is he needs to do to get better. And he’s going to work very consistently in those areas.
"He’s been a guy who was told in high school he wasn’t good enough to play Division I; he had one scholarship offer, and (turned out) to be an All-American and the first pick in the (NFL) draft. He’s been the underdog (before), and he has always risen to the occasion. And cream rises to the top. And I would really think that Eric Fisher will certainly rise to the top in any situation he has — that’s the type of person he is."
Once a grinder, always a grinder.
"He went back to work," said Mike Cummings, Fisher’s position coach with the Chippewas and now co-offensive coordinator at the University of Connecticut. "He wasn’t a complainer. If someone got him, or there were times we thought he did a decent job but he was upset with himself over his performance, that was his answer to everything: Get back to work."
Even as a star in the Mid-American Conference, Fisher has never been flashy, never been much of a self-promoter. The man’s happier chopping wood or taking out a blocking sled than he is with a circle of microphones stuck in his face.
But he’s no dummy, either.
It’s time. The Chiefs know it. He knows it, too.
"Determined," Cummings said. "He’s very determined. If I had another word, it would be ‘driven.’ Maybe they’re the same thing."
No wonder coach Andy Reid is in his corner, keeping the flame for star-crossed No. 72 through good times and bad.
"I thought Fisher made big strides this year," Reid noted shortly after the regular season ended. "No. 1, he played every game and took down the left tackle position. He did all that without having really any offseason. I think he’s looking forward to an offseason where he’s not rehabbing an injury. That will be important: That he gets in and continues to increase his strength. Which he’ll do."
All of which makes Big Fish one of the biggest narratives, the biggest story lines, in the glut of organized team activities and minicamps to come. Whether he likes it or not.
"With the way they run their offense, it’s not like you’ve got to protect for four or five seconds," said Herkenhoff, who still has a hand in football these days as an assistant coach with Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School. "(In) two, three seconds, it’s out of there.
"You’ve got to be able to play. You’re taken (No. 1) for a reason. I’m not saying I’d give up on him. But again, he’s got to produce, unless there’s an injury situation. That’s the toughest spot on the line. I’d go try him somewhere else and see what he’s like."
Fish? Or cut bait? For better or worse, we’re all about to find out.