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NFL.com: Where have all the offensive lineman gone?

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Judy Battista, an NFL.com writer, published an insightful piece this week that discusses the league wide difficulty in building a quality offensive line. The gist of the article is that acquiring and developing offensive lineman is more important than ever in the current NFL climate.

NFL Research used four key stats - rushing yards before contact, rushing yards per carry, quarterback hits allowed and sacks per drop back - to rank all 32 offensive lines. The five best lines using these four metics are the Titans, Cowboys, Steelers, Packers and Raiders. All five teams are leading their division or within striking distance of making the playoffs, in large part because of their blocking prowess.

For comparison, the Baltimore Ravens offensive line is ranked 20th this season. Their 1.7 rushing yards before contact per carry and 3.7 yards per rush attempt are both ranked 26th in the league. As for pass blocking, the Ravens have allowed the 16th most quarterback hits, with 63. Surprisingly, they are ranked 6th best with a 4.3 sack percentage.

Baltimore’s assistant general manager Eric DeCosta was quoted by Battista...

Former Pro Bowl lineman LeCharles Bentley added...

Several factors have contributed to the phenomena of declining offensive line performance. First, the proliferation of spread offenses in college football has steepened the learning curve for many blockers. This issue has been exacerbated by the recently imposed practice restrictions that have improved player safety but limited the capacity of players to work on their technique during full speed practices.

Secondly, the inherent nature of the offensive line position group has forced many inexperienced lineman onto the field before they are truly ready. Unlike, the defensive line, where it is common to rotate in young players according to run or pass situations, the chemistry and communication required on the offensive line mean that young lineman often sit on the sidelines for weeks, without gaining in-game experience, until an injury forces them immediately into the fire.

Finally, the college ranks produce more top prospects on the defensive front than offensive line. In the 2016 NFL draft, 29 defensive lineman or edge rushers were drafted in the first three rounds, compared to 16 offensive lineman. The situation is not expected to improve any time soon. Draftek’s 2017 Big Board currently lists 32 defensive lineman or edge rushers in their top-100, compared to only only 13 offensive lineman. Surely, the population produces less young men with the physical measurements required to play on the offensive line, but it also appears that players with the size and ability to play on either side of the line prefer the allure of defense to the unappreciated rigors of blocking.

Simple supply and demand dictates that the value of offensive lineman, both in the draft and free agency, will rise in the coming offseasons. Despite all of the recent innovation in football, the NFL remains a copycat league. Front offices have certainly taken notice of the success Dallas and Oakland have experienced due to heavy resource investment in the offensive line. The Cowboys and Raiders are currently in line for the top playoff seed in each conference.

Specifically analyzing the Ravens, and their priorities for the coming offseason, the expected shift in positional value may come into play. Nose tackle Brandon Williams and right tackle Ricky Wagner are the team’s two highest profile pending free agents. While Williams has consistently graded as the better player between the two, Wagner could end up being worth just as much if not more than Williams on the free agent market.

There are several ways to field a championship caliber football team. The 2016 regular season, through thirteen weeks, has proven creating a top quality offensive line is one of the very best.