The Importance of the Offensive Line – It’s About Trust
By Luke Sims
With all of the roster analysis going on lately (Dave’s done some thorough work), it’s easy to look at the team as a whole and not get into the meat of each position. Blanket statements like “he was good” or “terrible, just terrible” aren’t very enlightening. Equally as confusing is the sudden jump to specific numbers like “he allowed 6 sacks in 2012.” Was six sacks a lot for that team? Who was the guy to his right? Who was the guy to his left? How many came in one game?
So, I’m going to break down the offensive line situation as best I can. There have been a multitude of new veterans, undrafted free agents, and drafted rookies coming into Jacksonville lately but will any of them make the team? More importantly: will any of them make the team better?
The offensive line operates like a team all by themselves. They must gel together to be effective. They must trust one another, they must trust the movements of the quarterback and running back, and they must do all of this trusting while being forced out of position by opponents coming off the line and coming in from the second layer of the defense. Just the sheer amount of work that each offensive lineman must handle is impressive. They are easily the unsung heroes of the NFL (except maybe the fullback).
I’ve long thought the offensive line to be the key to success for NFL teams – especially the Jacksonville Jaguars. When your offense is based on the run, it is difficult to get things done without a good offensive line. Yes, even with the brilliance that is Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jaguars offensive line has been labeled suspect as of late (40 sacks to Blaine Gabbert will do that), especially by Bleacherreport. Football outsiders similarly reported concerns about the Jags offensive line.
No matter how much Blaine Gabbert grows, he won’t be able to out-grow poor blocking.
While some of our writers (myself included) have been criticized for our assessments of the offensive line, a lot of what we see tends to be true. Uche Nwaneri was predicted to be a started back in 2010, Mike Brewster could (and will) make a push for the center spot when he gets a chance, and Cameron Bradfield may just make it on the roster behind Eben Britton rather than Guy Whimper (who as we know played worse than most high schoolers in 2011).
Let’s take it position by position.
- Left Tackle is pretty well shored up with Eugene Monroe starting. He doesn’t have an injury history to worry us and has been consistent in his performance at a high level. While I find the lack of depth a tad concerning, I know that Monroe probably isn’t going anywhere.
- Left Guard is, in my humble opinion, our weakest O-Line position. I know and expect Will Rackley to be improving, but not having anybody of proven starting caliber is concerning to me. He allowed a 16% of the 40 sacks on Gabbert despite being between Eugene Monroe in excellent form and a resurgent Brad Meester at center. I am excited that he’ll be back however and think he will perform far greater this coming year. Jason Spitz could always step in if his play drops.
- Center will be intriguing either the next year or the year after. Brad Meester lost his elite edge a few years ago and was in danger of losing his job before he jumped back into high gear. I like him for 2012, but doubt he will be able to last much longer as the starter. Dave likes Mike Brewster beating out perennial back up John Estes for the backup job, but I see both being carried and one cross-trained at guard before being allowed to duke it out next year.
- Right Guard is in solid hands with Uche Nwaneri starting. I love Jason Spitz as the backup and think he could easily start if needed and do quite well in either right or left guard. It will be curious to see if Spitz competes against Rackley for the other starting spot – the coaches may just allow it.
- Right Tackle appears to be the major problem for many people this offseason. Eben Britton has frequently been injured and hasn’t played at the same form he was when he was drafted three years ago. Guy Whimper played poorly last season and proved unable to properly pave the way for Maurice Jones-Drew or protect Gabbert from the defender barreling down on him. The team appears to like Whimper and he should be back for 2012, though I’d rather have Cameron Bradfield starting if Britton gets hurt again. Watching Whimper was too tough through 2011.
Of course, I’ve fallen into the trap of some generalities. I think that the Jags’ line has improved since the end of the season despite not getting a lot of new blood (read: none) added. Maybe an UDFA will sneak his way onto the squad, but I’m not certain it will be necessary.
Head Coach Mike Mularkey is not as connected to General Manager Gene Smith as ex-HC Jack Del Rio was. Mularkey will be sure to name whichever starter he wants on game days. I expect him to allow less room for error from Rackley and he won’t settle for poor performance at center either. If I were Meester and Rackley, I’d redouble my efforts to make sure that I’m able to impress each day rather than relying on “potential” as a third round pick last year and the “wily vet” clout that Meester seemed to have over the past couple seasons.
The offensive line is more than just a group of guys who are bigger than most everyone. They protect the signal caller, they protect the running back, and they make sure that they take their man out. Watching the fights in the trenches is almost as good as any full game. The work done in the matchups is almost immeasurable – it’s so much more than just being bigger and stronger than the other guy.
Fortunately, the Jaguars seem to have a group of guys that they like. I’m not certain that the group will be the same as it was last year, but it will certainly be more cohesive. And with cohesion comes success. With everyone on the same page, the running and passing can only improve.
It’s all about trust.
– Luke N. Sims