Regarding the study of offensive line play, Offensive Line Performance (OLP) founder and owner LeCharles Bentley delivered a message at the inaugural OLP OL Seminar in the summer of 2016 that resonated with me.
“Appreciate the craftsmanship.”
My primary focus when I study film every week is on the offensive line, a position that is overlooked by the mainstream football media but is vital to understanding how the game works. Linemen are heavily leaned upon by their teammates as tone-setters who protect their own. They’re a team within the team, and that is what truly makes them so special. They speak their own language, are under-appreciated, and often the toughest and smartest people to play the game.
These are just a handful of reasons as to why offensive line play resonates with me so deeply. I played it in high school (right guard and not very well), but have always appreciated guys like Willie Roaf, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Larry Allen, LeCharles Bentley, Jon Runyan, and other renowned players from my adolescent years.
Identifying the traits that make great players great has become a popular endeavor for many, but offensive line is especially complex. Without proper context your ability to accurately assess what’s going on in a given play for an offensive lineman is significantly minimized. Not only from a schematic point of view, but from a traits perspective as well, and this is where my focus lies when I evaluate film. The opinions in this piece are grounded in trait-based analysis of players that I study on tape.
The 2017 season has seen several elite players who often frequent lists such as this go down with season-ending injuries, namely Ravens RG Marshal Yanda, Browns LT Joe Thomas, and Eagles LT Jason Peters. Others have dealt with injuries that have forced them to miss multiple games such as Packers LT David Bakhtiari (4 games missed) and RT Bryan Bulaga (3 games), Bills LT Cordy Glenn (3 games), Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert (5 games), and several others. To make matters worse, superstar left tackles Tyron Smith (back) and Trent Williams (knee), and RG Brandon Scherff (back, knee) are dealing with nagging injuries that have either hindered their usual stellar play, or forced them to miss games.
The offensive line pride themselves in being available for their respective teams, and this list will incorporate not just on-field dominance, but each player selected must have started each game so far this season.
Midseason NFL Offensive Line All-Pros
LT Tyron Smith – Cowboys
7 starts in 2017, 97% of snaps played
7th season, 99 career starts
In my process of determining the starting left tackle for the midseason All-Pro team it came down to Redskins LT Trent Williams, Eagles LT Jason Peters, Rams LT Andrew Whitworth, and Smith. Once Williams and Peters missed a game I focused in on Whitworth and Smith, watching 3 games of each. Smith easily was the better player based on that initial benchmark of games, so I went ahead and watched every snap of his from the season, coming away much more impressed than originally thought.
Smith has been dealing with a nagging back injury throughout the year, periodically evident on film, but far less severe than I had heard about and seen in limited exposures. Once I finished all 468 snaps it became clear that Smith is still among the elite at his position.
Demonstrating elite athletic ability, premier length, uncanny punch timing in pass-protection, and flawless footwork in the running game, Smith is still a commanding force capable of enforcing his will on defenders and reducing all levels of competition to a lower level.
Since being named first-team All-Pro in 2016, Smith’s level of play has taken a bit of a hit in 2017, showing occasional sluggishness redirecting in pass-protection to cut-off inside counters from elite-rushers, but considering the unmatched year he had last season, this slight drop in play does not hinder him from winning the vast majority of snaps with relative ease. Nobody in the NFL pairs the level of refinement in their technique with the awe-inspiring physical tools that Smith possesses. Back injury or not, turn on the film and Smith will still wow you with his mastery of the position.
8 starts in 2017, 100% of snaps played
4th season, 46 career starts
If there was one word to describe the way Norwell plays the game it would be relentless. Norwell displays elite competitive toughness with a motor that runs hot all game long, often through the echo of the whistle. He plays with reckless abandon yet knows when to stay under control. He gets under the skin of defenders yet knows when to pull up and restrain himself to avoid penalties.
Norwell shows elite pulling ability to lead in the run game, and is asked to pull 5+ times a game on average. Demonstrates excellent square power at the point of attack (POA) with very good pad level, uncoils his hips on contact and racks up pancakes. Plays in a predominantly a man-blocking system with scattered zone-principles. Very good at the point of attack in man concepts; plays with good mobility to get underneath DL at the POA, followed by elite ability to hit, lift, and drive with power through in his hips and hands to generate serious movement against all competition.
Displays very good ability in pass-protection; good explosiveness in his set to get out of his stance and create space at the snap to win the half-man relationship. Good hand placement with an elite anchor. Fights to re-leverage hands underneath the defender while generating outstanding power through his in-steps to ‘cut grass’ and give up minimal ground. Maintains levels in slide protections, consistently looks for work and finishes with authority at every opportunity.
Norwell is entering unrestricted free agency in 2018 and will be the best free agent guard on the market at just 26-years old. With the caliber of tape he has put together so far this season I would expect nothing less than multiple offers to make him one of the highest paid guards in the NFL. His name may be under the radar, but after studying all 543 of his snaps this year, I’m convinced he is one of the most underrated offensive linemen in football.
8 starts in 2017, 98% of snaps played
7th season, 86 career starts
Kelce possesses several ‘elite’ traits that are readily apparent on film; athleticism, play speed, mental processing, and hand usage (placement, timing, independent). Each of these lend themselves to Kelce being the premier ‘space blocker’ that the center position has to offer, often executing extremely difficult blocks pulling and leading to the 2nd level. Kelce uses precise angles paired with incredible acceleration and speed to fit on linebackers and even safeties at the point of attack with unparalleled consistency.
Additionally, this season his processing in pass-protection has resulted in consistent clearing of the interior of the pocket to provide Wentz with huge throwing windows, and several late blitz pickups with outstanding play recognition to see past his man and identify late-loopers.
Kelce’s anchor is the most improved aspect of his game this season. Despite being one of the few sub-300 pound lineman in football, he makes up for it with excellent pad level to gain ‘up and down’ leverage, paired with elite placement and resetting of his hands to gain and maintain ‘left/right’ leverage. Through the crafty re-leveraging of his hands and generating force through his in-steps to ‘cut grass,’ Kelce shows good ability to strain and sustain against power rushers.
Kelce is also a good run-blocker at the point of attack despite being undersized. Using elite explosiveness out of his stance and aligning his hips and elbows, he delivers good pop at the point of attack to quickly gain, control, and steer. On outside zone runs, Kelce uses his athleticism and explosiveness to reach DL as far away as a 3 technique, often using a ‘jump hook’ technique to get his hips around and seal.
There is a strong case to be made for Raiders C Rodney Hudson and Falcons C Alex Mack here, but no other center has carried out as many difficult blocks as consistently as Kelce has through the first 8 weeks of the season.
7 starts in 2017, 91% of snaps played
6th season, 54 career starts
Leary was signed this off-season by the Broncos in an attempt to overhaul an offensive line that has been underwhelming at best over the course of the last few years. Coming over from Dallas, Leary entered his 6th season making the position switch from left-to-right guard.
Switching sides is more difficult than switching positions (guard-to-tackle or vice versa) largely because of the rewiring that occurs in transitioning the predominant side of the body from one side to the other. So instead of Leary driving off of the right side of his body every snap while at LG, he now drives off of the left side of his body at RG, changing every ensuing technique after the snap. Leary needed to learn how to retool his pass set, and figure out how to make his left side his strong side as opposed to his right (Ravens OL Marshal Yanda explained how the inside shoulder is often the “strong side” for OL when he switched from RG-to-LG last season due to a left shoulder injury). The most apt comparison is switching from writing with the left and right hand; something that would take time and reps to mitigate.
Leary picked up where he left off after a stellar 2016 season, demonstrating the same elite level competitive toughness throughout games that often irritates and gets underneath the skin of opponents. Leary is always looking to finish blocks, playing with incredible effort, physicality, and aggressiveness from snap-to-whistle for four quarters.
Furthermore, his ability to align his hips and elbows at the point of attack facilitates elite play strength and power to stun and control defenders, showing the rotational strength to turn, seal, and elevate smaller players off their feet for pancakes. Shows elite explosiveness out of his stance, particularly as a puller to open the play-side hip, get on his track, identify his target, fit, and finish with authority.
His hand placement is also very good; showing the placement, timing, and re-leveraging ability to anchor down against power in pass-protection. Whether inside or outside zone, traditional man-blocking concepts, or pass-protection, Leary has rare physical tools and OL critical factors that are unmistakable on film, and considering the context of being just 7 games into a position switch, he is more than deserving of being recognized as a 1st team All-Pro.
8 starts in 2017, 100% of snaps played
6th season, 88 career starts
Schwartz came into the season as my top overall right tackle in the NFL, and has not disappointed through the midway point of the year. He has yet to miss a snap in his career (5,536), taking over as the longest such active streak in the NFL after former teammate Joe Thomas’ streak of 10,363 came to an end in Week 7 of this season.
Schwartz’s best trait is his use of hands; his punch timing, placement, strike zone recognition, and independent hand usage are all elite. The key in having elite use of hands for OL stems from the base, and with Schwartz it is no different.
Being in position using a crisp pass set to achieve the half-man relationship is why he is able to be so efficient and crafty with his hands. After all, the feet determine how effective the hands can be for OL, especially in pass-protection. Blocks are accomplished with the feet and hips; without those two areas of the body being in proper position the hands simply cannot block people alone. Schwartz rarely is out of position as a pass-protector, playing with precision that is unmatched on the right side.
Consistently hitting his set points to intersect the rusher with a strong base allows him to remain in control on the vast majority of reps, granting his hands the ability to tactfully win leverage and keep pass-rushers off-balance and restrained.
Another underrated aspect of Schwartz’s game is in pass-protection, where he uses his inside hand to hip-pocket rushers past the pocket. He displays a knack for staying with the pass-rusher at the top of the rush, consistently preventing them from working back to the QB. This frustrates rushers and makes them work every snap rather than getting a cheap clean-up sack. Additionally, he shows very good mental processing to quickly key and diagnose line games and stunts, smoothly working off multiple threats on the same play.
Few edge-protectors on an island as often as Schwartz is can make things look as routine as he does, but digging deeper into the ‘why’ makes you truly appreciate when someone has their craft mastered on the level Schwartz does. At just 28-years old and in the middle of his prime, he remains the premier player at his position and is on track to earn All-Pro honors at the end of the season.
Schwartz’s value in today’s pass-happy NFL with ferocious pass-rushers such as Broncos’ Von Miller, Raiders’ Khalil Mack, and others primarily working on his side of the line of scrimmage cannot be overstated.
LT Andrew Whitworth – Rams
7 starts in 2017
12th season, 171 career starts
LG Joe Thuney – Patriots
8 starts in 2017
2nd season, 24 career starts
C Rodney Hudson – Raiders
8 starts in 2017
7th season, 72 career starts
RG David DeCastro – Steelers
8 starts in 2017
6th season, 74 career starts
RT Lane Johnson – Eagles
7 starts in 2017
5th season, 57 career starts