2017 NFL OL Outlook: Unsung Heroes of the Trenches

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]This is 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. Part 3 examines what will be the offensive line unit that will surprise many with their performance in 2017.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]2017 Surprise OL Unit

New England Patriots

LT Nate Solder

LG Joe Thuney

C David Andrews

RG Shaq Mason

RT Marcus Cannon

Key backup: OT Cameron Fleming

Average age: 26.2

Last year we saw the Patriots make a coaching change along the OL that boosted their performance up front, rehiring OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, who reconstructed the OL, especially the right side with RT Marcus Cannon and RG Shaq Mason. Each of their abilities to pass protect and effectively use their hands to counter pass-rush moves improved. The overall communication in pass protection was more consistent across the entire OL, reducing their sacks given up and QB hits from 38 and 97 in 2015 to 24 and 73 in 2016, ranking fifth in the league.

Shaq Mason improved his run-blocking ability from the solid-to-good level, showing very good power and jolt at the point of attack (POA) due to natural leverage at 6’1”, but also aligning his hips and elbows at the POA, delivering legitimate pop on down blocks, double teams, pulls, and traps to create movement:

LT Nate Solder put together a solid year, and paired nicely with rookie LG Joe Thuney:

Thuney showed promise with good ability to get underneath the majority of DL at the POA to win pad level with a strong base, additionally using very good hand placement and solid grip strength to quickly gain leverage. Thuney lacks the physical size/strength pairing needed to consistently generate movement alone, but he works very well on double teams to overtake and timely release with an eye on the LB. Thuney can slightly improve his ability as a solo blocker to generate movement as he continues to get stronger, especially in his posterior where most power is produced, but that’s not where he’s set up to win at a very high level.

The zone-run game, pulls, traps, and second-level blocking are where he shows the most proficiency, applying good athleticism, quickness, hand usage, and use of leverage to create lateral displacement of defenders by working under and around them. Thuney also shows very good competitive toughness, unafraid to scrap with players much larger and plays hard each snap. With time Thuney can develop into a good overall starter, but as a rookie, he provided a good return on New England’s investment in him at pick 78.

Lastly, C David Andrews remains an underrated center who does not make mental mistakes, plays very tough, and – similarly to Thuney – wins with leverage, hand placement, and short-area quickness.

Having each starter return for the second consecutive season under Scarnecchia should allow an even higher level of cohesiveness throughout the unit, with the expected individual development that typically occurs under a great OL coach. New England will continue to employ a diverse running attack. consisting of motion, misdirection, pulling, and various zone looks such as split-zone and outside zone:

Additionally, the use of FB James Develin, with good run-blocking TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen will allow offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to unleash a multi-faceted offense, including a traditional power run game:

Deploying diverse offense featuring a wide range of run-blocking concepts and a full-team effort from WRs, TEs, and FBs (who can all block) combined with the expected development of chemistry and skills of younger players should cause the OL’s performance to rise even further in 2017.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Best Backup OL in the NFL

Swing tackles, versatile interior guard and centers, OL who can fill in at multiple positions, spot start to fill in for injury, or play as the sixth OL in heavy sets are rare but in demand and important. OL who bring the most value are those that can act as a Swiss Army Knife for their offense, with the capability to start in a pinch at multiple positions.

LT Ty Nsekhe – Washington

Neskhe was signed for the second time by Washington prior to the 2016 season, making four starts (3 at LT, 1 at RT) for the suspended LT Trent Williams in Weeks 10-13. The 6’8”, 335 pounder is a career journeyman who has had stints with the AFL, CFL, and has been waived four times in his NFL career. At 31-years-old there is not much time left for Nsekhe to land a long-term deal, but based on his four starts in 2016 teams likely have him atop their list for a possible trade if their starting LT goes down.

FanRag Sports’ Jon Ledyard and I broke down Nsekhe’s play in his start against the Packers in Week 11:

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his 2017 NFL Draft Under the Microscope pieces on Pat ElfleinEthan Pocic and Cam Robinson.

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