This will be a multi-part series covering several areas of offensive line play in 2017; predictions on the five best OL units, top 3 OL at each position based on tape study, surprise OL unit, top backup OL, and a Q&A session with Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz – covering different aspects of his career and OL play in general.
The last few seasons have seen college football OL play gradually decline due to the invasion of the spread system, directly affecting the NFL OL talent pool. The difference in blocking schemes from most spread systems to an NFL offense is stark, with years typically needed for a player to learn the nuances of the concepts within NFL schemes. As Mitchell Schwartz told me when I broached the subject with him, “It’s not even techniques that are out of whack, it’s a lack of ever having run the scheme at all. So yes, you do have to learn how to deuce block (as an example), but then you also have to learn how the 3 technique is going to react to power. And what the LBs will do. Where they fit, what if they run over the top, all of those things. A kid from Stanford can go to a team that runs a lot of power and knows how and what to do. Maybe the OL coach teaches a slightly different technique you need to get used to, but you have a comfortability with the scheme, and now it’s just making small adjustments to what you’re used to.”
Power consists of the frontside LT/LG blocking down to the backside LB, otherwise known as a deuce block. The center blocks back, and the backside RG pulls, with the RT hinging and walling off any backside pursuit. Within this structure many things can happen in terms of defensive responses from various positions; emphasizing quick decision-making by the OL, which is built with experience and fluid communication. The spread rarely features traditional power, which is a run-blocking staple that most rookies have never run in meaningful action. The increase in tempo that the spread often requires limits the ability of OL to finish their blocks, instead putting priority on lining up for the next play. All of this had led to a reduction in technical proficiency among young OL, resulting in a decreasing number of OL drafted.
There were only 33 OL drafted in the 2017 NFL draft, 41 in 2016, and 46 in 2015. The 2016 OL draft class produced 205 total games started by rookies compared to 258 by the 2015 class. Despite the quantity of OL entering the NFL steadily diminishing, there remains high-level starters coming in each year, primarily in the first half of the draft. Second-year OL such as Lions LT Taylor Decker, Dolphins LT Laremy Tunsil, Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley, Titans RT Jack Conklin, Bears C Cody Whitehair, and Patriots LG Joe Thuney were key components of their team’s success as rookies in 2016.
Entering 2017 there are many storylines for OL play around the NFL, but despite some concerning trends there is much more good happening, led by the NFL’s elite OL units. The OL is a team within the team, heavily reliant on one another for their own success, and together the lifeblood of an offense. The more experience the unit has together the better their performance, with non-negotiable traits such as mental processing and competitive toughness being at the forefront of the position. These are the units who have shown how good they can be in 2016, and have the best chances of improving upon their success in 2017.
– Individual skill-set + physical tools
– Experience playing together
LT Donald Penn
LG Kelechi Osemele
C Rodney Hudson
RG Gabe Jackson
RT Marshall Newhouse
Key backup: RT Vadal Alexander
Average age: 28.8 (oldest among the top 5 units)
The best OL in 2017 will be the Oakland Raiders, not just because they return four very-good-to-elite starters, but because of the experience of those four players carrying over into the upcoming season, each with a unique level of physicality and aggressiveness that sets them apart.
There is a strong case to be made that the most impactful free agent signing of the 2016 offseason was LG Kelechi Osemele (KO) from the Baltimore Ravens. Osemele’s presence elevated the Raiders OL and entire offensive identity to an even more physically punishing unit.
KO paired with LT Donald Penn on deuce blocks and C Rodney Hudson on ACE blocks, generated an overwhelmingly effective, powerful, and nasty front, setting the tone for the offense both in the run and pass game.
Oakland went from the 28th ranked rushing offense in 2015 (91.1 YPG) to 6th in 2016 (120.1 YPG), and nearly doubled their 20+ yard runs from 10 in 2015 to 19 in 2016, good for the second most in the NFL. All of this was accomplished as a team despite not having a single rusher exceed 800 yards on the ground (RB Latavius Murray led the team with 788 yards).
Furthermore, the OL finished second in the NFL in 10+ yard runs up the middle (16), and the OL as a whole led the NFL with the fewest sacks given up (18), fewest hits on the QB (41), and tied for the NFL lead in turnover differential at +16.
KO’s size (6’5”/330 pounds) and length (35 ⅞” wingspan), along with his hand placement and his grip strength, contribute to his elite ability to latch onto defenders at the point of attack (POA) allowing him to sustain blocks for an unusual length of time. This keeps the receiving end at the mercy of KO’s size, strength, power, and tenacious desire to bury his opponent as often as he can.
DL will have KO’s mitts (10 ¼”) latched onto their frame, but still able to key the ball and attempt to pursue the ball carrier. Once KO detects this, he charges his feet, leverages his hands, aligns his hips and elbows, and uses the DL’s momentum against themselves to gain leverage. Coupled with KO’s ability to draw immense power through his hips and hands, the finish usually results in the opposition having 330 pounds of brute force burying them in the ground:
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) December 7, 2016
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) August 23, 2016
KO’s presence is renowned across the league, instilling fear in LBs at the second level who have the option of taking him on or giving up a few extra yards:
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) September 20, 2016
The Raiders OL plays offended and angry when defenders have the audacity to attempt to make a play when they’re blocking them. They even get violent about it, with very few humans able to stand up to their domineering presence:
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) August 20, 2017
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) December 21, 2016
LT Donald Penn plays with very good balance and a strong base, displaying excellent weight distribution in pass protection that helps him remain under control against all levels of competition. Rarely will Penn allow his pass-set to get stressed or give a two-way go, keeping his hips and shoulders square in his pass set, and he demonstrates heavy, precise strikes that stun most pass-rushers. Penn sustains blocks and delivers violent blows repeatedly throughout games, causing rushers to hesitate for fear of being taken out when they’re least expecting it, minimizing the pass rush as games wear on:
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) December 21, 2016
Gabe Jackson’s size, strength, power, and toughness make him a devastating run-blocker, efficiently stepping with the same foot/same shoulder on combos/double teams and showing elite power to hit, lift, and drive opponents of all sizes off the ball. Jackson also demonstrate very good body control in space to kick-out or eliminate threats, and, like his linemates, looks to physically punish defenders:
No. 1 thing I look for on tape in OL: competitive toughness. I want to see consistent aggression. Gabe epitomizes it pic.twitter.com/COsMkDyXDP
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) January 2, 2016
C Rodney Hudson is one of the more underrated centers in the NFL, and doesn’t get talked about enough, but was a key contributor to the offense’s 16 10+ yard runs up the middle last season and makes everyone around him better with his technical proficiency using his hands to gain leverage in the run game and in pass protection, play strength, overtaking and releasing off of double teams, and combo blocks with uncanny timing, along with tenacity to finish blocks.
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) November 8, 2016
Oakland’s OL has implemented a demeanor on the field that is predicated on physical aggression, at a level currently unmatched in the league. Kelechi Osemele is the most physical OL in the NFL, on a line full of top-tier, competitively-tough OL (LT Donald Penn, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson). The team added a new RT this season in Marshall Newhouse, a solid pro who will provide stability on the right side.
The depth is also strong with second year OL Vadal Alexander, Denver Kirkland, and rookie David Sharpe providing enormous bodies to provide reinforcements via six-man blocking schemes that Oakland uses to grind down defenses in short-yardage and goal-line situations:
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 25, 2016
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) November 30, 2016
The OL’s high-level of communication in pass protection paired with their physicality causes pass-rushers to hesitate and think twice late in games about countering inside. This is due to KO, Jackson, Hudson, and Penn constantly looking for work and salivating for the chance to land a kill shot on an opponent, which affords QB Derek Carr extra time to find late-developing routes down the field.
With WR Amari Cooper entering his third season and on the cusp of superstardom, plus the ultra-physical Marshawn Lynch added to the backfield, expect the offense to reach new heights in 2017. QB Derek Carr’s confidence should continue to soar knowing he can play fearless with an OL that protects him at all costs. This Raiders OL is capable of controlling games using their relentless physicality, toughness, size, strength, and power to overwhelm when necessary, but also play with excellent technique, nuance, and consistency. Defenders who square off against the Raiders will need to be prepared for the fight of their lives on any given snap.
LT Tyron Smith
LG Jonathan Cooper
C Travis Frederick
RG Zack Martin
RT La’El Collins
Key backup: OL Chaz Green
Average age/rank: 25.8 (youngest among the top 5 units)
The Cowboys have the three best OL in the league at their positions entering the 2017 season (LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and RG Zack Martin) and as a whole were easily the best OL of the 2016 season. Each of these players are just 26-years-old, entering the prime of their careers. Having a single dominant player on the OL is rare in the NFL, let alone three, but Dallas has done an absolutely brilliant job acquiring each player through the draft, all first-round home runs.
What made the Cowboys OL so great and difficult to prepare for in 2016 derives from their mastery of technique, leverage, and angles combined with a wide variety of blocking concepts to draw from. This made them an unpredictable and difficult unit to prepare for mentally as well as physically:
Gap scheme – Lead Open
C gives a violent bang down inside before releasing & fitting on the MLB RG leverages w/hands to sustain and finish ? pic.twitter.com/MobxEJDxiC
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) January 17, 2017
Pin-pull: LT/C pinning, LG/RG pulling. RB finds a cutback lane but well-executed by the OL. Leary ? pic.twitter.com/UOonXsN3C3
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) May 27, 2017
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) May 28, 2017
Martin/Frederick working the combo block beautifully. C gives a strong assist for the RG’s overtake, then gets just enough of 26 ? pic.twitter.com/LH8eoZhtRV
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) May 31, 2017
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) March 21, 2016
Dallas used their diverse blocking schemes to finish second in the NFL in yards rushing (2,396), rushing TDs (24), and rushing first downs (142) – 26 more than the next closest team (49ers at 116).
The OL as a unit enters the 2017 season after taking a hit in the offseason, losing two starters; LG Ronald Leary to the Denver Broncos via free agency, with RT Doug Free retiring. Despite being extremely underrated over his career, Free is being replaced by a player in La’El Collins who has the skill set to upgrade the position once he settles in and becomes comfortable on the right side. This will likely take a portion of the regular season with live bullets flying to completely settle in, especially considering Collins has zero starts on the right side of the OL in his career; 38 starts in college all either at LG or LT, and 14 starts in the NFL, all at LG.
The LG position is the biggest wildcard on the OL. The competition is between second-year OL Chaz Green, or fourth year OG and former top 10 draft pick Jonathan Cooper. My money would be on Cooper getting the first legitimate crack at the job, considering his pedigree and, although limited, a more experienced and developed skill set than Green possesses.
Playing in-between Smith and Frederick will require the LG to play sound, smart football above all else. There is no need for a wardaddy here, rather a guy who will play disciplined, smart, and tough. Cooper has done that in his career:
Square power, steering, looking for work, releasing/overtaking off double teams, pulling & walling. Jonathan Cooper. pic.twitter.com/NMK6NKHDWK
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) March 15, 2016
Square power, EXPLOSIVE out of stance on pulls, strong post foot/inside hand/independent hand usage from Cooper pic.twitter.com/VVYmHk7CO4
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) March 15, 2016
Cooper has had his overall production and development ravaged by injuries, namely a broken leg in his first preseason, taking his entire rookie year and delaying his first start until Week 14 of his second season. Cooper’s third season (2015) resulted in starting the first nine games of the season before again getting injured and being inactive for two games before returning as a backup to finish the year. Last season saw Cooper being waived twice before finally landing in Dallas, the perfect scenario playing between the best LT and C in the NFL. My money would be on Cooper sticking at LG and, barring injury, surprising a lot of people with his play.
The relative uncertainty at multiple positions is what dropped Dallas to the second spot in my rankings, with experience and familiarity needing to be built back up again with a new lineup in place. Until Collins settles in at RT and/or Cooper at LG, I expect the big three of Smith, Frederick, and Martin to fill much of the void left by Leary and Free’s departure, ensuring their place as an elite unit in the NFL.