When September rolls around and we have our fantasy football scouting reports and draft boards ready – it’s there. Every Sunday, we finalize our lineups and check the injury report one last time – it’s there. A 1,500-pound “elephant” in the room; pardon the pun. Most people, when pouring through the names of players, you will see Jimmy Garoppolo, Todd Gurley, or David Johnson. Without the names, Josh Garnett, Justin Pugh, or John Sullivan. None of those players sniff a yard, let alone the end zone. I get it. In an age of 4.3 forty dash times and 40-inch verticals, it can be easy to overlook a 300+ pound offensive lineman. Here is a comprehensive view of the ever-present, never-noticed NFC West offensive linemen.
The Arizona Cardinals are coming off a year in which their offense was bad. The running game averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry. The quarterback was sacked 52 times; that’s just under 10 percent of the time they dropped back to pass. Is there any wonder why the team was haunted by injury at nearly every position? The line last year was a majestic mess of position swapping, hole plugging, and band-aid fixes. The players were not athletic enough to get outside or to the second level or skilled enough to give the 3 to 5 seconds a play needs to develop.
A new offensive line coach in Ray Brown was brought in to help the skill. The Cardinals also picked up Justin Pugh, one of the most athletic and skilled linemen in the NFL. When healthy, he is a top five guard. He has played practically every position on the line with his old team but I see them keeping him at right guard.
He will be helped by veteran Andre Smith on the right side. The left side will be filled with young, talented, and, you guessed it, injury prone D.J Humphries and former All-Pro Mike Iupati. Even at his prime, Iupati was never the best pass blocker. Not something you want to hear from someone who protects your quarterback’s blindside.
The Cardinals have a huge opportunity, or to call it what it is, a hole at center. A.Q Shipley is the incumbent and probably the only healthy player on the line, and there is some promising competition behind him. In order for them to run the plays that they do they need to upgrade the athleticism at center.
If they stay healthy, this unit can mold into a passable line. That would be a huge stride to improve from a bottom five group from last year. However, they are thin in depth and not reliable with their health on the front side. That makes another year of quarterbacks scrambling and small holes for running backs a distinct possibility.
Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angels Rams had everything fall into place last year. The line gelled beautifully and they stayed healthy. After Carolina, they had the second-best numbers of yards before contact – meaning their running backs would go 1.89 yards before they would even get touched. That’s incredible. They are big and all hitting the prime of their career right now.
Jared Goff‘s backside is protected by two veterans who have 22 years of experience. The leader of the unit at center in John Sullivan, a 10-year pro. Sullivan is very good at getting his team’s blocking assignments in order.
The right side brings the skill and size to bull over people. This team is set up to block, not only at the point of attack but also into the second level. They may not be the agilest group in the world, but the coaching staff calls plays to their strengths. Last year’s success of running at nearly 4.7 yards per run, allowing just 28 sacks with a young quarterback at the helm, was no fluke. The backups are young behind the ears but have seen enough action to step up if needed.
This team did a complete turnaround in the past two years. Looking at Gurley’s numbers from 2016 to last year, you can see the work that was put into assembling this finely tuned machine. With the skill positions and the stability and professionalism in the trenches, this team is built to last. Look for the Rams to draft some young talent to learn from these veterans so they keep this ship a-rocking. You know the names of Gurley, Goff and Tavon Austin because of blockers like Robert Havenstein and Sullivan.
San Franciso 49ers
The 49ers are a team trying to find their identity, or better yet, a team working on asserting their identity. That all starts in the trenches. The first person to touch the ball? The center. He is also the lineman that calls out assignments and switches. This player needs to be smart, quick, with great footwork and technical skill.
With Kyle Shanahan’s playbook, you can double those expectations. Therefore, it makes sense that the 49ers went out and get the center that they feel best exemplifies those qualities. Welcome, Weston Richburg!
The tackle combo of long-time 49er Joe Staley and Trent Brown are solid. In no way does that mean great, or really even good. They are stable and returning from a unit that was ranked 25th in pass protection and allowed 43 sacks last year. To be fair, they did only allow 16 sacks over the last 8 games. They are stacked with young players ready to get their shot.
Garry Gilliam, who they picked up last year, is now healthy and Erik Magnuson, a second-year talent, is nipping at Staley’s heals. It all depends on who fits that identity of where the team is going. What have you done for me lately?
The run blocking was middle of the pack last year. They hit their holes and ended at around four yards a clip. With the addition of Jerick “Jet” McKinnon, I would imagine we will be seeing more stretch plays that result in a few more rushes of 20 plus yards (they only had 8 last year). That means Offensive linemen hustling downfield into the second level or guards pulling or off tackle plays.
The guards right now are either weak links or complete question marks. Laken Tomlinson, the left side guard, was rated a grade of 44% by the league last year. If they have any plans of keeping their franchise quarterback healthy, that’s not going to fly.
Free agency has landed them a low-risk Jonathan Cooper and a few younger players to help bring competition. Is that enough to take them to the next level? Probably not. They have several needs in the draft, but one of them should be to address the offensive line, specifically at the center. They know what they want to do, they have to find, not the best players, but the best players to run this offense.
‘Run, Russell, run’ was the story of Seattle’s season last year. Russell Wilson was sacked 43 times, hit many more times, and rushed either by design or scrambling another 95 times. Even at 215 pounds, that’s going to take a toll. They also were forced to play the juggling game last year between guard and tackle, left side and right side. If you don’t think it’s hard to go from one side to the other, think again. Compare it to driving on the opposite side of the road with no warning – the rules just change, now you have to adapt. Due to injuries, the team used five different line combinations over the course of 2017.
What is the difference between 1st and 10 and 1st and 20? A second-year tackle. It may not be as funny as Who’s On First, but it has the same truth behind it. Very few people were penalized as much as Germain Ifedi. Ethan Pocic, the tall rangy guard, also has a way to go before he is more of an asset and less of a liability. A mid-season addition of Duane Brown and an offseason pick up of D.J. Fluker will definitely help with experience.
Fluker was brought in to help get the Seahawks back to the days when they ran to win games. Averaging four yards per carry seems good, but I assure you most of them came via broken plays or trick plays. This unit is compiled of a lot of high draft picks that are very young. Pete Carroll has said Ifedi is getting a redo, basically.
That leaves George Fant, also a young kid coming off an injury, and Pocic to battle for the last starting spot. The Seahawks are putting a lot of faith in these young kids to grow rather than wilted and bust. Is that wise? With the lack of depth they have, that was prominently shown by spot duty, they don’t seem to have much of an option.
All four teams are in very different positions in the development of their offensive lines. Whether they’re developing youth, overhauling an existing line, or peaking due to years of work, it’s clear that they have to get these often overlooked beasts in the trenches at the top of their games.
Without them, the “skilled” position players won’t gain yards, earn touchdowns, or win games. Next time you want to know why your running back isn’t producing or your quarterback seems off his game, put down the box scores and look to the film. You will find names you don’t recognize with the numbers in 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. They are the difference between Gurley’s 2016 and Gurley’s 2017.