By Joey Esquire
We wrap up the offensive side with our OL rankings. A couple things to note in this article: I use Football Outsiders statistics Power Runs, Stuffed Runs and Sack Rate. “Power Runs” refers to runs on third or fourth down with 2 or less to go, or runs on any down within two yards of the goal line. “Stuffed Runs” are runs stopped for zero or negative yards. “Sack Rate” refers to sacks allowed per passing play. I think this is a better metric than sack totals because obviously a team that passes the ball more would expect to give up more sacks. I rank the offensive lines in the division:
1. Dallas Cowboys
2. Washington Redskins
3. Philadelphia Eagles
4. New York Giants
4. NEW YORK GIANTS
Depth Chart: Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry, Bobby Hart, DJ Fluker, Brett Jones, Adam Bisnowaty
Rushing DVOA: 26
Sack Rate: 2
A popular narrative is that the Giants offensive line is terrible, and it is. But, the interior line did have some promising things to build on. The Giants struggled to run the ball consistently all season, but they had the 9th lowest percentage of stuffed runs and the 12th best conversion percentage on power runs. The Giants were tied for the 10th fewest rush attempts in the league, but when they did run the ball, the interior line did a decent job not collapsing. If that sounds like faint praise, it is. They just didn’t pick up yardage consistently on runs in any direction, including up the middle.
While there are at least some promising things to point to on the interior, the Giants tackles are just terrible. Astonishingly, the Giants gave up the third fewest sacks and the fourth fewest QB hits in the NFL, but you wouldn’t know it to watch them because it seemed like pressure was a constant issue. I think the low sack numbers are more a product of the Giants quick-passing offense than their ability to block guys on the edge, and Ereck Flowers in particular had a whole lot of plays where he just didn’t look like an NFL player.
The Giants look to return most of their starting unit from 2016 and surprisingly didn’t do all that much to address the OL in the offseason. They did bring in DJ Fluker, whom they hope will push for a starting guard spot, and drafted Adam Bisnowaty in the 6th round. Expect this unit to continue to struggle in 2017.
3. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Depth Chart: Jason Peters, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Allen Barbre, Stefan Wisniewski, (Chance Warmack), Haalapoulivaati Vaitai, Dillon Gordon
Rushing DVOA: 9
Sack Rate: 10
I don’t think anybody anticipated how badly Lane Johnson’s suspension would hurt the Eagles offensive line. For those ten games, the Eagles declined in almost every measurable offensive category. They didn’t run the ball well, they didn’t pass protect well, they turned the ball over like crazy. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of depth and a rash of injuries, so that by Week 15 the Eagles had their backup guard starting at RT and their third-string G/C starting at LG. Yet despite Johnson’s suspension, Brandon Brooks’s anxiety issues and Jason Kelce’s up-and-down (mostly down) play, the unit was actually not that bad last year, and Jason Peters remains a top ten LT in the league even at 35.
In the offseason, the Eagles focused on bolstering their OL depth, re-signing Stefan Wisniewski and bringing in reclamation project Chance Warmack to work with his college OL coach. Haalapoulivaati Vaitai is the primary backup at tackle, and he’ll need to show some significant improvement from his rookie season if the Eagles are going to count on him. Seumalo starting at LG does allow Allen Barbre to be a backup option at four of the five OL spots.
If the Eagles can stay healthy and eligible at the tackle position, this unit could be a real strength in 2017. If not, Eagles fans will have to cross their fingers and hope that Vaitai improves a lot as a second-year player.
2. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Depth Chart: Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Spencer Long, Brandon Scherff, Morgan Moses, Ty Nsekhe, Vinston Painter, Arie Kouandjio, Chase Roullier
Rushing DVOA: 4
Sack Rate: 3
Do not let the media hype and Dallas fans fool you; the gap between the Redskins at 2 and the Cowboys at 1 is razor thin. I seriously considered ranking the Redskins ahead of the Cowboys, and I’m still not sure they shouldn’t be. The Redskins were 4th in rushing efficiency, they were 5th in power run success and 3rd in fewest stuffed runs. They posted those efficiency numbers without a QB who contributes much to the run game, without a stud RB to lean on and with their best lineman missing four games to suspension. And they’re a significantly better pass blocking unit than Dallas, ranking 3rd in the NFL in sack rate allowed. Ultimately what gave Dallas the edge and keeps Washington at second in my rankings is some uncertainty at C and LG, and the fact that they just don’t run the damn ball enough (5th fewest attempts in the NFL).
The Redskins return all their starters from 2016, but some have speculated they may look to make some adjustments on the interior. Spencer Long and Shawn Lauvao are not dominant, and it showed in the Redskins playcalling: just 42% of rushes went between the tackles (31st in the NFL), compared to a leaguewide average of 56%, and they performed just a bit above league average on those runs (11th).
Still, the Redskins OL is an underrated and underutilized weapon for that offense. If Jay Gruden called more runs, I think it would go a long way toward making things easier for Kirk Cousins and perhaps help correct some of those red zone woes from a season ago.
1. DALLAS COWBOYS
Depth Chart: Tyron Smith, Jonathan Cooper, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Chaz Green, Byron Bell, Joe Looney
Rushing DVOA: 2
Sack Rate: 13
Really since Scott Linehan took over playcalling in 2014, the Cowboys offensive line has been the engine that makes the offense go. In that time they have ranked 3rd, 9th and 2nd in rushing DVOA. Perhaps as important for this team, they have ranked 2nd, 3rd and 2nd in TOP/drive and are consistently among the league leaders in fewest snaps against, limiting the exposure of below-average defenses. In 2016, they ranked 3rd in converting power runs and 5th in fewest stuffed runs, but statistics aside I don’t think there was any offense in the NFL capable of taking over a game with a power rushing attack quite as well as the Cowboys.
As good as the Cowboys OL has been in the run game though, they remain just mediocre in pass protection. They were 13th last year in sack rate, which was a slight improvement over 2014 and 2015 (probably attributable to Dak Prescott’s mobility). The pass rush for the rest of the division continues to improve, so it will be interesting to see if that mediocre pass protection bites the Cowboys in 2017, but I don’t expect it. The Cowboys are so good on first and second downs and spent so much of 2016 playing with a lead that they don’t put themselves in too many obvious passing situations, and that helps neutralize an opposing pass rush.
Heading into 2017, there are some questions about how this unit will look Week 1. Doug Free retired, which will either move La’el Collins to tackle (my guess) or push Chaz Green into the starting lineup. Ronald Leary left in free agency, so if Collins does move to tackle that probably puts newly-signed Jonathan Cooper in at LG. I think the keystones for this line the last few years have been Smith, Martin and Frederick, so I don’t expect that shakeup to hurt the starting 5 too much, but this unit is a lot thinner than it was last year.
Next Installment: We start our look at defenses with interior defensive line.