Previewing Bengals, Eagles, Bucs Offensive Lines

Philadelphia Eagles C Jason Kelce
Philadelphia Eagles C Jason Kelce
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 1 - I am excited to be back at Football Outsiders for another year in the trenches. Just as a reminder, this column is going to follow three teams throughout this NFL season and check in on one of their offensive lines each week. Sometimes we'll look at individual players' performance or technique, sometimes it will be more schematic in nature, but usually it will be a combo of the two. But I'm just excited to be able to be back watching football.

So without further ado, here are the teams we'll be focusing on.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals seemingly came out of nowhere last year to win the AFC and make a surprise Super Bowl run. They fell short in the big game, and a huge contributing factor was their play along the offensive line. Aaron Donald and Von Miller gave their front five more than they could handle. Cincinnati clearly made it a priority in the offseason to upgrade the unit, and it will be almost a completely new starting five, depending on how the competition at left guard shakes out.

The only starter from last year that's a lock to be in the lineup this year, barring injury of course, is Jonah Williams. The 2019 first-round pick hasn't been an elite player through his first few years in the NFL, but the Bengals believe in him enough to have picked up his fifth-year option, and he'll be out there at left tackle whenever health allows it.

Slotted in opposite of Williams at right tackle is the biggest free-agent acquisition for Cincy this offseason, La'el Collins. Collins is a pretty big name, largely due to the bizarre circumstances that caused him to plummet on draft day, but he has been a consistent starter for a decent Cowboys team his entire career. While he has never been an elite player, he is a big upgrade over the Bengals' previous right tackle(s).

The interior line will have two more free agent pickups in Ted Karras and Alex Cappa. Karras will be in the middle and joins the Bengals from New England. He's the nephew of College Football Hall of Famer, Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Horse-Punching Hall of Famer Alex Karras. Cappa comes over from Tampa Bay. Neither are superstars but both have played solid in the past, which is again a big upgrade from what the Bengals saw last year.

The big unknown is the left guard spot, where two recent draft picks will duke it out. Jackson Carman was the presumed starter despite a shaky rookie year, but he has struggled in the preseason and has dealt with an elbow issue to open up the door for fourth-round pick Cordell Volsen. Most reports coming out of Bengals camp lead me to believe it will be Volsen on opening day, but we'll see.

Philadelphia Eagles

The primary reason for watching the Eagles this year is that I always try to pick at least one offensive line that I think is going to be really good. It can be a long season if you're watching crappy offensive line play for 18 weeks, and Philadelphia certainly has that potential to be a really good unit. Plus, it's fun to watch teams that do some quarterback run stuff since that adds a nice wrinkle in the ground game.

For the Eagles, it starts in the middle with center Jason Kelce. He has been the stalwart up front for over a decade and has made multiple All-Pro teams. He's one of the best in the league. On either side of Kelce, Philly has Landon Dickerson and Isaac Seumalo. Dickerson started most of the season as a rookie last year and played pretty well from all reports. Seumalo is coming off of season-ending surgery and is probably the biggest question mark on the Eagles line.

Kelce is the heart and soul of the unit, but it wouldn't be a stretch at all to say right tackle Lane Johnson is the best player, and that's not meant as a slight at all against Kelce. Johnson is simply one of the very best offensive linemen in the NFL. One of the best athletes to ever play the position, Johnson has been very good throughout his career when he has been healthy, though he has missed 23 games over the past three years. The left tackle is the mammoth Jordan Mailata. At 6-foot-8 and 365 pounds, he's one of the biggest players in the league. He moves well for a man of that size too, and he's someone I'm really looking forward to being able to see more of.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs looked to come into the season with only one question mark up front. They returned both tackles and their center. They brought in one of the best guards in the game with the Shaq Mason trade. They drafted Luke Goedeke in the second round to compete with Aaron Stinnie (who started some games in reserve last season), and I'm sure their hope was that one of them would convincingly slide into a starting role at left guard and plug the only real hole.

Well, this offseason they lost center Ryan Jensen and Stinnie to season-ending injuries. All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs was carted off this preseason as well, but he will apparently be ready for Week 1. Still, you hate to see an anchor miss that much time, particularly when he's playing with a new center and a new right guard.

The good news is the tackles still seem solid as long as Wirfs is healthy. He's one of the best in the game, and Donovan Smith, despite an awful playoff game against Von Miller and the Rams, is a solid pro. Shaq Mason has been one of the best guards in the league over the past four years and is an upgrade over Alex Cappa, so even with all the injuries, the unit should be at least decent.

Still, there are serious questions at center and left guard. Goedeke looks like he'll get the first crack at left guard, but reports I have read haven't been gushing, and I think it's telling at the time of this writing (before the last preseason game) that he hasn't officially been named the starter. The center position is probably going to be manned by Robert Hainsey, who has never started an NFL game and is currently dealing with his own injuries. If those two spots get dire, I wouldn't be surprised if Tampa Bay looks outside the building to shore up their interior offensive line sometime in October.

Comments

24 comments, Last at 09 Sep 2022, 2:42pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 06, 2022 - 10:11am

It's great having Word of Muth back.

Line play is so inscrutable from TV views and hard to parse if you weren't a lineman.

Points: 0

#2 by theslothook // Sep 06, 2022 - 10:22am

One of the absolute best series out there.

One thing I've learned from these series is the line play doesn't always conform to reputation and I'll be curious to see how Ben assesses these o line units.

The other thing I'll be curious to see is how much variation there is in the lines quality. That's a bit harder to do since Ben is dividing his time between three teams.

 

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#3 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:37am

Good stuff! Reading this series has become one of my highlights of the NFL season.  Really looking forward to a new year of articles.

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#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:42am

The Bucs didn't sign JC Tretter (yet...).

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#6 by Aaron Schatz // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:47am

Tretter announced his retirement a week ago... I was surprised he hadn't signed anywhere as well!

https://www.si.com/nfl/2022/08/25/jc-tretter-retires-from-nfl-after-nine-year-career

Points: 0

#9 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 06, 2022 - 12:12pm

In reply to by Aaron Schatz

The yet was alluding to maybe coming out of retirement instead of trusting a 3rd stringer

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#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:46am

Any chance you could comment on whether ALY (adjusted line yards) has any value, or run/pass block win rate? Or your take on whether pressure/sack rates are a reflection of the line or a reflection of the QB?

I see a lot of ball carrier-centric takes on this, but little from the guys who are actually doing the blocking.

Frankly, I wish Ben would write more. I learn a lot from his articles, including learning how little I know about blocking.

Points: 0

#8 by theslothook // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:58am

I would love to get his take on this as well. As I wrote in that gutless pass article, context completely warps conditions for the offensive line as does the Quarterback. 

Just how can you compare one line thats constantly behind in the sticks and down by a lot against another line that's playing with the lead? Perhaps Ben will say its not that big a deal and I'll take his word for it, but I am genuinely curious how he/others grade linemen when the conditions are so varied? 

To me, thats a big part of why defensive back play is so varied from grading/charting perspective. 

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#17 by LionInAZ // Sep 06, 2022 - 10:40pm

Well, my guess is that if a team is constantly behind the sticks and rarely has a lead, a poor OL is a major factor.

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#18 by theslothook // Sep 06, 2022 - 10:44pm

Is that still true pairing Josh Rosen with the then Cardinals defense? If I gifted them the 2000s Chiefs offensive line, is Josh Rosen now a probowler? Is the defense suddenly less porous?

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#20 by Pat // Sep 07, 2022 - 10:26am

but I am genuinely curious how he/others grade linemen when the conditions are so varied? 

If you take a look at older Word of Muth articles there are several where you ended up with Total Garbage on offense, and those might give insight into what you want: he actually focused on a Green Bay game where Rodgers was out, for instance (although they played Cleveland and so, of course, won).

Basically a lot of it comes down to having enough experience to recognize what's supposed to happen on the play and where the fault is - that game's got a combination of bad protection calls and total quarterback screwups. Ben's alluded to this before, I think, where even the coaches themselves screw up who was at fault on a play and have to correct themselves once they find out the actual line call.

That's why I've said before that in some sense you can't ignore the "money" aspect of offensive linemen - if a team pays a guy a ton relative to his position, there's a strong hint there that he's doing really well even if it doesn't necessary look like it: in a lot of ways they're the only ones who know what's going on. Similarly if a guy ends up not being retained by his team, that's a strong indicator to me that something might be going on (barring wacko situations like Trent Williams). 

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#21 by KnotMe // Sep 07, 2022 - 11:50am

That's a good point. Are we sure the teams know what they are doing? Might depend on the team.  (I team could have bad lines bc they gave money to the wrong guys for example). 

Football is probably the only sport where a decent amount of play if functionally invisible to viewers so I really appreciate these sections.

 

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#23 by theslothook // Sep 07, 2022 - 12:14pm

Ben Muth admitted in a podcast that he doesn't watch the offensive line during live broadcasts. He, like everyone else, enjoys following the ball. I remember dedicating three straight playoff games to watching Trent Williams just to see if he was as good as people were saying(Pff I believe ranked him as the best player). Well, kudos to them because he was amazing.

But much like coverage, its a chore to watch and very very hard to parse blame when you don't know the assignments.

This gets to a theory of mine. Lineplay maybe more than any singular unit on the field is heavily coaching dependent. I realize you need atheletes to play these positions, but it feels like to get to functional, you need a great teacher who can prepare not only your starters but the inevitable backups that come.

I am kind of leening to this view for players in the secondary, but then everytime I think one team can coach the secondary, a rash of injuries torpedoes their defense rankings. 

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#22 by theslothook // Sep 07, 2022 - 12:10pm

The money aspect is interesting and probably needs a longer investigation.

I read that article and then re-read it just now. Try as he might, its a complete mess of factors that I am not sure what the takeaway is. Backup QB + offensive line mash unit + ridiculously incompetent defense = incredibly hard to parse.

I was curious, so I dug into the surface metrics some more. Incredibly, Brett Hundley passed 53!!! times that game and the team gave up 33% of those snaps to pressure. On top of that, only 10% of the dire pass situations resulted in a white flag play(gutless pass). In other words, they did not hide Hundley at all and thus threw their injured offensive line into the lion's den. And its not as if Cleveland wasn't getting pressure(or maybe they got pressure precisely because the offense was inviting it). Oh, and Hundley has a ridiculous 39% career pressure rate.

That gameplan and Muth's breakdown is rather curious. I can't tell if the coaching staff thinks Hundley cannot play any other way or they had 0 respect for Cleveland's coverage units. But it is an example of where surface level metrics will paint the picture of a bad offensive line when in reality gameplan and QB had a lot to do with it. 

 

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#24 by Pat // Sep 09, 2022 - 2:42pm

In other words, they did not hide Hundley at all and thus threw their injured offensive line into the lion's den. 

No, the key part that I was referring to was this:

I don't know who sets the Packers empty protections (the quarterback, the center, or a coach who doesn't allow changes at the line of scrimmage) but they were wrong a lot.

You can't really judge linemen by the results of the play: they're asked to do a job, and they do it. You have to understand what's being asked, and how they do it, in order to judge how they played. That's the tough part. It's much, much easier for the team itself to grade the linemen. For outsiders who don't know the playcall or protection, you basically just have to look at technique.

Oh, and watch for times when the lineman is just standing around looking confused and then spins and hurries to the sacked QB when he realizes he's out of place. That's kindof a giveaway.

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#7 by Pat // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:55am

I think one of the good things about picking the Eagles this year is that even if they're not quite as good as expected, they almost certainly won't be terrible. Unlike prior years when they ended up going extremely light after serious preseason injuries, Kelce's already returned to practice from a preseason injury so the starters are basically all fine.

And the Eagles OL depth looks way, way better than it has in previous years: they can basically absorb an injury anywhere except left tackle and even there they should be fine later in the season when Dillard comes back.

Of course in previous years Ben's kindof cursed several of the OLs he's picked, so... please don't do that again this year, Ben.

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#10 by serutan // Sep 06, 2022 - 12:20pm

Good to see you back!

 

 Horse-Punching Hall of Famer Alex Karras

 Yup, Blazing Saddles is one of the all time great comedies.

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#12 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 06, 2022 - 1:10pm

More telling about his abilities as an actor -- he holds his own in Victor, Victoria.

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#15 by garyray9 // Sep 06, 2022 - 2:41pm

but it's a fun time, and Karras was really good in it.  He had a number of great lines he delivered perfectly.

 

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#11 by big10freak // Sep 06, 2022 - 12:24pm

Always glad to read these articles.  As a lineman from bygone days (they captured some of my games via cave drawings) always enjoy hearing on how things are done now 

 

Separate but related would like the author to consider doing an article on what he thinks of Green Bay’s multi position approach with o line.  The past few years coaches regularly talk about starting the “best five guys” with multiple players being expected to handle different positions based on game circumstances 

 

I know GB is not a team of focus.  But this approach is so distinct from the standard of dedicated guys to positions at least at starter level thought it might merit its own article.  
 

Anyway, good to know this series is back!

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#13 by Romodini // Sep 06, 2022 - 1:51pm

I suppose you could say La'el Collins was consistent when he started, but he was hardly the consistent starter. He had a conditioning issue in 2020 and eventually was out for the year with a hip injury. He then showed up out of shape again in 2021 before being suspended and apparently attempting to bribe the NFL drug test collector.

And if PFF counts for anything, he actually was elite in 2019 when he was rated the third best right tackle.

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#14 by Raiderjoe // Sep 06, 2022 - 2:29pm

Will be commrnting on some of these this uear

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#19 by fb29 // Sep 06, 2022 - 11:20pm

Couldn’t have asked for three better teams. Love the picks.
 

Super interested to know how defenders can do anything to a 365 pound man who moves well. Also how does Hurts see over him? Is there just a cone of the field that Hurts can never throw to? 

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