By Nick Shook
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One can point to a stat line for a season and make a general, opinionated observation about most skilled position players. They’re not always correct, but they’re usually in the ballpark. It’s not that simple with linemen, though.
Statistics (really, a lack thereof) make it difficult to predict which linemen are going to improve from year to year. Luckily, for the sake of this space, we’ve considered some other important factors — teammates, fit, specific position, experience — to come up with a small group of linemen who are poised to have impressive seasons in 2017.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah and many others have Tunsil as the lineman who we’ll see make the biggest leap in 2017, and I firmly agree.
Tunsil spent his rookie season mostly playing guard for a Dolphins line that had to deal with the loss of Mike Pouncey to injury, occasionally showing why he was a top-15 pick (and likely should have gone in the top five). His listing here isn’t thanks to his supporting cast, though. It’s for his shift back to his natural position of tackle, which was inevitable and hastened by the departure of Branden Albert (via trade to Jacksonville), whose performance fell off sharply in the second half of the season.
Tunsil was part of the All-Rookie Team for 2016, and now gets the chance to play the position he was intended to play. That should bode well for protection of Ryan Tannehill‘s blindside (expect better left tackle grades in Miami), as well as the Dolphins‘ zone-running scheme.
Decker wasn’t a disappointment by any means in 2016. Sure, he got off to a rough start (three sacks allowed in his first four games), but the first-round selection out of Ohio State was essentially what Detroit thought it was getting when the Lions spent the 16th pick on him.
2017 sets up to be an even more encouraging year for Detroit. Lions fans might not agree with me, but according to Gregg Rosenthal’s and Chris Wesseling’s Top 101 Free Agents list, Detroit upgraded at guard, signing T.J. Lang to replace the departed Larry Warford. They slightly downgraded in replacing Riley Reiff with Ricky Wagner (according to the same free agent list, which is also a small margin and thus, debatable), but the point that emerges from these changes is that the other side of the line is solidified.
So how does Decker, lined up next to Detroit’s greatest offensive line weakness (left guard), improve in 2017? He does more of what he did in the last three-quarters of the season. The only difference: Folks like you and I open our eyes and start to give credit where it’s due. More games of reliable, effective blocking builds a positive reputation, no matter the performance of the rest of the team (just ask Joe Thomas). We’ll be putting Decker among the league’s better left tackles (alongside Tunsil) after 2017. Book it.
Here’s where this gets a little fun — it’s time to play the supporting cast game.
Tretter left the Packers for the Browns (sheesh, I can hear your scoffing from here; at least let me finish), but he surprisingly joins a line that has the potential to be even better than the one he just left. For that reason, he could quickly enter the league’s general consciousness when it comes to upper-tier interior linemen.
Joel Bitonio quickly made a name for himself as a rookie, experienced a bit of a sophomore slump but again looked very promising in 2016 before going down for the remainder of the season with a Lisfranc injury. He can be considered an above-average guard going into 2017 if fully healthy. On the other side of Bitonio is fellow new arrival Kevin Zeitler, the best guard on the market in 2017 and an instant, massive upgrade over the revolving door that was Spencer Drango and Alvin Bailey. Suddenly, Tretter steps into an interior with two very dependable, effective guards, plus future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas. The lone glaring weakness is Cameron Erving, kicked back out to tackle (a position he played at Florida State), on the less consequential right side.
Is Tretter’s addition going to be the catalyst for an offensive line that reaches the Super Bowl, like Alex Mack was for the Atlanta Falcons? No. Not at all. But he could see a big boost in prestige, along with the rest of the line, as the Browns attempt to turn things around from the inside out.
This is a bonus throw-in, because Schwartz proved in his last two years in Cleveland that he had what it took to be one of the league’s better right tackles. We’re going to keep this brief.
By most free-agent expectations, Schwartz was less than what was anticipated at right tackle in Kansas City in 2016. But a couple of factors are working in his favor in 2017. First, he has another year to get more comfortable in Andy Reid’s and Matt Nagy’s offense, which cannot go overlooked. There’s nothing quite like an offensive line that is familiar with each other’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies in a familiar system.
Schwartz also blocks for the quickest passing offense in the pro game. Alex Smith and backup Nick Foles owned the two quickest times to throw in 2016 (2.36 seconds for Foles; 2.38 seconds for Smith), according to Next Gen Stats. The Chiefs also don’t air it out much, if ever, with Smith finishing with the fourth-fewest average air yards per attempt (3.23), per Next Gen Stats. That means Schwartz’s time to block is shortened, narrowing the margin for error. Add in another year of experience and familiarity, and you’ve got what seems to be a sure uptick in performance.