Offensive linemen are the most anonymous players in the NFL. But how important are they to winning?
NFL fans and media for the most part ignore offensive linemen. They are never featured in highlight videos, they don’t make flashy plays, they aren’t celebrities, and they are rarely a subject in Twitter debates, TV debates, and sports talk radio. Yet, the quality of the offensive line play is one of the most crucial pieces to building a championship contender in 2017.
As everyone knows, the NFL has turned into a quarterback’s league. If a team has an elite quarterback, they are in a great position to compete. If they don’t, there is very little chance of that team winning a Super Bowl. For a team to get that elite quarterback, they to need make the right selection in the draft and then have a good supporting cast and system in place to allow the player to develop. The quality of the offensive line is so important in this regard. With a good offensive line, the inexperienced QB will be able to go through his reads, have space to use proper mechanics when delivering the ball, and maintain comfort in the pocket. Without a good offensive line, a young quarterback’s career can be sabotaged before he even has a chance to get comfortable.
Blake Bortles and David Carr are two high draft picks (Bortles third overall and Carr first overall) who suffered this reality. Bortles, since coming into the league in 2014, has been sacked 140 times, which is 12 more than Russell Wilson, who is the next closest. For perspective, 12 is the number of sacks that separates Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, who was sacked the sixth most during that span.
In the last three seasons, the only good offensive lineman Jacksonville put on the field was their center Brandon Linder. Linder was the Jaguars’ third-round pick in 2014 and posted a Pro Football Focus grade of 87.2/100 last season. Jacksonville whiffed on Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick in 2013 and have found no other reliable starters through the draft or free agency.
Carr, as a rookie for the first-year expansion team Texans, took an absolute beating thanks to his offensive line. He was sacked an NFL-record 76 times and in the four seasons he started from 2002-2006, he was sacked 249 times. That is the most in that time period by a huge amount, with 45 sacks separating Carr from the next player on the list, Drew Bledsoe. This was bound to happen with the talent deficiency that comes with an expansion team
While Bortles and Carr will be looked at as busts, it is entirely fair to wonder how different their careers would have turned out if they started out on teams with good offensive lines. It is also reasonable to wonder how much better shape the Texans and Jaguars would have been in if they just had the offensive lines to let their franchise quarterbacks develop.
The importance of offensive line play was very evident this past season, as it made a huge difference for several contending teams.
Take, for example, the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. One of the biggest problems the Falcons have had in the Matt Ryan era is the lack of a competent running game. From 2009-2015 the Falcons ranked 18th (4.2), 26th (3.8), 21st (4.0), 29th (3.7), 24th (3.9), 21st (4.0), and 25th (3.8) in yards per carry. This past season the Falcons were fifth in yards per carry at 4.6, with the same running backs as the prior season in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The improvement of the running game was a result of play of the Falcons’ offensive line.
The man mainly responsible for the rise of the Falcons line is center Alex Mack. Mack just completed year one of a five-year, $45 million contract and he looks to be worth every penny. Mack was ranked fourth amongst centers last season, with a PFF grade of 88.7/100, and he was the best run blocking center in football, according to PFF, with a run blocking grade of 90.2/100. Mack showed off his great ability to quickly get to the second level of the defense and make the correct block:
Alex Mack, the C for the Falcons, has been crushing it this season. He has excellent balance, power through his hips and finish. Enjoy this pic.twitter.com/iihwC9QTz9— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 20, 2016
In addition to Mack’s physical skills as a blocker, he has an exceptional ability to diagnose the alignment the defense is in and communicate it to his teammates. Falcons LT Jake Matthews had this to say about his teammate: “One of the first things I noticed is ‘Man, he’s on top of everything.’ He wants to know the answer to every look, every scenario. I think that’s really paid off for us.”
Mack’s presence not only changed the offense line, but it also changed the outlook of the whole team. Without that stabilized offense line, Matt Ryan and his supporting cast wouldn’t have been able to put up the numbers they did and the Falcons wouldn’t have been so close to winning the Super Bowl.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, the team that won it last year wouldn’t have won without two significant offensive line developments. One development was expected, which was the return of a healthy Nate Solder. The other development was one of the most shocking turnarounds we saw in the 2016 season: the production of Marcus Cannon.
Cannon was the biggest punching bag for Patriots fans during the 2015 season. He was abysmal throughout the whole season, which ended in the AFC title game in Denver. In that game DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller torched Cannon, culminating in Tom Brady getting sacked four times and hit 17 times. Patriots fans and local media were calling for Cannon to be released after that game.
In 2016 the impossible happened. Cannon became a second team All-Pro at right tackle and posted a PFF grade of 88.8/100, which ranked fourth among all tackles and was a giant improvement over his 47.4/100 grade from the previous season.
Cannon’s jump, along with the return of Solder, made the Patriots offensive line a lot better in 2016. In 2015 the offensive line allowed 38 sacks and that number decreased to 24 in 2016. Without the dramatically improved tackle play, the Patriots could not have won their fifth Super Bowl title.
We saw the offensive line play a major a role in the success of two other contenders this past season: the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders. Sure, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Derek Carr, Amari Copper, and Michael Crabtree are the ones putting up the stats. However, their production has been inflated because of the job the big guys did upfront for both teams.
Jerry Jones putting his mind to building a great offensive line is what changed the Cowboys’ fortunes. In the 2011, 2013, and 2014 drafts Dallas drafted an offensive lineman in the first round. Those picks turned into Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin and all three of them have turned into All-Pro caliber players. The offensive line unlocked the Cowboys’ ability to do almost anything they wanted on offense. In 2014 they gave Tony Romo the time he needed find his open receivers and it made DeMarco Murray’s job much easier. The same thing happened this past season for Prescott and Elliott. The ability to have such a balanced attack made the Cowboys’ offense one of the best in football in 2014 and 2016.
|Year/stat ranking||Yards per game||Points per game||Yards per carry||Passer rating||Rushing|
|2014||7th (383.6)||5th (29.2)||3rd (4.6)||1st (110.9)||3rd||4th|
|2016||5th (376.7)||5th (26.3)||3rd (4.8)||3rd (103.0)||2nd||3rd|
Even in 2015 when Romo was hurt almost the whole season and DeMarco Murray was gone, the Cowboys still rushed for 4.6 yards per carry, which ranked fifth in the league. While everyone likes to talk about the star skill players in Dallas, their offensive line is the straw that stirs the drink.
Like the Cowboys, the Raiders started to have success when their offensive line became one of the best in football. Unlike the Cowboys, the Raiders used free agency as a means to build a great offensive line. They signed Donald Penn in 2014, Rodney Hudson in 2015, and Kelechi Osemele in 2016, all of whom made the Pro Bowl last season. Like the Cowboys, the quality of the offense line has allowed the Raiders to be balanced and Carr to develop into one of the best quarterbacks in football.
|Year/Stat Ranking||Yards per game ||Points per game||Yards per carry||Passer rating||Rushing|
|2016||6th (373.3)||7th (26.0)||10th (4.4)||9th (95.3)||4th||15th|
With Derek Carr hopefully healthy for a full season and Marshawn Lynch replacing Latavius Murray, the Raiders should have aspirations for being a top-three offense in the league next season. Even with Carr, Lynch, Cooper, and Crabtree, these aspirations wouldn’t be possible without the offensive line Reggie McKenzie built.
Credit: Associated Press
In 2016 we also saw poor offensive lines hold back the potential of a few several teams. The Seattle Seahawks are the most known for this problem. In building the Seahawks, John Schneider has used most of his cap space to retain the star players he had on both defense and offense. That has resulted in the Seahawks only spending $15.9 million in cap dollars on the offensive line, which is by far the least in football. The lack of resources spent on the offensive line showed on the field last season.
Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell, and George Fant were the offensive tackles on this team. According to Pro Football Focus, they ranked 75th, 78th, and 79th respectively among 82 ranked tackles in the league. It was just as bad with the two starting guards; Mark Glowinski ranked 70th and Germain Ifedi ranked dead last out of the 76 guards.
This ineptitude up front got Russell Wilson hurt in Week 1, caused the Seahawks’ yards per carry (3.9) ranking to sink to 24th in the league, and resulted in Wilson being sacked the second most in the NFL (41). The Seahawks’ season ended in a divisional round loss at Atlanta where the Falcons sacked Wilson three times and hit him nine times. Seattle is a great example of a what a team looks like when their whole team is Super Bowl-caliber besides the offensive line.
Another notable team whose season was the victim of a bad offensive line was the Vikings. They looked like Super Bowl contenders early in the season after a 5-0 start. They had an elite defense paired with an offense that was good enough to complement it. Unfortunately, they lost LT Matt Kalil in Week 3 and RT Andre Smith in Week 4. The Vikings then ended the season 3-8 after those injuries and constant injuries among the other members of the offensive line. No Vikings offensive lineman played in 16 games.
What made the Kalil and Smith injuries worse is the guys who had to replace them. TJ Clemmings was the replacement at left tackle and Jeremiah Sirles was the replacement at right tackle. Clemmings was ranked by PFF as the second worst tackle in football, with a grade of 31/100. Sires was ranked 48th out of 77 tackles with a grade of 68.1/100. This porous play at tackle not only tanked the Vikings season, but it also caused them to hand out big contracts in free agency this off-season. They signed Riley Reiff to a five-year, $58 million deal and Mike Remmers to five-year, $30 million deal. These are very large deals for average offensive lineman compared to what we’ve seen in the past. This shows how much the league values offensive linemen now in today’s game.
The value of offensive linemen today is greater even than it was four years ago. In 2013, offensive lineman was the sixth most valuable position, with an average annual salary of $1.7 million. This season, the average annual salary is 1.9 million and is the fourth most valuable position.
Although the number difference is small, it is clear that there has been a change in the mindsets of GM’s across the league of how valuable an offensive lineman is. Combine the way GM’s value this position with the evidence that shows the value of the position, it proves that offensive lineman are quietly of one of the most important pieces of an NFL team.
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