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05 Sep 2017

Word of Muth: 2017 Preview

by Ben Muth

Finally, our long national nightmare is over and we are just days away from the return of NFL football. This time next week, I'll be actually talking about things that happened for real, on a football field, and not talking about things that could happen. I'm giddy. With that, let's get to the teams I'll be covering in this space for 2017.

New York Giants

A lot of people really like the Giants roster this year, and some consider them potential a Super Bowl contender. But even the biggest Giants fans make sure to plug their noses when they get to the topic of their offensive line, or at the very least their left tackle. It's always interesting to look at a unit that is so derided by the home fan base.

That left tackle is Ereck Flowers, a former first-round pick who has been either a complete disaster or a personal affront to the good people of New York, depending on who you listen to. I've never been asked more on Twitter about a player that I haven't directly covered. I feel like I have to watch him play up close to see exactly what all the fuss is about. I feel like the protagonist in a coming-of-age tale who has been offered a chance to see a dead body -- I have to take it.

The rest of the line is probably not as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. (Offensive lines almost never are.)

Justin Pugh is another former high draft pick who has lived up to the expectations a little better than Flowers. He will start at left guard.

At center, the Giants are going with Weston Richburg. Richburg has started all but two games in his career and played very well as a pass blocker, where he has given up one sack in two years.

The right side of the offensive line could be an issue as well. It looks like former Hard Knocks star John Jerry will hold off D.J. Fluker at right guard. Jerry has bounced around a bit and is best known for getting yelled at on a reality TV show several years ago, so he is probably New York fans' biggest cause for concern after Flowers. Bobby Hart will start again at right tackle, and I'll admit to not knowing a ton about him except that he went to Florida State and he hasn't played as badly as Flowers.

Los Angeles Chargers

The reason I wanted to watch the Chargers was originally because it looked like they might start two rookies on the offensive line this year. But since they are the Chargers and their facility is built on ancient Indian burial ground, they will not be starting either. (I question the wisdom of relocating the burial ground to Los Angeles with the rest of the equipment.) Forrest Lamp, the highly touted rookie from Western Kentucky, will miss the entire season after suffering an injury in training camp, and Dan Feeney failed to win a starting spot in the preseason. So, instead of focusing on a team looking to rebuild an offensive line in a new city around a couple of young prospects, we will be focusing on a team trying to rebuild a unit made up of well-traveled veterans.

The tackles will hopefully be the strength of the unit. Los Angeles spent a lot of money to bring in Russell Okung in free agency. Okung played in all 16 games for the first time of his career last season. By making him the highest paid offensive tackle in the league, the Chargers bought at the absolute peak of his value, which isn't ideal. But if you've watched what L.A. has trotted out at left tackle over the last few years (pretty much since Marcus McNeill started dealing with injuries), you would understand the urge to overpay. Opposite Okung is Joseph Barksdale, a veteran right tackle whom I watched when he was with the Rams. He's the kind of guy that won't get you excited but is firmly in the meaty part of the curve when it comes to right tackles.

The interior line is a bit of an unknown -- as in, I haven't heard of two of these guys. Matt Slauson I do know. He was on the Bears when I covered them, and before that he had a couple of good years for the Jets. He struggled a bit at center last year, but he's moving back to left guard where he has proven to be at least a capable NFL player.

Replacing Slauson at center is Spencer Pulley. Pulley is an undrafted second-year player who appeared in all 16 games a year ago, but didn't start any. At right guard is Kenny Wiggins, who has been a reserve for the Chargers the past two years but has started nine games over that time. I'm not familiar with Wiggins or Pulley, and in an ideal world (both for this column and the Chargers front office) their spots would have been filled by the two rookies. But it's always fun to watch new players, especially when I have literally zero preconceived opinions about them.

The Chargers invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason, both in draft capital and free agency, in an attempt to give Philip Rivers more protection than he has gotten in recent years. With Lamp's injury, some of that investment has already been deferred. But they still have some real NFL veterans who have proven they can be effective in the past even if they have a couple of unknowns as well. It should make for an interesting year.

Green Bay Packers

The reason I wanted to cover the Packers was simple: the other two teams have some big question marks up front, and I wanted to pick a team that I thought would have a good line. Since I have covered the Browns, Raiders, and Cowboys recently, there weren't a lot of sure things left on that front. So I picked a team that I thought at least had good tackles.

David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are both good players at their positions and still in their primes. Both were drafted by Green Bay and have played their entire careers with the organization. Bakhtiari in particular has impressed whenever I've caught Green Bay on TV over the past couple of years, and I'm really looking forward to watching him closely this year.

The interior offensive line is more of a question mark. At center the Packers hope Corey Linsley can stay healthy for the first time since his rookie year. He has played in just 21 of the possible 32 games in the past two seasons.

At right guard Green Bay will be going with former Pro Bowl veteran Jahri Evans. I watched Evans when he was in his prime with New Orleans, and if he's even 75 percent of the player he was then, he should still be a capable NFL starter. This is Evans' first year in Green Bay, so that's always an adjustment, but he has been around long enough, and seen enough football, that I don't think the learning curve will be too steep.

At left guard the Packers are still trying replace the production they got from T.J. Lang, who was one of the more surprising cap casualties of recent years. They'll turn again to Lane Taylor, who has been OK but notably not T.J. Lang in his time in Green Bay. Still, I think this has a chance to be a very strong unit should they stay healthy.

And that will do it for my least favorite column of the year. Come back next week for some actual analysis of actual football. In the words of Bart Scott, can't wait!

Posted by: Ben Muth on 05 Sep 2017

13 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2017, 7:34pm by gmoney_714

Comments

1
by Guest789 :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 4:27pm

Finally Ben's covering the Packers, I'm so excited. It's too bad it couldn't have been two years ago, when they had, for my money, a truly excellent line in Bahktiari-Sitton-Linsley/Tretter-Lang-Bulaga, but this will still be really interesting.

My only nitpick is that Taylor actually replaced Sitton at LG last year, and Evans will be replacing Lang at RG.

2
by Ben Muth :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 4:32pm

That's not a nitpick. That's a good point. Should've caught that. My fault, it'll be better when the games start.

3
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 4:51pm

Not Minnesota?

Come on, you could watch 15 different linemen over the course of a season, because they have a time-share in LA's indian burial ground.

6
by MinisterCheevy :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 7:03pm

Maybe he's worried he would go blind?

4
by justanothersteve :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 5:14pm

Yay! My favorite columnist covers my favorite team this year. The Packers depth is a concern as they lost their best backup, JC Tretter, to Cleveland. Bulaga has a bad ankle but expected to play against Seattle, which may be the best DL they play all year (especially since they added Richardson). If the line holds up against Seattle, they should be able to handle pretty much any DL.

PS Please give some kudos to James Campen, who has developed top level offensive line talent (Sitten, Lang, Bakhtiari) with few high draft picks.

5
by morganja :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 6:46pm

I would love to understand what the Vikings are thinking from an expert. What looks like bad line play and bad management decisions must have some rational basis.

7
by BigRichie :: Tue, 09/05/2017 - 7:36pm

There's a difference between 'irrational' and 'sure didn't work' (granted they do correlate well) In a salary cap world you have to save money somewhere. Last year they tried the offensive line, probably no worse a place than any once you're committed to Big $$$ for your franchise running back. That didn't work, so this year (and with AP off the books, right? No particularly large amount of deferred $$$?) they threw some money at what was available on the free agent market. Which will never be all that much, given teams one way or another tie up their best ones. So the Vikings bought what they could.

11
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/06/2017 - 11:54am

The plan last year wasn't terrible. Then Loadholt retires, then one veteran free agent signing got hurt, the other didnt play that well, and a bunch of other guys got hurt. The qb's knee inexplicably explodes without being touched, which really does force a high draft pick to be traded for Bradford, and Peterson gets hurt/declines, so they lose the one thing that has made their o-line look better than it was for several years. Overall, however, once you factor how they have paid qbs since Favre was gone, they really have underinvested in o-linemen, in draft capital and/or free agent money. I have little hope for the unit this year, although I've heard a couple knowledgeable people say that the two young guys they are starting at center and lg have looked ok in training camp. I'll be surprised if they achieve mediocrity. Hope I'm wrong.

8
by JustAnotherFalc... :: Wed, 09/06/2017 - 12:46am

Ben, would you mind looking at the Falcons line during the Green Bay - Atlanta game on week 2 as well as the Packer line? Of course I'm biased, but I think it could be an interesting story and it's the only time they'll intersect with a line you are planning to watch, and the game's on prime time to boot.

From right to left, you've got one of the better tackles in the league and a former UDFA, a 6th round pick who watched every game last year, one of the top centers in the league, an aging guard who bounced back last year after several poor to mediocre years, and a tackle with impressive bloodlines but so-so performance and prone to nagging injuries. Additionally, the interior line backup might get a couple of snaps at DT as well.

9
by billprudden :: Wed, 09/06/2017 - 7:24am

"I feel like the protagonist in a coming-of-age tale who has been offered a chance to see a dead body -- I have to take it."

Ha!

And Ben, so good to have you back in our lives! Football!

10
by Flounder :: Wed, 09/06/2017 - 9:55am

Taylor apparently had a strong training camp and just received a three year extension with 15 million in new money. I certainly wouldn't expect all-pro level play, but it looks like there is a reasonable likelihood that he's improved over an OK season last year.

GB will also be interesting because if injuries strike, shit could go downhill really, really fast. "Raw and unproven" would be the extremely charitable description of every backup lineman besides Don Barclay, who is currently on IR with an injury and is most charitably described as "veteran who has managed to stay on the roster." If more than one starter goes down, it could be an unmitigated disaster.

12
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/06/2017 - 12:05pm

So much of how an o-lineman is perceived depends on where he is drafted. If Matt Kalil had been a 3rd round pick, with that initial cap commitment (which, absent HOF level play, really affects the 2nd contract as well), Vikings fans would have deemed him ok. Being taken near the top of the first, however, really drove expectations, however, to the point that, to a lot Vikings fans, he was among the worst o-lunemen they had ever started.

It is troubling for those of us who pay attention that there are so few lines among the 32 that you can have confidence in seeing a good performance, although Ben is also right that things aren't quite as bad as one might imagine. Vikings fans last year probably had it accurately described last year, however.

13
by gmoney_714 :: Thu, 09/07/2017 - 7:34pm

I'm excited too. I love this column. I know you have moved on and want to do different things with this space to keep it fresh, but please bring back the occasional "X of Great Shame"