Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: 2020 Season Preview

Buffalo Bills offensive line
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


Buffalo Bills

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.


Minnesota Vikings

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.

Comments

19 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2020, 12:28pm

3 come on ben

   I'm with you slothook. Ben may be my favorite writer on this site, but it sometimes feels like he goes out of his way to not be relevant to me.

   Ben, my Chiefs recently won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. As I'm sure you know, they were losing for like 55 minutes, but then got it together in the last 5 and won. Apparently they were having protection problems, though I'm not an expert on that and can't really evaluate it like you could. 

   Even 6 months later, I would happily pay $20 to read a Ben Muth column about the Chiefs protection in the SB. Seriously. Put one up next week and I'll Venmo you.

   Going forward, I'm not sure why there can't be even a single week where Ben gives his opinion on how the Chiefs line is serving Edwards-Hilaire. Obviously, round-the-clock coverage of the Buffalo Bills takes precedence, but not even one measly week? Also, what about the Ravens? What about Dallas? What about the Niners? George Kittle is supposedly one of the greatest blockers of all time. Why in the world is he, the blocking guy, not writing about Kittle?

  I really think Ben's columns would break the internet if he started covering big stories instead of small ones.

5 Ben Muth is my favorite NFL…

In reply to by murftastic

Ben Muth is my favorite NFL writer and I am not sure its close. If only someone was there to do defensive lines. And secondary play. Matt Bowen came closest but hes at ESPN now so he won't be doing those db breakdowns.

I suspect Ben has a full time job and this is a hobby and breaking down o line tape is pretty difficult. Advocating he change his career to being a full time o line journalist would be an awesome thing for me personally and I suspect lots of others but I don't know how it would work out for him. 

Ben, if you have any free time, please devote it to doing more than once a week columns. Pretty please with sugar on top. 

7 Agreed. Breaking down o-line…

Agreed. Breaking down o-line tape takes forever, even for a single game. 

Ben I love your articles and if it would help you have more time to write them I would gladly join your Patreon if you created one.

11 Early John Madden's secret…

In reply to by murftastic

Early John Madden's secret weapon was he understood and could illustrate line play, which is probably the hardest aspect for a neutral watcher to evaluate -- not knowing the called protections and responsibilities, and everything being buried in TV angles and the 2500-pound mass of humanity fighting in a phonebooth*.

 

* -- telephones were once dedicated tools, wired to a physical connector, and were located in weatherproof containers in public areas known as "phonebooths". These were why Superman didn't walk around everywhere in just his undies.

8 I'll join this chorus. Halfway.

I too love Ben's contributions. And I don't want to have him give up the season-long looks at a few select teams. I like the continuity and the evolution of the line over the year.

But I'd love a rotation too. 

My suggestion is to have one or two slots rotated, and one or two slots be teams chosen for the year-long perspective.

2 Jon Feliciano is going to…

Jon Feliciano is going to starts the season either on IR or PUP, so the Bills OL continuity is shot right out of the gate

4 Marcus Cannon Opt-Out

As a heads-up on the Pats section, Marcus Cannon opted-out due to COVID concerns (exacerbated, in no doubt, by his history with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2011). The Pats RT will likely be Jermaine Eluemunor, a fourth-year tackle originally drafted by the Ravens in the fifth round in '17. The Pats traded a fourth just before last season for Eluemunor and a sixth.

10 Cannon Fodder

Cannon's play  was down last season, although he was still decent. That could have been due in part to the host of injuries on the line. The Pats have decent young depth, although relatively untested. It will be interesting to see how they develop in the post-Scar era.

6 Stoked

Two AFC East teams is a jackpot bonanza holiday in the sun for me. Although that's the division I follow most closely, and will particularly enjoy the subject(s), I've always been engaged by the season-long focus on a few teams. It's a soap-opera serial reality show of the big guys with burning questions to be answered week to week - will the line gel, will Tiny find his way with a fresh start, is that new QB going to make them look bad, who will be the weakest link?

12 Re: Buffalo, reports out of…

Re: Buffalo, reports out of TC suggest Cody Ford is being moved to Guard (Feliciano is hurt) and Darryl Williams will be the starting RT.

14 Ben Muth Fan Club

Since it looks like we're starting a Ben Muth Fan Club, where do I sign up and how much do I make the check out for?  Do we get certificates to hang on the wall or decoder rings or what?

His stuff is the best and though it's OL-centric, there's a lot of great stuff relevant for DL aficionados.  I used to send the articles to my son when he was a HS DE.

For nuts and bolts football, he's tops.  For entertainment football, I still love me some Mike Tanier.

15 Mike Tanier is great for…

Mike Tanier is great for comedic value. Matt Bowen was a good writer for a while as well until his stuff became fantasy-centric and behind the ESPN paywall.

He's still a great Twitter follower

16 Mike Tanier is great for…

Mike Tanier is great for comedic value. Matt Bowen was a good writer for a while as well until his stuff became fantasy-centric and behind the ESPN paywall.

He's still a great Twitter follower

17 Tanier

Yeah, sometimes I will be reading an article on Bleacher Report and think to myself, this is FUNNY, and this guy's perspective on things is... wait a minute, is this Tanier?  Yup.

18 Vikings line

Well its good to have your team featured but be careful what you wish for. A fan blog recently had a lot of names for the Vikes O line submitted by fans, that might giver you some insight into the state of that unit. One suggested name was the Ole's and another was the Turnstiles.

For an organization that has been well run, drafted well and developed players well the O line, and then QB, has been a real issue. Like in rugby some teams struggle with the set piece part of the game despite devoting enormous resources to achieving success. As a counterpoint the Vikes D line has drafted/coached and signed effective free agents for years.

It suggests that the entire subject of O line management is complicated and hard to do.

Muth's line analysis is top shelf. Combine it with the FO insights regarding you run when you win it highlights many of the issues the Vikes have had trying to close out games, as well as execute the zone option. 

I hope everyone enjoys the season win, lose or draw.

19 Bring it

I for one will anxiously await Thursday’s for whatever the Word of Muth has produced for my consumption. I never wish for him to choose my Green Bay Packers as one of the three teams, but rather relish the increased knowledge of other teams and other players. I already know my team pretty well. Plus, I always figure they’d suck if he did choose my team. Looking forward to to it!