by Ben Muth
We have officially made it through the offseason desert and are back among the fertile ground that is football season. By the time you're reading this, there will have been a real NFL game played that counted in the standings and everything. I for one am so excited to start talking about stuff that is actually happening and not stuff that could potentially happen.
If you're new to this column, here's how it works. We'll be focusing on three teams, and in particular their offensive lines, throughout the season. I'll pick one of those three units a week to break down whatever I find interesting about their performance in the preceding game. I'll rotate through them fairly consistently, but teams might get jumped in the order if there's something I really want to write about from one of the other offensive lines.
With that out of the way, let's get to who we'll be writing about this season.
The Lions have an interesting reputation up front depending on what you're looking for out of an offensive line in 2018. Big free-agent acquisitions Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang came in last season and did a nice job of keeping Matthew Stafford upright. Both ranked in the top seven at their position in blown blocks per snap according to Sports Info Solutions charting data, and Lang made the Pro Bowl.
The left side of the line also should provide plenty of interesting viewing. Right now it looks like first-round rookie Frank Ragnow will start at left guard. Ragnow was well-regarded coming out of college and was projected to play quickly, but most saw him as a center. You never know what you're going to get from a rookie offensive lineman, but Ragnow's time in Bret Bielema's system at Arkansas should be a little comforting for Detroit fans. Just to the outside of Ragnow is former first-round pick Taylor Decker. Decker started all 16 games as a rookie before missing exactly half of 2017. He's in Year 3 now and after being banged up and a little disappointing in Year 2, he might be in a make-or-break season, at least with the Lions.
In general the offensive line did a decent enough job of picking up pressure that Stafford's DVOA was the same against the blitz as it was against standard rushes. With the right side of the line and a couple of high draft picks on the left side, I bet most people in Detroit are hopeful for the unit in 2018. But the issue is that the Lions have been awful at running the ball the last two years and according to FO stats, the line has been a huge part of that.
Detroit ranked 32nd in adjusted line yards and power success in 2017, and 31st in stuff rate. Now, no stat is perfect, and offensive line stats in particular can be a little wonky. Just because a team ranks low in ALY off right tackle doesn't guarantee that the right tackle can't run block. But when you're that bad in all three of those areas, it's obvious that you aren't running the ball like you need to and the blocking is a big part of it. And their run game wasn't really any better in 2016, so this is a trend.
How important is run blocking in 2018? That's a fair question, but I do know that converting third downs is still vital to an offense's success, and converting on short yardage needs to be just about automatic. I'm looking forward to watching to see if the Lions improve, or how effective an offense can be if they aren't particularly good at, or interested in, run blocking.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers were chosen mainly because of their head coach and his running scheme. If you've been reading this column for a long time you know that my favorite play in the world is outside zone or some version of it. San Francisco will run that scheme and run it a lot, so I'm really looking forward to watching them play this year.
On top of the scheme, the 49ers have personnel that should be interesting to watch. They could have as many as four former first-round picks starting this year, and the fifth starter will be a well-paid free agent in his first year with the team. That kind of makeup always garners interest.
At tackle, the 49ers still have longtime stalwart Joe Staley on the left side. Staley has been one of the better run blockers on the edge for a long time and has made plenty of Pro Bowls. He seems to have slipped a bit recently in pass protection, however. On the opposite side, San Francisco will go with 2018 first-round pick Mike McGlinchey. I didn't love McGlinchey's performance at Notre Dame, but I've been wrong a lot on tackles coming out of school and it's always interesting to watch how a college star adjusts to the NFL.
The interior of the line will start with Weston Richburg at center. Richburg missed most of 2017 with an injury, put had previously started all but one game in his first three years with the New York Giants. He's one of the big-money free agents San Francisco signed in the offseason. The left guard should be Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a former first-rounder for Detroit until they gave up on him and let him go for a fifth-round pick just a couple years later. The 49ers started him in 15 games and gave him an extension, so they obviously liked what they got from him last year.
Right guard is still unsettled. It's a competition between recent first-round pick and former Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett and journeyman Mike Person. Garnett missed all of 2017 with a knee injury and seems to be behind Person as of right now. I'm sure the 49ers would love it if someone with Garnett's pedigree could establish himself as the clear starter. Person has bounced around (this is his fifth team in five years), but Garnett was another staff's pick so it's not as lopsided as these types of competitions usually are in favor of a former first-rounder. On top of that, Garnett made his name in college off of running power and other gap schemes, not outside zone. It's possible Person is just a better fit for what Kyle Shanahan wants to run.
I wanted to pick the Falcons primarily because they have the reputation as being one of the better units in the league, and they also happen to run outside zone. It's a position they've invested in and have seen good results from. The most recent investment was the new contract of left tackle Jake Matthews, who at the time of signing was the third-highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL. Matthews was a guy who came into the league as a high draft pick and struggled initially, but seems to have really become a solid player. I'm looking forward to watching him in depth this year.
Inside of Matthews are two guys who played in the Pac-12 and signed big-money free-agent deals. Andy Levitre was seen as one of the best guards in the NFL when he left Buffalo for Tennessee a few years ago. He disappointed for the Titans and they ended up unloading him to Atlanta for a late-round pick. Levitre's reputation has bounced back since coming to Atlanta, however, and I've always thought he was one of the better interior pass-blockers in the NFL.
In the middle is Alex Mack, who came over from Cleveland and has been exactly what Atlanta paid for: one of the best centers in the NFL and a guy who has played all 16 games in both his seasons for the Falcons. Mack has started all 16 games in eight of his nine seasons and has played at a very high level throughout.
The right side of the line isn't nearly as well known, but it's a veteran pair that has played a good amount of football in the NFL. At tackle is Ryan Schraeder, who has spent his entire career with the Falcons and has started the last four years for them. Inside Schraeder, Brandon Fusco is a new addition who has started 80 games in his career between the Vikings and 49ers.
This really is a veteran unit that has played a lot of professional football. They come into the year with a combined 477 starts between them, which is just an insane amount logged time in the NFL. That should lead to a really great offensive line.
That does it for the preview column. I'm really looking forward to getting the season kicked off and watching all three of these teams go.