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The Evolution of the Offensive Line – Part 1

Defining Team Priorities

Given the high profile success of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, and the struggles of the line in Seattle, offensive lines are a real hot topic at the moment.

Do not fear, I am not about to tell you about the intricacies of offensive line play. If you want to know you’re A-Gap from your 3-tech, or why your favourite team runs a zone blocking system, check out the Block Em Up podcast with Geoff Schwarz and Duke Manyweather.

I am curious about how the way teams view their offensive line has evolved in the current NFL era. Have the days of a nasty mauling line diminished? What importance or value are coaches placing on the protection of their franchise player? And how is it all effecting the play of the leading teams in the NFL.

We know already that a team is bound by the salary cap. They cannot simply snap up the best player in each position because talent needs to be paid, and the total salary needs to fall within a certain amount set by the League. Therefore a team must find ways to save themselves some money, and some teams will do this by utilising rookies and underrated free agents on their offensive line, while trying to coach them up into good starters. Other teams will think that the offence starts with the linemen in the trenches, doing the dirty work and giving more time and opportunity to the skill players. Done well, either theory can work.

The leading offensive lines in the NFL today can be seen at the Conference leading Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders. They have been built slightly differently, the Cowboys with 3 starters plucked straight from the first round of the NFL draft over the last few years in Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith and Zach Martin, while the Raiders have 3 starters who were signed in free agency – Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson, with the remaining 2 – Menelick Watson (currently Austin Howard due to injury) and Gabe Jackson taken in the middle rounds of the draft.

It is also true that the teams have invested heavily in the position, placing great importance on protecting the quarterback and opening up holes for the run. The illustration below shows how much in total each team has invested in their offensive line position in the 2016 season. As you can see the Raiders are the highest paying, with the Cowboys sitting in the middle of the table. This is because the Raiders chose to pay players in free agency which can be more expensive to sign the best players, the Cowboys having built through the draft have yet to pay some of their linemen their second contract, but this will come soon and you should expect some changes to be made.

Offensive Line Expenditure

You will also notice on the graph the team at the bottom of the payment scale, the Seattle Seahawks, proof perhaps that you do not have to spend your budget on the offensive line to get success in this sport.

The Seahawks have perennially spent as little as possible on their offensive line, preferring instead to use the experience of Coach Tom Cable in coaching up physical players to fill roles. In the last few years we have seen a defensive tackle turned into a starting Guard in JR Sweezy, a rookie college basketballer protecting Russell Wilson’s blindside, and a 2nd round draft pick play tackle, guard and now centre in his first 3 seasons.

When it comes time to pay the players at the end of their rookie contracts the players tend to be released. The players success meaning that they were simply too expensive to continue in Seattle within the teams positional pay structure. The Seahawks won the Superbowl in 2013, since then their starting offensive line have all been move on – Russell Okung is now a Denver Bronco, Breno Giacomini and James Carpenter start for the New York Jets, and  JR Sweezy moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Superbowl winning Centre Max Unger was traded to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a tight end, and is the last starting offensive lineman to gain a second contract in the Pete Carroll era. During Pete Carroll’s time with the team 12 offensive linemen have been drafted and 8 of those have also been shown the door, this includes relatively unknown names such as Garrett Scott, Ryan Seymour, Michael Bowie and John Moffitt.  It is safe to surmise that the Seattle Seahawks place greater importance on their defensive and offensive skill players.

The trend of developing big athletic humans into offensive linemen does not start and end with Tom Cable and the Seattle Seahawks. Some of the best linemen in the league had minimal or even no experience of the position before the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers Alejandro Villanueva played 3 positions in college for the Army Black Knights, defensive lineman, wide receiver and some left tackle all after being recruited as a tight end. He was undrafted in 2010 and decided to go back to the military for 2 years. After an unsuccessful stint as a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles the Steelers signed him and thanks to his enormous size was converted back to offensive tackle. Villanueva is now the starting left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tampa Bay left tackle Demar Dotson had only played defensive line in College and was an undrafted free agent from the 2009 draft. Having developed for a couple of years he has beaten out busts such as Anthony Collins and Gabe Carimi, now deservedly making the job his own.

The tackle position is awash with stories such as Dotson and Villanueva, with a lot of players from the back end of the draft or even undrafted now starting in the NFL.

Starting Offensive Tackles drafted round 4 or above plus undrafted;

  • Gary Gilliam and George Fant (Seahawks)
  • Mike Remmers (Panthers)
  • Doug Free (Cowboys)
  • David Bakhtiari (Packers)
  • Jordan Mills (Bills)
  • Ricky Wagner (Ravens)
  • Marcus Cannon (Patriots)
  • Jermey Parnell (Jaguars)

The list goes on, but I hope this provides you with a good example of the trend in development of today’s NFL offensive tackle.

The position of guard has become an interesting place in 2016. Traditionally tackles have been slightly more about pass protection and guard about creating big holes for your running back. We have seen however a huge amount of College Tackles now playing the guard position:

Starting NFL Guards who played Tackle in College;

  • Germain Ifedi (Seahawks)
  • DJ Fluker (Chargers)
  • Luke Joeckel (Jaguars)
  • Laremy Tunsil and Jermon Bushrod (Dolphins)
  • Brandon Scherff (Redskins)
  • Andrus Peat (Saints)
  • Kelechi Osemele (Raiders)
  • La’el Collins (Cowboys)

This is perhaps due to the leagues transition to a pass heavy offence, it may also be because guard is a much more skilled position that we might give it credit for, the most successful ‘pure’ guards – those who also played the position in college have been drafted in the first round or second round, David De Castro, Larry Warford, Chance Warmack, and Kyle Long, and to a lesser extend recently Mike Iupati. It can be harder to coach up a player to become a guard than it is a tackle because of the need to pass and run block on the busy interior of the line, as opposed to Tackle’s who invariably need to pass block with run blocking a secondary (but still vital) skill.

There are exceptions to the rule of course, the New England Patriots have made a living coaching up guards such as Shaq Mason, Josh Kline (now Titans) and Joe Thuney, also the Carolina Panthers have found a couple of real studs in Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. Generally speaking though, the trend is towards finding starter worthy guards at the front of the draft and Tackles towards the rear.

By playing a tackle at guard, teams are looking for a ‘quick fix’ at because elite guards in the NFL draft are both few and far between, and require a higher draft pick. If they can take a much more common tackle and turn him into a player on the inside, they are taking the path of least resistance – their quarterback investment should be well protected, sometime at the expense of some effectiveness in the run game.

Consider the best runners in the league, Adrian Peterson, Ezequiel Elliott, Leveon Bell and David Johnson, all run behind ‘pure’ guards such as Alex Boone, Ronald Leary & Zach Martin, David De Castro and Mike Iupati & Evan Mathis. In order to place more emphasis on the running game teams will ensure the offensive line has the right tools to help them succeed, experienced guards will play on the interior rather than plugging in tackles.

Check out the site next week when we will look at how teams are finding and developing talent as well as how the teams decisions have been affecting play.

Article written by:

Duncan covers the NFC West, as unbiased as possible for a Seahawks fan, promising “I just like good football”. He has been writing online for around four years for various publications enjoying Football, Cricket, Rugby League and anything else he can find on TV that weekend. Priding himself in being a realist when it comes to opinions on sport, you won’t catch him jumping on any pre-season bandwagons. Also a big fan of Fantasy sports, ask nicely and he will show you his 3 seasons in a row collection of winners medals. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @DuncanJTerry.

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