After a longer than usual offseason, thanks to no preseason games, we are once again ready for some football. If you're a returning reader you know the deal, but if you're new to the column the premise is pretty simple. We select three teams at the start of the season and write about a different one each week with a focus on their offensive line play. Sometimes we focus on the personnel, sometimes it's more of an X's and O's-focused column, but it's always about some aspect or aspects of offensive line play. So, without further ado, let's get into the teams we'll be looking at this year.
The main reason we decided on Buffalo is that they're a team we've never focused on for an entire season. On top of that, they return five starters from last year's rebuilt offensive line that was good for 79 of a possible 80 starts (right tackle Cody Ford was the only one that didn't start all 16 games, and he had 15 starts). In a strange preseason, that should certainly work to Buffalo's advantage early in the year. Considering the line itself was just about the definition of league average in 2019 (15th in adjusted line yards and 17th in adjusted sack rate), the continuity should mean that the Bills have an upper tier unit in 2020.
As far as the personnel goes, there are not a lot of big names. Both tackles are fairly recent second-round picks that have flashed real talent though. Left tackle Dion Dawkins has been a solid player through his first few years in the league and is still young enough to where hoping for a leap into a consistent Pro Bowler is realistic. Ford was a rookie last season and seemingly an effective run blocker (the Bills led the league in ALY off right end) but when I watched him casually, he didn't seem to be much of a pass blocker. It isn't unusual for rookies to be better in the run game coming out of college, but Buffalo will need him to develop as a pass blocker if they want to be an elite offensive line.
Buffalo's interior line was rebuilt last year and seems to be headed in the right direction. They brought in center Mitch Morse from Kansas City, right guard Jon Feliciano from the Raiders, and left guard Quinton Spain from Tennessee. I have to imagine a year of playing next to each other will be beneficial for all three, and so Buffalo should be improved across the board.
To supplement the starting five, Buffalo went out and signed veterans Darryl Williams and Brian Winters in the offseason as well. Both have started a lot of games in the NFL and add more experience if nothing else. It's unlikely that the Bills offensive line stays as healthy as it was in 2019, so adding some proven depth makes a lot of sense.
The Vikings were chosen because of their offensive system. Long-time readers of this column will know that I love watching outside zone. It's the prettiest play in football when you run it right and I know that a Gary Kubiak-coached team will always have a heavy dose of it. I expect this column to feature a lot of Dalvin Cook throughout the season.
The unit up front running that scheme is in flux currently with some question marks on the left side. The biggest name on the line for Minnesota is probably Riley Reiff, who was recently asked to take a day off to consider a contract restructure or be released. It looks like they will restructure the deal, though that hasn't been completed as of this writing. (Editor's note: Reiff has since agreed to his pay cut and will stay in Minnesota.) If his contract situation isn't resolved, they'll probably have to turn to rookie Ezra Cleveland sooner than they want. They also lost last year's left guard Josh Kline in free agency. It's expected that either last year's backup Dakota Dozier or second-year player Dru Samia will fill in for him (unless they move Reiff inside, which is an outside possibility).
The center and right side is back from last season. Garrett Bradbury started all 16 games in the middle last year as a rookie and struggled a bit, but the coaching staff seems high on him from what I've read. Pat Elflein and Bryan O'Neill should round out the rest of the unit at right guard and right tackle respectively.
New England Patriots
I can not imagine a single X's and O's-minded football fan not being curious how Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots will use Cam Newton. I don't think New England will run him into the ground or anything, particularly in the regular season, but I'm betting they'll have some great run concepts for him in key spots, and the running game always gets so much more interesting when the quarterback is a threat to run.
From an offensive line perspective, the departure of Dante Scarnecchia is just as interesting as the addition of Cam Newton. With the exception of 2014 and 2015, Scarnecchia has been as big of a part as the Patriots as Belichick and Tom Brady. His departure is a major question mark for a team that has plenty of others. Last time he left, the offensive line was solid in 2014 before taking a big dip in 2015. I'm anxious to see how a talented and effective unit looks without their leader.
As far as talent goes, the Patriots have a lot to work with. The star attractions are guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. There might not be a better guard tandem in the league. Mason is probably one of the five best guards in the league and is someone I've always enjoyed watching, particularly in the run game. Thuney has led all left guards in snaps per blown block over the past two seasons. They anchor what has been a very good group recently.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn is still just 23 years old after being selected in the first round in 2018, but missed all of that season with an Achilles injury and struggled in eight games last year. At center, David Andrews returns after missing all of 2019 with blood clots, so it'll be interesting to see how he looks on his return. Jermaine Eluemunor won the right tackle job after Marcus Cannon opted out due to COVID-19.
Regular Word of Muth columns will begin on Friday September 18.