Assessing The Troublesome State Of Offensive Line Play

  Last Updated: June 29, 2017 at 7:06 pm
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Far too many franchises in 2016 saw their seasons come crashing down in large part thanks to the play of their offensive line. Strong rosters such as those in Seattle and Cincinnati, were seriously hamstrung in their Super Bowl and playoff aspirations as their men up front struggled.

The quality of offensive line play across the board was concerning, as lineman coming out of college struggled to adapt to the complexities of the pro game.

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The offensive line is one position group that doesn’t particularly stand out when watching the game on TV, unless they’re playing poorly.

Several genuine Super Bowl threats were held hostage last year (and in previous seasons) by an inability to create holes in the running game, or more worryingly, to protect their quarterback.

Even more concerning for teams in need of o-line reinforcements, was an average free agency group and a very sub-par draft class, with no blue-chip offensive line prospects. This in turn creates a void that less talented and less pro-ready players are forced into, thus lowering the standard of play around the league.

In this season’s draft, the first offensive lineman, Garrett Bolles, didn’t disappear from the board until the Broncos 1st round pick, 20th overall. And only one more tackle, Ryan Ramczyk was taken in the first round (32nd overall). In a league choc full of sub-par o-line play, the fact that general managers and ownerships throughout the league felt that so few lineman were worth a first round pick is a big concern.

Pro Football Focus have compiled rankings and ratings for each offensive lines performance in 2016, and their prospective rankings heading into the 2017 season (hit up the links to check out the articles). Based on 2016, it comes as no surprise that the Titans, Cowboys, Steelers, Raiders and Redskins lines head the list with some of the league’s best groups. A common thread throughout these offensive lines was the ability to play the same five starters almost every week, along with some of the most highly rated individual players in the game.

PFF’s most highly rated tackle, Trent Williams leads the pack for the Redskins, but the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith and Titans duo, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are right towards the pointy end of the rankings too.

At guard, Steeler, Ramon Foster was ranked 2nd overall, ahead of Cowboys stud Zack Martin, the Raiders’ Kelechi Osemele and the second Steelers guard in the top 10, David DeCastro.

Cowboys’ center, Travis Frederick is one of only two men who received elite grades from PFF, with other notable examples including Raiders’ veteran Rodney Hudson 4th, Titan’ Ben Jones 7th, and the Steelers’ Maurkice Pouncey 14th.

The Cowboys, Titans and Raiders all received excellent run blocking grades, and were among the finest and most productive running attacks in the league, despite productive passing games too.

When it comes to pass protection, all five offensive lines were in the top 8 overall when it came to sacks, with the Raiders on top conceding only 18 sacks.

With the exception of the Redskins, these teams all had reasonably successful 2016 campaigns, the Cowboys unleashed a new rookie QB/RB duo and the offensive line was a major reason for their success.

The Raiders re-emerged into the playoffs behind a strong passing attack, led by Derek Carr and several brilliant free agency moves on the offensive line. The Steelers went to the AFC Championship game, thanks primarily to their offensive line and an assortment of brilliant skill position players.

The Titans two most recent first round draft selections settled in beautifully at left and right tackle, and Tennessee probably would’ve won the AFC South had Mariota not been crippled in Week 16. And yes, the Redskins did struggle, but that certainly wasn’t on the hands of the offensive line and the way Kirk Cousins was protected in 2016.

However on the flip side, there were many terrible, terrible offensive lines in 2016. Or at the very least, lines that kept their team or quarterback from ascending to the next level. Recent Super Bowl champions, Denver and Seattle had among the worst units in the league, conceding 40 and 42 sacks respectively, whilst they both averaged less than 4 yards per carry in the running game, problematic for offences playing with a run first emphasis.

The Seahawks have neglected their o-line via free agency and the draft for several seasons, and have even traded out their best man, center Max Unger to New Orleans in 2015. When Russell Wilson suffered a knee injury early last season, his inability to move out of the pocket and hit targets downfield suffered horribly, struggles which were magnified at times by truly incompetent play on the offensive line.

The Broncos were relying on strong offensive line play, to help acclimatise their new quarterback, Trevor Siemian, with an effective running game. The interior line, led by excellent center, Matt Paradis is ok, especially with ex-Cowboys’ guard Ron Leary joining the crew. But the real issue has been at tackle, Donald Stephenson, Ty Sambrailo and Russell Okung all failed dismally, and first round draft pick, Garrett Bolles will have to pick up the slack.

The Bengals 2016 struggles cannot be completely laid at the feet of their offensive line, but on of the strongest position groups throughout the league over the past five seasons, regressed enormously in 2016. Rookies, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher struggled mightily, and worse still their two best linemen, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler departed in free agency, leaving their depth chart, at least on paper in a precarious position.

The Vikings won their first 5 games in 2016, but from there injuries, and ghastly, ghastly play from the offensive line torpedoed their season. The running game, even with Adrian Peterson (for three weeks) was non existent, whilst Sam Bradford topped the league in completion percentage (an impressive feat), with an assortment of short throws thanks to a lack of pass protection all across the line.  Left tackle Matt Khalil really struggled before he went on IR, but the drop off when T.J Clemmings took over was drastic and the Vikings line never recovered. Looking ahead, ex-Panthers’ tackle Mike Remmers and Lions’ blind side man, Riley Reiff have arrived as some sorely needed reinforcements.

The Seahawks, Broncos, Bengals and Vikings are only a small sample of sub-par offensive line play around the league. Other franchises have had varying levels of offensive line issues, but it’s often overlooked with other glaring weaknesses on their rosters.

Down in San Diego, the Chargers suffered a cruel spate of injuries (again!) all over the park, but in particular to their offensive line (again!), and in a division with the Broncos and Chiefs defences that was never going to cut it.

In the midwest, the Colts know they must protect Andrew Luck more effectively, and their 2016 first round pick, Ryan Kelly has aided the cause. But the right side of the line needs help and or significant improvement before the Colts can regain the AFC South.

The Jets’ offensive line, for years a position of strength on their roster has been diluted over the past 12 months, with the losses of tackle, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold. With arguably the weakest roster in the entire NFL, and a million issues requiring attention you can’t expect a lot out of this position group and team this season.

The 49ers and Jaguars both need vastly improved play from their respective o-lines, although the form of Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and the 49ers defence will be far more critical to those teams success, or struggles in 2017. The Giants, Panthers, Buccaneers, Cardinals and Lions will all be seeking improvement from their 300 pounders in the upcoming season.

Which offensive line was the worst in 2016?

The Vikings and Seahawks are definitely up there, but it’s hard to go past the Rams, who were simply abysmal in all facets of their game. Statistically, they finished with 3.3 YPC (yards per carry), which was 31st in the league. This from a team that wanted to and needed to run the pigskin. They were also 31st in sacks conceded, with 49, they were last in touchdowns scored and points per game. 2014 second overall pick, Greg Robinson was a colossal bust and was traded to Detroit last week, capping a disastrous three year tenure for the ex-Auburn Tiger.

Todd Gurley one of the stars of his rookie season in 2015, became a non-factor, number one overall pick Jared Goff was awful, although to be fair he likely would’ve struggled without line issues.The only ‘positives’ are that PFF rated them as only 27th best line in the league, and that they have signed blue-chip left tackle Andrew Whitworth to help anchor the line.

As the copy above addresses, there’re far too many teams right now that are being let down by shoddy play up front. Most teams can tolerate a player who is average with run blocking, if he can hold his own against the pass rush. With the greater emphasis on the passing game in today’s NFL, pass rushers have become the defence’s answer. And it’s not just Von Miller flying off the edge, teams now demand an interior presence against the pass too. Defensive tackles are desired to have three-down qualities and an ability to send fast pressure up the middle, see Aaron Donald or Muhammad Wilkerson. Guards and centers need to be as proficient as their counterparts on the outside when it comes to passing downs, they’re just as rigorously tested.

The answers lies in part in the college game.

Speaking to ESPN in 2015, Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable said, “I’m not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems. The runners aren’t as good. They aren’t taught how to run. The blockers aren’t as good,” Cable said.

Redskins coach Jon Gruden added weight to Cable’s sentiments speaking on the difficulties rookie lineman face, “They don’t have a real good background in how to get the stance and get out of a stance and pass protect, let alone pick up stunts, blitzes, handle audibles.

“It’s a whole new world,” Gruden said.

Additionally, the 2011 CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) placed a limit on the weekly and pre-season padded practices, practices that are more critical to young players in such technical positions than anyone else. The agreement was a result of the NFL’s response to health and safety concerns, particularly concussion fears then sweeping the league.

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