Chargers Position Groups Vs AFC West: Volume 1 – Offensive Line
The AFC West is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Every game is a rivalry and is often energized by explosive offenses. The offensive explosions would not be possible without the efforts of their respective offensive lines. At Sports Al Dente, we are doing a weekly series during the offseason comparing each of the Chargers position groups with the rest of the AFC West. First up: The Offensive Line!
4. Denver Broncos
Projected Starters 2019
Left Tackle – Garett Bolles – 6’5” 298 lbs
Left Guard – Ronald Leary – 6’3” 317 lbs
Center – Connor McGovern – 6’4” 306 lbs
Right Guard – Dalton Risner (R) – 6’5” 308 lbs
Right Tackle – Ja’Wuan James – 6’6” 317 lbs
The Broncos have one of the most unknown offensive lines in the NFL. None of the players have been to a Pro Bowl and none were with the team when it won the Super Bowl in 2015. The two players with the most experience are left guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Ja’Wuan James who each has more than 60 starts to their resumes. The youngest player on the offensive line is right guard Dalton Risner who was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
There is a lot of talent and the young o-line has the potential to be one of the better units in the AFC West, but there are a lot of unknowns heading into the season.
The Broncos are an interesting group to study because they have a new coach, Vic Fangio, and a new quarterback, Joe Flacco. They made significant changes to the offensive line including switching McGovern from right guard to center. McGovern was called for holding four times last year but did not false start once. It will be interesting to see how he develops as a center over the course of the season.
Bolles may be their Achilles heel due to his penchant for penalties. He was called for holding seven times and false started three times in 2018. With a new atmosphere in Denver, his career hangs in the balance this season.
Leary only played in six games last year but tore his Achilles in the middle of the year. He was called for holding just once last year.
Ja’Wuan James played in Miami last year and started all but one game. He was penalized for holding three times during the season. It will be interesting to see how he acclimates in Denver.
One major positive is the acquisition of offensive line guru Mike Munchak from Pittsburgh. He interviewed for the head coaching job in Denver, and when Fangio was ultimately given the position, he was able to coax Munchak to still join his staff. A tremendous get and this alone should improve the unit substantially, but because of the unknowns heading into the season, the unit must be ranked at the bottom of the division.
3. Oakland Raiders:
Projected Starters 2019
Left Tackle – Kolton Miller – 6’8” 328 lbs
Left Guard – Richie Incognito – 6’3” 320 lbs
Center –Rodney Hudson – 6’2” 300 lbs
Right Guard – Gabe Jackson – 6’4” 340 lbs
Right Tackle – Trent Brown– 6’8” 359 lbs
The Raiders made a big splash early in the offseason by signing right tackle Trent Brown to a four year $66 million deal which makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. He comes from the New England Patriots who are the reigning Super Bowl champions and it is clear that the Raiders believe he will help them reach the postseason very soon.
Center Rodney Hudson has the most personal accolades with two Pro Bowl invitations to his name. Coach Jon Gruden loves a power running game and guard Gabe Jackson just may fit the bill. He has great size at 6’3” 335 lbs but is coming off an elbow injury which prematurely ended his 2018 season. If he can remain healthy, the Raiders may have one of the most punishing running games in the NFL.
The Raiders had a tough time adjusting to Gruden’s complicated offensive system last year but towards the end of the year, they seemed to have figured out enough of the offense to win a couple of games. One of the benefits of a poor season is the fact that it highlights the team’s greatest weaknesses. In this case that would be pass protection. The Raiders gave up an astonishing 51 sacks in 2018 which is much worse than the 20 they gave up just the previous year. They did have a decent run game, averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
However, they made significant changes this offseason and the line appears to be vastly different from the previous year. The Raiders should be wary of Miller who struggled as a rookie while being called for holding three times and four false starts.
However, the Raiders returning offensive lineman are not completely a lost cause. Jackson and Hudson were called for holding just three times between them.
Incognito sat out the 2018 season after briefly retiring from the game. He has a long history of holding penalties, having accumulated 36 over his 11-year career. He was called for holding six times in his last year of action.
Brown comes from a very different system in New England and it is difficult to determine how he will perform in Oakland. The Patriots did rely on a strong run game and it is clear the Raiders are gearing towards the ground coming into the 2019 season. He was called for holding four times and false started just once during their championship run.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Projected Starters 2019
Left Tackle – Russell Okung– 6’5” 310 lbs
Left Guard – Dan Feeney– 6’4” 311 lbs
Center – Mike Pouncey– 6’5” 303 lbs
Right Guard – Michael Schofield III – 6’7” 304 lbs
Right Tackle – Sam Tevi– 6’5” 315 lbs
The Chargers have one of the most balanced attacks in the NFL which is protected by a dependable offensive line. They upgraded their offense by drafting right tackle Trey Pipkins in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Due to his inexperience, the Chargers are expected to ease him into the starting role. In the meantime, Sam Tevi will start at right tackle while Pipkins transitions into the NFL. The offensive line is led by left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey who have six Pro Bowl invitations between them.
The Chargers offensive line allowed 32 sacks in 2018 which is almost twice as many as the 18 they gave up in 2017. This area will have to be addressed this season if they want to get past the second round of the playoffs.
Russell Okung has the unenviable assignment of protecting Philip Rivers’ blindside. As a result, it is understandable for him to have a couple more holding penalties than the rest of his linemates. He led the Chargers with five holding penalties while trying his best to protect the franchise quarterback.
Dan Feeney was right behind Okung with four holding calls. Sam Tevi was a little too anxious for the play to start and ended up in a tie for most false starts amongst his teammates.
Ironically, the Chargers biggest weakness may be their most reliable offensive lineman. Mike Pouncey was called for holding four times and false start three times. As a center, being called for a false start is almost unthinkable.
On the other side, Schofield was only called for a single penalty in 2018. With him being the nearly perfect standard, the Chargers will surely look to him for guidance as to how to avoid costly penalties.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Starters 2019
Left Tackle – Eric Fisher– 6’7” 315 lbs
Left Guard – Andrew Wylie– 6’6” 311 lbs
Center – Austin Reiter– 6’3” 300 lbs
Right Guard – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif– 6’5” 322 lbs
Right Tackle – Mitchell Schwartz– 6’5” 317 lbs
The Chiefs have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the NFL. Despite their experience, left tackle Eric Fisher is the only player with a Pro Bowl invitation. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been named First-Team All-Pro once and Second-Team All-Pro twice. Despite their lack of accolades, this is a very intelligent unit which includes right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif who has completed his M.D. and is the lone doctor playing in the NFL. The player with the least experience is center Austin Reiter who has been in the league since 2015 yet has only started five games.
Their offensive line gave up just 26 sacks last year which is better than the 35 sacks they gave up the previous year with Alex Smith under center.
Despite the explosive offense, the line still put up a significant number of penalties. Fisher was called for holding three times and false started four times. Schwartz was caught holding three times and false started once.
Wylie played well as a rookie starting in 10 games. He was caught holding just once during the season. Reiter only started four games last year but was never penalized.
Duvernay-Tardif only played in five games last year due to a fractured fibula. During those five games, he was called for holding and false started just once.
This should be a very entertaining year in the AFC West. So many teams made changes to their offensive line yet consistency may pay off more in the end. Teams such as the Chargers and Chiefs, who have not made many changes to their offensive line will be in the hunt for the Super Bowl. The Broncos and Raiders do not look as promising because their lines have not developed strong chemistry and are unproven. As long as they stay healthy, the Chiefs clearly have the best offensive line in the AFC West.