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The Increasing Emphasis on Offensive Line Continuity

Teams are trending toward offensive line continuity in a copycat league where the two squads in the Super Bowl happened to value it as much as anyone.

The Patriots and Rams made it six straight conference title winners to avoid multi-position turnover on the starting offensive line.1

In 2015, 22 teams replaced multiple OL starters entering the season, and 11 teams replaced a majority of their starters. The number of OLs replacing multiple spots dropped to 16 in 2016 and 14 in 2017, before a rash of preseason injuries leveled that to 14 in 2018.

Entering the second week of NFL free agency, only 10 teams project to replace multiple starters, and just two teams turn over a majority of their starting linemen. Could this be another tale of franchises taking notice of strategies employed by those who survive to the final weekend?

OL Starters Pre-Draft

Now, it’s important to note that this is a preliminary look at causation and byproduct. You can argue that good players are more likely to keep their starting job, but are also more likely to be drawn away by the promise of the bidding market in free agency. Teams strive for continuity while also transitioning from untenable situations.

Caveats for sure. The Patriots had to let Nate Solder walk last offseason. The Rams’ recent free agency maneuvers show one way that teams break continuity to save cap and face the reality of vets approaching their age cliff, while elevating a younger OL combo in waiting.

Like many areas of analysis in football, there are many layers to this onion. It’s still worth wondering whether this trend toward bringing back a higher number of offensive line starters is catalyzed by the success enjoyed by the two conference champions.

Patriots’ Path Since the Wake-Up Call in Denver

After Von Miller whooped Marcus Cannon as Tom Brady and Co. only mustered 18 points in the 2015 AFC title loss, Bill Belichick immediately brought offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement.

New England’s starting OL continuity since the return of Scarnecchia is only topped by Pittsburgh and Washington.

Returning OL since 2016

This commitment to continuity reminds former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist of when legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs came to Denver during John Elway’s twilight.

What Alex did as the offensive line coach is he knew right away John only had so many years left, and Denver only had so many years to make a run with Elway. And there was a tremendous amount of emphasis to get the pieces together fast, and to get competitive fast.

There wasn’t a massive personnel overhaul when Scarnecchia arrived. The Pats found permanent homes at RG and RT for Shaq Mason and Cannon, made sure the center job was Mark Andrews’ own, drafted Joe Thuney, and maintained continuity across OL.

The one exception being a refusal to outbid the market on Solder last offseason, which worked out spectacularly when they got Trent Brown off the Niners for peanuts.

Obviously, three of the past six Super Bowl participants were the Patriots, returning four offensive line starters in two of those years and all five in 2017. The Falcons, Eagles and Rams each ran back four starters in their respective NFC title years.

McVay and Kromer Bring a History with Continuity to Los Angeles

Only the Rams saw more than 70 percent of snaps from a returning player at each starting OL spot in 2018, as they managed to top 90 percent across the offensive line. This is a mix of injury luck and design from Sean McVay and Aaron Kromer.

Majority OL Snaps 2018

Kromer also has plenty of history with OL continuity. He retains his nuclei and has success, even if not all of the names jump out.

Aaron Kromer as Offensive Line Coach

Team Years Returning OL Starters
Saints 2009-2012 Gs Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, OTs Jermon Bushrod, Jon Stinchcomb, and Zach Strief, Cs Jonathan Goodwin and Brian de la Puente
Bears 2013-2014 Gs Kyle Long and Matt Slauson, OTs Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills, C Roberto Garza
Bills 2015-2016 LT Cordy Glenn, LG Richie Incognito, C Eric Wood, RG John Miller

Looking back at the numbers for those Saints teams with Drew Brees, they unsurprisingly fared well with an average finish of fourth in total offense. Those Bears squads had their moments, finishing second in 2013 before dropping to 23rd in 2014. Kromer’s time with the Bills featured the No. 1 rushing unit and two top-12 total offenses.

Even in short stints, Kromer managed to find a core combo on the offensive line. He would find that again in Los Angeles.
However, Kromer has had to face other realities this offseason with John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold verging on 34 and 31, respectively. While Saffold still has gas in the tank, it was offset by the type of four-year, $44 million price tag that he ended up seeing on the open market. Seems like the plan is to roll with the young LG/C interior they drafted last year in Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen, both signed for three more years on their rookie deal.

McVay saw first-hand the importance of OL continuity in Washington, where in 2016 they joined Dallas and Pittsburgh as the only teams with returning starters across the offensive line who each ended up seeing a majority of snaps. Washington’s No. 3 total offense that year is the best finish under Jay Gruden, and helped propel McVay from offensive coordinator on one coast to head coach on another.

McVay observed a well-oiled machine up close, an offensive line that propelled a core of Kirk Cousins, Rob Kelley, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and about half a season from Jordan Reed. The young head coach then brought Kromer and an emphasis on OL continuity to the Rams.

Returning OL Sean McVay

McVay made a key OL investment with Kromer, right after seeing Bill Callahan do work in DC. Reminiscent of when Mike Shanahan came to Denver from San Francisco in 1995 and hired Alex Gibbs off a stint in Kansas City. Likewise, that Broncos regime worked free agency on arrival, got their guys, and then maintained continuity.

Broncos OL Alex Gibbs

Seeing that success with continuity then begets more continuity, as Sundquist confirmed. His Sports VTS venture is developing virtual reality technology for football training, which he notes could potentially have application for helping offensive linemen prepare mentally. As Broncos Director of Scouting and then GM, Sundquist played a role in finding the right OL combination, when Denver’s zone-blocking scheme cleared the way for a parade of RBs that went off in the days of Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Clinton Portis.

“We got to a point as an organization when we saw it was working the way it was supposed to work with those older guys,” said Sundquist. The Broncos then had a better feel for seamlessly assembling the next group of linemen. “The scouts knew, ‘OK this guy reminds me of, this guy acts like,’ and that’s why Tom Nalen and all those guys were so successful.”

A couple low-key moves followed the arrivals of Scarnecchia in 2016 and Kromer in 2017: The Pats drafting Thuney in Round 3 and the Rams claiming Austin Blythe off waivers — above-average starting guards in their respective offenses who combined for just $1.5M against the cap in 2018.

I’ve highlighted that greater OL continuity is more often associated with the individual rushing leaders and low Pro Football Focus run-blocking grades are more associated with lesser OL continuity, while exceptions tend to come via head coaching turnover. I’d be interested to know if the Patriots and Rams took a data-backed approach in emphasizing offensive line continuity, and how much the increase in emphasis across the league is owed to the usual attempts in emulating the most recent Super Bowl teams.

  1. I count “turnover” as a Week 1 starter who did not enter the previous season as a starter for that same team or take most of the snaps for them.  (back)
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