Previewing Offensive Lines for Browns, Chiefs, and Steelers
By the time you're reading this we will be past the first full weekend of college games and counting the minutes until the Thursday Night NFL opener. That's right, we've made it through another offseason. We're out of the desert and into the promised land. I for one, cannot wait to once again talk about big beefy men knocking around other beefy men.
Just in case you haven't read this column before, the concept is simple. Each season I pick three teams and write about their offensive lines. I'll focus on one team a week and pick something I think is interesting from their past week's game. Sometimes it'll be something schematic, other times it will be personnel- or technique-driven, but it will always be OL-centric. With that out of the way, let's get to this year's teams.
The thing I'm most excited about for Cleveland is that I'm very confident they're going to at least try to run the ball every week. I'm not as confident that the other two teams I'm covering will do the same. But with both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt running behind a well regarded offensive line, this is the one team on the docket that I'm not worried about going with an Arena League offense for games at a time. The Browns ranked sixth in adjusted line yards last year and return all five starters. It could be a big 2021 for them.
That well regarded offensive line has talent across all five positions. Jack Conklin at right tackle was a high-priced free agent before 2020 and played like one of the best tackles in football in his first year in Cleveland. Opposite him, the Browns have another top-10 pick in Jedrick Wills. Wills is coming off a pretty good rookie season and most people project him to be a good player for a while.
The tackle position is strong but the interior might be even better. JC Tretter at center has started every game for Cleveland since 2017 and he has played at a high level for that string of consecutive starts. Left guard Joel Bitonio is probably the line's best player. He's someone I have covered before and he's solid in pass protection and can generate real movement in the running game. He's fun to watch.
The one guy I haven't really paid a ton of attention to is Wyatt Teller. I know some people raved about his play at right guard last year, and I'm not disputing it, but I haven't had a chance to focus much on him. He's someone I'm really looking forward to covering this year.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Browns looked at what they had up front last year and wisely decided to run it back and let a good unit get even better with the help of another year of gelling together. The Kansas City Chiefs probably took one look at the Super Bowl tape and last year's injury report and decided to make some serious changes.
Those changes were bringing in Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney to play on the left side. I covered Thuney with the Patriots last year and he's as good as just about any guard in the league. Brown has been vocal about wanting to play left tackle, and that desire was a big part of why Baltimore traded him to Kansas City. He has been a good player in the NFL so I don't expect too much trouble switching sides, but it is still an adjustment that's worth watching.
On top of those two marquee additions the Chiefs drafted a center in the second round in Creed Humphrey out of Oklahoma. It looks like he'll be the opening day starter. The Chiefs also brought Kyle Long out of retirement, but after an offseason injury it looks like sixth-round pick Trey Smith will get the nod initially at right guard. The projected right tackle, Lucas Niang, was drafted in 2020 but opted out last year, making 2021 his first real season.
Just in case you weren't able to keep up with all that, the gist is that the Chiefs have five new starters on the offensive line. None of them have ever played a meaningful snap of football together. This is almost like The Real World opening except instead of seven strangers picked to live in a house, it's five strangers picked to protect the most valuable asset in football. On top of that, three of them have never played in a regular-season NFL game. I have no idea how it will shape out except to say it will probably be interesting. Plus Andy Reid's screen game will be worth at least 500 words at some point this season.
Like the Chiefs, the Steelers looked at last year's offensive line and decided it was time to try something new. Pittsburgh's line actually protected fairly well last year and finished first in adjusted sack rate, although some of that surely had to do with how Ben Roethlisberger is playing these days. The flipside of the coin though is that Pittsburgh was dead last in adjusted line yards and might have looked even worse than that stat would indicate.
But Pittsburgh will have new blood. In a surprising move they released their best offensive lineman, David DeCastro, this summer. DeCastro was battling injuries and didn't look like the player he used to be in 2020, but with other question marks up front most figured he'd be back for some stability. On top of DeCastro's release, long time center Maurkice Pouncey retired and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva went across the division to Baltimore. Like DeCastro, those players had declined from their peak, so they won't be huge losses, but it's still a lot of turnover for a playoff team up front.
Now that we have discussed who isn't there, though, we can talk about who is. The biggest name is guard Trai Turner. At one point he was one of the best offensive linemen in the sport, but he hasn't played at that level for a few years. Still, he should be a solid player at least.
Chukwuma Okorafor started 15 games at right tackle last year and has flipped over to the left side this year. Veteran backup Joe Haeg came over from the Colts this offseason to back up Okorafor and Zach Banner, but Banner is on injured reserve so he'll start the season as the starting right takle.
The center is J.C. Hassenauer, who had played on a few practice squads and the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance for American Football before landing in Pittsburgh. He started four games due to injuries last year with the Steelers. The final man is second-year player Kevin Dotson, who also played some as an injury replacement in 2020. It's certainly not a bunch full of household names, but that's what makes it interesting. Outside of Turner, I really have no preconceived notions on what to expect from these guys but I'm anxious to see what they've got.