The Death of the NFL Offensive Line
They lived a long and fruitful life, and they will be missed.
Offensive lines are dying around the NFL. No, not the players themselves; rather, the concept of what we know of offensive lines is dying. The days of the "hog-mollies" and "trench warriors" are long gone.
Don't believe me? Just take one look back at this past NFL draft. It was the "fatty" draft, remember?
It wasn't just because Kansas City Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher went first overall, or because the Jacksonville Jaguars took Luke Joeckel at No. 2 and the Philadelphia Eagles took Lane Johnson at No. 4. It was also because of guys like San Diego Chargers tackle D.J. Fluker, Chicago Bears offensive guard Kyle Long and New York Giants tackle Justin Pugh all going in the first round as well.
An event can't happen without a cause. Many NFL teams—both toward the top and the bottom of the draft—felt (and justifiably so) that their offensive lines lacked the talent to consistently win matchups against defenses.
They were right.
Sadly, however, the draft picks aren't exactly panning out. Fisher has been a disappointment for the Chiefs so far. Joeckel was struggling and is now lost for the season with a broken ankle. Also, the athletic Johnson has had his ups and downs for the Eagles, struggling the most (as many have) against the Chiefs.
Of the rookies, Fluker (he of chokeslam fame) and Long have had the most success early on. Other rookie linemen, though, have had almost as much trouble as the veterans they replaced.
This isn't a new phenomenon, either. Last season, Dan Arkush of the now-defunct Pro Football Weekly reported on a decline of offensive tackle talent around the league. Among many reasons, he quoted former Green Bay Packers lineman Greg Koch as to why line play might be dropping:
A lot of old-school O-line coaches are rotating out of the league, and I think the lack of hitting (in practices and training camp) really hurts. Where are the one-on-one drills? In our first 30 minutes of practice when I was playing, there were drills where you came off a dummy, stayed low, kept your feet wide and hit the other guy. I just watch these OTs today, and they just concentrate on locking up the guys they’re up against. There’s no real push off the ball.
PFW also cited exploding size of linemen as a reason why NFL line play might be diminishing.
Ever hear of arm-length measurements? It's something that every offensive lineman—especially tackles—goes through in the pre-draft prospects. Somewhere, NFL teams got it in their heads that longer arms meant better linemen.
Intuitively, it makes sense, as so much of the position involves keeping guys at arm's length. Thirty-five-inch arms are not really that much different than 34-inch arms, but the former guy would get the nod from most scouts.
Remember, though, that the current gold standard for NFL linemen—Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas—has 32-inch arms, and so does St. Louis Rams stud tackle Jake Long. Yet, even as blue-chip tackles have cut against the grain, size has become an increasingly important factor in scouting and drafting linemen.
Take a look at this list of top offensive line prospects over the past few years:
Pro Football Reference
Now, compare it to this list of Hall of Fame linemen:
Pro Football Reference
Outside of former Baltimore Ravens great Jonathan Ogden, one can see how lineman sizes have exploded in recent years. Cork Gaines of Business Insider created a nice chart of linemen sizes, pointing out that quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Carolina Panthers leading man Cam Newton would have been nice-sized linemen once upon a time.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller gave readers a look behind his scouting room curtain this past offseason when he wrote about how he scouts offensive line prospects. He noted athleticism and strength as criteria to look for, but aptly points out that those aren't the only attributes that count. In fact, he quotes NFL offensive lineman Eric Winston as saying that smooth footwork is also a big factor, which isn't exactly the same as being super fast.
For me, the paradigm shift happened while scouting New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder (pictured above). In scouting terms, he was (and still is) a "waist bender"—a big, tall body that lumbers around and can't move naturally like one would like, even if he's a great overall athlete.
I looked at Solder and had to throw away everything I thought I knew about offensive line play, because I knew teams like New England, the New Orleans Saints and other pass-heavy teams coveted players like him—especially if they were going to use him mostly out of a two-point stance anyway.
Of course, this is really just talking about the "blue-chip" prospects. Overall, some believe the quality of line play has dropped because there isn't enough athleticism on the offensive line. It would stand to reason, as well, that the true physical specimens fly up draft boards because the rest of the "crop" is less than ideal.
Former NFL lineman LeCharles Bentley wrote, on his personal blog, that this phenomenon starts at the youth level:
The fat kids are placed on the offensive line, while the leaner kids with big body’s (sic) are placed on defense. This inadvertently cultivates a disdain for offensive line by the youth playing it because it’s not fun getting ran around every snap by kids that are better athletes than you currently are.
From a youth coaching perspective, that makes sense as well. First, you take your athletic kids and find out who can throw. Then, you take the ones who can run and catch, and you make them play running back and wide receiver. Then, you start putting together your defense. In the end, the kids who are picked last for dodgeball are probably your offensive linemen.
Things have changed quite a bit since the days when mauling in the trenches didn't necessarily mean being one of the biggest and/or most athletic men on the planet.
Sometimes, it just meant being good.
The Pittsburgh Steelers come to mind when we talk about linemen who are physical specimens but can't block their way out of a paper bag. Left tackle Mike Adams (6'7", 323) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (6'6", 330) are exactly what teams look for in big, strong tackle prospects.
Now, take a look at this blurb from Adams' scouting report, per Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom:
Mike Adams is probably not ready for the NFL's speed rushers, or the pass-rushers that can keep him off-balance with a variety of moves and strategies. He'll need to be more consistent, intense and durable to break into the starting lineup.
This note from Bleacher Report's Dylan MacNamara in Gilbert's scouting report is just as troubling:
At just over 6'6", Gilbert has the size and athleticism to eventually replace Flozell Adams on the left side of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. However, the 2011 Senior Bowl invitee was routinely burned during practice in Mobile, and may need a few years to develop.
These are supposed building blocks to an offensive line that is now crumbling because the bookend tackles have never been able to handle speed rushers or even pedestrian linemen with good technique. The phrase, "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane," is harsh but apropos.
Offensive linemen are forced to play within a space the size of a phone booth. It makes sense that you want a guy who is bigger, faster and stronger than his peers to fill that space. But as defensive players get faster and faster every year, offensive linemen can have the speed of Usain Bolt and still need good hand placement and footwork to keep up.
Think back to Bentley's youth football comment and my analogy above; it wasn't always that way.
I'm a young man, but I grew up in a Veer football culture. My high school ran the same offense that it had won a state championship with the year I was born. Spread football was voodoo, and we prided ourselves on how many 100-yard rushers we could create in a game.
In football terms, that's about as much of a time capsule as one can have. Linemen were praised for being scrappy and smart. For much of football's past, that was the way it was. Even as the overall culture moved away from option football in the 1980s and 1990s, linemen still were taught the techniques that their predecessors had learned.
Bentley continues this thought in his previously mentioned blog post:
The progression of spread offenses that has trickled down to youth level football. Football is a game of copycats where the NFL and NCAA football are the trendsetters. The success of offenses like the Saints and Boise State has driven the market towards “copying” these styles of play. This trend has placed a strong emphasis on developing perimeter athletes while forsaking trench development. The basics of blocking are an afterthought at the developmental stages of football.
For years, the kick-slide was an important piece of the puzzle when it came to lineman technique, but now, it's the be-all/end-all. If a lineman can't reach the perimeter to block a speed rusher, the quarterback is done.
Now, at every level—from youth to the pros—line play is reduced to a pale comparison of the varied technique and skills they once learned. As Koch pointed out in the aforementioned Pro Football Weekly article, it's all about locking guys up now—using size and speed to maul rather than actually block a guy where you need him to go.
As I've written, repeatedly, everything is cyclical in the NFL. Right now, as offenses push the tempo and continue to pass the ball more, that will trickle down to the lower levels, and linemen are going to need to be more athletic to keep up with the pace. Maybe that means youth football coaches will eventually let some of those now-defensive studs play on the offensive line—maybe.
Alongside that, offenses like Chip Kelly's Eagles, and even the New England Patriots, have recently started to run the ball a little more. Spread offenses don't have to mean pass-heavy offenses. That's trickled up from college and may start to trickle back down as well.
The only true way to get the state of NFL offensive lines off of life support and back on their feet, though, is through coaching. The drills, techniques, teaching methods and support are out there, just gathering dust on the metaphorical shelf.
NFL teams that are sick of needing subpar linemen to lead the way by putting emphasis on sound line play. There's no "Punt, Pass and Kick" equivalent for young linemen. Youth camps are set up as seven-on-seven in most instances, which means it's probably just as valuable for the linemen to stay at home and play video games rather than sit around while the "real" football players practice.
At every level, teaching needs to improve. Otherwise, we'll continue to have some of the biggest, most athletic men on the planet standing and watching as their quarterbacks get decked in the face.
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