Trench Notebook: 25 takeaways & observations from line play in 2021
Now that the 2021 regular season is in the books, I’ve compiled some of my notes from studying film of the offensive line to bring you 25 takeaways on players, teams, the upcoming crop of O-line prospects in the draft, and other observations on the state of line play as we approach the off-season.
49ers left tackle Trent Williams should have been an unanimous selection for First-Team All-Pro on the offensive line this season after the show he put on week in and week out. Williams started 15 of 17 games in his 11th season and is operating at the peak of his powers inside a scheme tailor-made to feature his gifts. GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have built a team around a collection of unique, impact players, and Williams is the alpha of the group.
The Jaguars had more continuity than any team in the NFL along their offensive line entering the 2021 season, with all five starters and their OL coach returning for the third year in a row, but they were a below average unit at best. Part of that was due to injuries (24 missed games between three starters), but Jacksonville hasn’t developed their ultra-talented tackle duo of Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor into more consistent players either. This led to drafting 2020 third-round pick Walker Little. With Robinson slated to hit free agency this off-season, Little will have a chance to compete for a job in 2022. The Jaguars also have both starting guards entering unrestricted free agency. Luckily, Jacksonville has the first overall pick and a big three at tackle in Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu, and Charles Cross to consider adding via the draft. (Right guard A.J. Cann would be my pick if there was one player to re-sign out of Cann, Robinson, or Andrew Norwell).
Jacksonville is an interesting study in how continuity can be a bit overstated for quality line play while having a tremendous amount of pressure to revamp and improve what’s in front of a top overall pick at quarterback to ensure the value of playing on his rookie deal is maximized. I would strongly consider drafting at least two linemen (one tackle and one guard) while signing at least one starter-level player in free agency to help speed up the process. Time is ticking for the Jaguars to get their line to play at an average or above-average level starting in 2022.
Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater were the first two tackles selected in the 2021 draft. While Sewell had a good season, Slater played at an All-Pro level. This can lead to a lot of observers tabbing the Chargers getting more value than the Lions out of the two picks, which is true after year one, but patience and time will determine the true winner. Sewell is a year and a half younger than Slater and had to move from right to left and back to right tackle in 2021, while Slater had the luxury of settling in one spot right away. Both players look like decade long starters. Slater was better as a rookie, but the overall ‘winner’ will need to be reassessed over the next couple of seasons. How will Sewell look early in 2023 when he is close to the same age as Slater is now? Based on my evaluations of Sewell and Slater coming out of college, it’s reasonable to expect Sewell being further away from reaching his ceiling than Slater. Fully refining the technical areas of his game is by no means a guarantee for Sewell but monitoring and contrasting these two alongside one another to see how they develop will be one of the more interesting and revealing storylines for me over the next couple of seasons.
The 2022 free agent crop of offensive linemen looks strong right now, with a pretty clear top group of impact starters consisting of Terron Armstead, Brandon Scherff, Ryan Jensen, Duane Brown, Trent Brown, and Ben Jones. This isn’t a young group of names either. They’re likely short-term fixes for a line, but they are all still playing at a high level with at least one to two seasons of above average or better play left in the tank.
The Bucs interior trio of Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa have been together for three seasons with seven combined missed games between them over that span. They are arguably the best interior grouping in the NFL right now. The coolest part? None of them went to a Division I school. No other team can say the same over at least the last 7-8 years that I’m aware of, which is a nod to the Bucs front office’s ability to identify hidden talent along the line.
It was painful to watch the Bears offense this season despite serviceable years from Jason Peters and Cody Whitehair on the left side. The entire offense continually looked disjointed, with players taking turns missing assignments, culminating in the 26th overall offense in DVOA. I recently spoke with Bears legend Olin Kreutz about the line on The No Name Football Podcast. With three starters slated to hit free agency (Peters, center Sam Mustipher, and right guard James Daniels), the team is in position for a hard reset up front. I would consider moving rookie tackle Teven Jenkins back over to his most comfortable position at right tackle while working fellow rookie Larry Borom in either at right guard or having him backup the entire right side (guard and tackle). This would leave left tackle and center open with another potential starter needed at right guard.
With the 12th most projected cap space this off-season, Chicago should be in position to make competitive offers to the likes of Terron Armstead and/or Ryan Jensen, which, along with spending at least one draft pick on the position, could transform the line and offense as a whole. This is a team desperately in need of a new approach on offense, and they are in position to retool the trenches quickly with a few key additions.
The Chiefs successful transformation of their offensive line this season came after replacing all five starters and represents an interesting case study for how to approach building the position. Conventional wisdom says that continuity on the offensive line is extremely valuable, which on a general level is usually true, but quality of players matters most, along with the level of coaching and system they’re operating in.
The Chiefs are the latest example of this house cleaning approach to building the line working out. Having an excellent offensive line coach in Andy Heck, with an elite quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, and an OL-friendly scheme under Andy Reid are all key ingredients for such dramatic turnover working out smoothly. Credit should also go to the personnel department for shrewdly using a combination of the trade market (Orlando Brown Jr.), free agency (Joe Thuney), and the draft (Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith) to execute their plan.
Another similar blueprint was utilized when the Bills retooled their line prior to the 2019 season. Buffalo added four new starters that off-season largely through free agency but also used the draft (Cody Ford in the second round) and added a new line coach in Bobby Johnson. They instantly improved and have maintained a solid to good level of play since.
Kansas City and Buffalo each have elite level quarterbacks with forward-thinking systems and quality line coaches, so they were able to go about building their line using unorthodox approaches. It’s important to remember that while continuity can be an asset for the line to function at a high level due to the amount of direct and indirect communication needed for five guys to operate as one, wholesale changes with the right infrastructure around the line can also be a viable team-building strategy.