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2019 Draft: Who Maintained Continuity on the O-Line and Why We Care

 

Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith1 got rolling early in their rookie season and helped jump-start a Colts offensive line that had struggled throughout Andrew Luck’s career. A viable GPP play emerged in Marlon Mack — an actual Colts rusher! The day had come.

However, the draft usually doesn’t pay such immediate dividends on the offensive line. More often there are growing pains as players adjust to the professional level and OLs incorporate new members on the dance line.

Immediately working in rookie OL picks can prove rocky. And teams do typically take it slow in this regard, particularly with post-first round selections.2

Rookies have occupied less than 5% of starting offensive line spots entering Week 1 since 2016. While 80% of Round 1 picks enter their rookie season as starter, just 25% of Day 2 selections manage that.

May’s an optimistic month and projections usually don’t guess at the myriad things that could possibly go wrong for rookies in camp. But I digress, and will reflect my interpretation of 32 teams’ current aims for Week 1 with these OL projections. Key tiebreakers include dead money, draft capital, and the info out there from the organizations and beat reporters.

Recently I’ve added more context to the importance of OL continuity across the league, parsing how it applied to the Super Bowl participants and diving into the Steelers’ consistent offensive success. It’s part of an equation in which quality players and play-calling are very important.

All things equal, offensive line continuity tends to be a positive factor. Teams that produce top-10 rushers have averaged 3.47 returning offensive line starters since 2012, and that’s 3.54 for teams with top 5 rushers. To find one measure for the other end of the spectrum, teams with a bottom-10 Pro Football Focus run-block grade returned 3.18 starters — the bottom five yields 2.86 returning starters.

Teams with new head coaches stood out from that sample for overcoming offensive line turnover. Intuitively, defenses aren’t armed with an offseason of tape on that coach-team combination and must make the first adjustment. Chip Kelly’s first season in Philly comes to mind.

If we remove teams with a new head coach from that sample, it gets more interesting. The average number of returning OL starters then jumps from 3.54 to 3.92 for teams with top 5 rushers, and from 3.47 to 3.73 for teams with top 10 rushers. The squads with bottom 10 PFF run-block grades saw almost no change.

So, when teams enter a new season with the same head coach and at least serviceable OL personnel, it seems considerably better than doing so with less continuity.3

  1. Smith was not counted as a Week 1 OL starter, though one of his four snaps in that game happened to be as a tight end on the Colts’ first offensive play. Indy’s defense turned an Andy Dalton pick into a Colts possession starting from the Bengals’ 7-yard line. Smith went on to play 75% of the Colts’ offensive snaps in 2019 and held down starting right tackle for this frankly incredible revamp.  (back)
  2. Former Chiefs lineman Parker Ehinger is the only player drafted after Day 2 to enter the season as starter since 2016, while last year the Browns made tackle Desmond Harrison the sole rookie UDFA to start Week 1 over the span. Note: I have no players from these categories in my post-draft starting OL projections.  (back)
  3. Obviously there are confounders here, with more talent at the starting OL positions likely leading to greater continuity — you don’t draft or sign a new offensive lineman if you don’t have a need at the position — but still, the difference in returning starters between the best rushing teams and the worst rushing teams is stark.  (back)
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