By Nick Shook
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We’ve spent much of this season taking a week-by-week look at individual offensive lines and their successes, or failures. This week, that changes.
As we enter Week 16 and near the beginning of a new year, it’s time to take a look back on what we’ve learned about offensive lines in 2017. We’ll start with the bad news first this week — three teams that need to address their offensive lines in the offseason — but come back next week for the good news.
Trading for Duane Brown took a few weeks to have an impact, but it’s a stopgap move. Much like Seattle’s overall title window with this current group, Brown isn’t a long-term fix. Everything is closing fairly quickly, and unfortunately, a lot of what is holding Seattle back (and has for a couple of years) is its offensive line.
On paper, it should be better than last year. The left side is filled with veterans, including late arrival Brown at left tackle and former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, who’s been converted from tackle to guard. Germain Ifedi mans the other tackle position, with rookie Ethan Pocic filling the left guard slot and Justin Britt starting at center. If you handed me that roster before the season, I’d be pleased (while holding out to see how Joeckel fit). But it hasn’t played out that way.
Supporters (or apologists, however you’d like to view them) of Seattle’s offense will tout its 4.1 yards-per-carry average and its No. 21 ranking (tied with Buffalo) in sacks allowed (37). But those same folks will overlook Seattle’s most valuable player, quarterback Russell Wilson, who has served as a massive band-aid to line problems and kept the Seahawks competitive by avoiding rushers with his feet and inflating that yards-per-carry mark with his own scrambles (he’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry on the year and has been Seattle’s leading rusher in more than one game). His 110 quarterback hits is both a glaring mark on the line’s resume, but also is inflated because of his tendency to run. It’s tough to sustain success with a quarterback who is getting hit that much, though.
Where does Seattle go from here? Brown still has a year left on his contract, Britt just signed an extension, and Ifedi and Pocic are on their rookie deals. Joeckel signed a one-year deal and might see his time among the 12s come to an end in 2018. Seattle will only have about $17 million in cap space to work with next season, per Spotrac, meaning it won’t have much to spend on a high-level guard, especially after a comparable addition, Ron Leary, signed with Denver for $9 million per year last offseason. Their best path is through the draft, which would mean the Seahawks would add another rookie lineman to the starting lineup for their third straight season.
This could bode well in the long run. Ifedi is only in his second year, and a somewhat significant improvement should be expected in 2018. A good amount of linemen really start to put it together in years three and four (see: Mitchell Schwartz). Britt is only 26. A young foundation up front might only be one more draft away.
Last year, we saw how valuable a left tackle was to a franchise when the Oakland Raiders lost Donald Penn (Plug Alert: I wrote about that here). We’re seeing this season how much a high-level guard can mean to an offense with aging, veteran parts.
Arizona was undercut early in the season when it lost Mike Iupati to elbow surgery. But even before Iupati’s injury, the Cardinals were taking the spaghetti approach, throwing anything at the wall and seeing what would stick. Arizona signed Alex Boone to a one-year deal on Sept. 5, then lost Iupati three weeks later. By the beginning of October, Boone was starting in Iupati’s place.
Not long after, Arizona signed Earl Watford and immediately inserted him into the lineup in place of natural center Evan Boehm, whom the Cardinals had attempted to convert to guard in the offseason. That experiment wasn’t successful.
Arizona also lost starting right tacke D.J. Humphriesto season-ending injury before tackle Jared Veldheer— who was already having a mixed bag of a season — suffered a fractured ankle on Dec. 10. Watford got hurt in that game, too, calling for Boehm’s reinsertion into the starting lineup.
Tired yet? Imagine how Bruce Arians feels about this season.
“You just have to laugh and go on,” Arians said on Dec. 11, via the team’s official site. “What’s next. Get a game plan these guys can succeed at, and go win a game.”
Survive and um, well, survive to see another week. The advancing ended when Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending injury in late October.
This line is difficult to evaluate because it and the entire offense have been decimated by injuries. But the Steve Keim way of adding veterans and undrafted free agents and hoping Arizona will get the most out of them is starting to catch up in the trenches. It’s time the Cardinals spend a high pick on a lineman it can expect to play for the next decade.
This one feels like a broken record. The Colts are the worst in the league in sacks allowed (53). Yes, Jacoby Brissett does hold onto the ball too long, but this isn’t an issue restricted to Brissett. The Coltswere almost as bad with Andrew Luck under center last season.
Frank Gore, bless his heart, has earned the majority of his 793 yards (boasting an unimpressive 3.6 yards-per-carry average) the hard way. This line has helped all Colts rushers equal Gore’s average, which is 29th in the league.
Credit is due for the Colts for following the underused formula of building a line by starting inside and moving out, when it drafted Ryan Kelly last offseason. The Colts also have a very good tackle in Anthony Castonzo. Two fifths of the unit are good to go. Now it’s about addressing the guard positions.
Fifth-round selection Joe Haeg, a second-year player, could still use some time to grow (much like the aforementioned Ifedi). There is some instability at the other guard position, with former second-round pick Jack Mewhort struggling with a nagging knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. It ended the 2017 season for a guard who hasn’t quite lived up to his draft status and is headed toward unrestricted free agency in 2018.
Unlike Seattle, Indianapolis will have plenty of cap space ($89 million, per Spotrac) to work with in the offseason. A couple of guards — Justin Pugh, Josh Kline — could draw Indianapolis’ interest. New England’s Nate Solder is also headed toward unrestricted free agency, though that seems a little less likely. Oh, and the Colts will be drafting in the top five. Indianapolis will have plenty of assets to use to address this deficiency in 2018.