By Nick Shook
Around The NFL Writer
Read full post on NFL.com
A great offense begins with a reliable, effective offensive line. That cannot be overstated.
The offensive line serves as the first line of defense, of protection and of action. The front five open holes for running backs, protect a quarterback, provide adequate time for receivers to get open and for passers to deliver the ball on time and on target.
But what about when one of those five is forced off the field by injury? What happens when a once-impassable wall shows a crack?
As it goes in football, next man up. The first sign of weakness is what separates the good from the forgotten. In 2017, we received one of the best examples.
Let’s dive into the unheralded but vital role of the swing lineman: The sixth man who approaches each week ready to contribute, to step up when another goes down, and to contribute in a role that lacks notoriety but becomes just as important when called into action.
The cream of the crop: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Philadelphia Eagles
We’ll hear about the importance of Nick Foles to the 2017 Eagles for the next two decades. We’ll recall his adequate performances in the wake of a season-ending injury to Carson Wentz, and his ascension to Super Bowl MVP to cap a magical run to the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy.
But what has already been lost to the tale of triumph is how important another key reserve was to the Eagles‘ success.
Philadelphia was facing an uphill climb long before Wentz suffered his knee injury. Likely future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters suffered a torn ACL and LCL in late October, knocking out a pillar of protection just as the Eagles were getting things going.
Wentz remained, but a void arose at the position. In stepped Vaitai.
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman from Texas Christian University saw extended starter action for the first time in his career and flourished, replacing Peters with near-exact performance. His athleticism shined in particular, as Vaitai excelled in both the pass and run games, serving as a reliable blind-side protector and an effective zone blocker in Philadelphia’s dynamic scheme. While the Eagles soared, little attention was paid to the contributions of Vaitai. But it wasn’t lost on his teammates.
“The strength of the offensive line is really going to determine the success of an offense,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz told me last month, “and lucky for us and a credit to [GM] Howie [Roseman] and [coach] Doug [Pederson] and [offensive line] coach [Jeff] Stoutland for putting those guys in place and having depth behind them, too, so when you lose a guy like Jason Peters, you don’t crumble. You have a guy like Halapoulivaati Vaitai that comes in and has a great postseason.”
He had just as good of a regular season, too, proving the value of a sixth lineman. While some teams are sending out six-man groups for running situations, No. 6 in the group proved to be the most important to the team that ended up winning it all.
Veterans with a chance to make an impact
Tom Compton, Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota’s offensive line situation is yet to be determined, with a group of youngsters and veterans available to battle it out for the starting right guard and tackle positions. Rookie Brian O’Neill, second-year guard Danny Isidora (seven games played, one start in 2017), veteran right tackle and fourth-year tackle Rashod Hill are all in camp to compete for the starting jobs. And then, there’s veteran blocker Tom Compton, a new arrival by way of Chicago.
Compton has high-level experience, having appeared in all 16 regular-season games as part of the 2016 NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. But Compton’s most consistent role has been that of a swing lineman, with the capability of filling in at guard or tackle for the right team.
That team in 2018 is Minnesota, which could be best served to start two of the other aforementioned linemen at the positions and keep Compton available as a reliable security blanket for one of the others, in case of injury or poor performance. Compton has demonstrated a history of being able to step in when needed, and for a Vikings team that just two seasons ago listed offensive line as its greatest weakness, it’s a fantastic luxury to have.
J.R. Sweezy, Seattle Seahawks
Sweezy made a name for himself as a reliable starting guard during his first stint in Seattle, starting all but two games in his final three seasons in Seattle, which included two runs to the Super Bowl and one Lombardi Trophy. But after signing a lucrative deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sweezy ran head-first into a prolonged battle with the injury bug, missing all of 2016 before returning to start 14 games in 2017 (he’s currently dealing with a sprained ankle in camp). He’s since left Florida to return to the Pacific Northwest, and at 29 years old, brings a potential to return to form as a depth lineman.
Seattle has been a team in need of veteran experience along the line. After addressing the left tackle situation by acquiring and extending Duane Brown, the Seahawks became less of a sieve at the position group. Signing D.J. Fluker helped address a need at right guard, too. But where the Seahawks could see the most success is in the depth of its line, with the addition of Sweezy and retention of the younger Rees Odhiambo. Instead of relying on youth on the line, Seattle has shifted its approach, addressing the need with a mix of experienced linemen and low-risk backups.
Should Sweezy be able to return to the form he displayed before his departure from Seattle, the Seahawks could find themselves in the offensive line catbird’s seat entering the 2018 season.
Youngsters with upside
Tyrell Crosby, Detroit Lions
Our pair of rookies from the Pac-12 begins with Crosby, who projects to be a more effective right tackle than left but possesses the size and skill to be effective as both a backup when called into action and a sixth lineman in run-focused sets, should Detroit implement that into its offensive system. Crosby is a road-grading run blocker, showing above-average ability to locate and engage targets, and an impressive ability to maintain and finish blocks 10 to 15 yards downfield. For a team looking to improve the run game, Crosby brings the potential to add force to a group that needs it. With Crosby in the two-deep behind former Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, Detroit has the advantage of depth it sorely needed last season.
Scott Quessenberry, Los Angeles Chargers
Quessenberry isn’t going to start as a rookie, and isn’t needed to do so, which instantly becomes a luxury for the Chargers. Los Angeles will get its first extended look at Forrest Lamp a year after injury kept him off the field, and boasts a group with experience in center Mike Pouncey and tackles Joe Barksdale and Russell Okung. Along the interior, Quessenberry possesses the intellect to learn both guard positions and center and be ready to step in in the event of an injury. His contributions, if needed, could go a long way toward keeping Philip Rivers upright and Melvin Gordon available to power an offense as part of a team that should contend for the AFC West crown.
Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
New England is spending camp working in a replacement for left tackle Nate Solder, who has left for deeper pockets in New York. No matter for Bill Belichick’s squad, which slots Wynn in as a backup guard, even after spending a first-round pick on Wynn, a lineman who projects physically as a guard even though he made his impact in college at tackle. If nothing more, Wynn’s versatility (proven by experience at a lower level) is a boon for the Patriots, even if he ends up primarily playing guard.
The Patriots have Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason slotted as starting guards, but Wynn looms as a potential future starter and a rookie who can spend camp adjusting to the NFL instead of trying to take on a larger role right out of the gate. If an injury arises, the Patriots aren’t left empty-handed. They can simply insert Wynn and start his professional career with first-year in-game experience. And if not, they have a developmental talent who should eventually grow into a reliable starting guard.