clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How to get a good (or great) offensive line

New, comments

Buy it, spend draft capital on it, or develop it. There are a myriad of ways to go about it.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

BRONCOS TRAINING CAMP Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As of right now, the Dallas Cowboys have an astounding $61MM of 2019 cap space tied up in their offensive line. Four of their top seven cap values belong to offensive lineman:

  • Tyron Smith $15.5MM
  • Zach Martin $14.0MM
  • Travis Frederick $11.0MM
  • La’el Collins $9.9MM

All four of those players are offensive lineman that they drafted (Collins was signed as an UDCFA but he was essentially drafted by Dallas - long story) and all were re-signed after their rookie deals. The last time the Denver Broncos re-signed an offensive lineman that they had drafted when their rookie deal expired was Ryan Clady.

The $61MM offensive line spend is the highest value in OverTheCap.com’s data (which goes back to 2013). For comparison the 2016 Seattle Seahawks had about one tenth of that invested in their offensive line ($6.3MM). From a percentage of total offensive cap space invested in the offensive line, the highest was the 2017 Browns which had 73% of their offensive cap invested in their offensive line (41.6 of 53.7). The 2016 Seahawks were the lowest percentage at 12%.

While the Cowboys offensive line is not as good as it was three years ago, it is still one of the better units in the league. The Cowboys have used all three of the methods that a franchise can use to build a great offensive line (or any position group for that matter)

  1. Invest significant draft capital
  2. Develop your offensive lineman while they are on their rookie deals
  3. Invest in free agent offensive lineman (that you may or may not have developed)

Investing Draft Capital in the Offensive Line

Pro Football Reference has developed a way to compare the value of players across positions. They call this metric Approximate Value (AV). They have gone through and figured the expected career approximate value for every spot in the draft. By looking at where teams have drafted you can tabulate how much draft capital a team has spent on a particular position group. I did this for offensive line for the entire league from 2013-2019. Of course this does not factor in how much total capital a given team had to spend (winning teams are going to have less draft capital to invest).

For example, in 2013 the Arizona Cardinals used the 7th overall pick on offensive guard Jonathon Cooper from North Carolina. The expected career total AV for the 7th slot in the draft is 22.1. Arizona invested a total of 60.9 AV units into their offensive line so Cooper was more than one third of their total OL capital investment.

So here is how teams compare in terms of draft capital that they have invested in the OL 2013-2019:

Rank TEAM Drafted OL Players SUM EXP AV
1 IND 14 82.9
2 TEN 10 82.3
3 STL/LAR 13 75.4
4 CIN 12 73.9
5 JAX 7 72.3
6 DET 9 72.0
7 HOU 9 64.1
8 MIA 8 63.4
9 SDG/LAC 9 62.2
10 ARI 11 60.9
11 NYG 8 60.6
12 WAS 9 58.5
13 ATL 6 58.3
14 NWE 12 56.6
15 MIN 14 55.0
16 SFO 10 54.6
17 KAN 7 53.8
18 CLE 8 53.1
19 NOR 7 52.7
20 DEN 9 51.5
21 BAL 12 51.4
22 DAL 6 51.3
23 SEA 13 51.0
24 OAK 9 50.9
25 PHI 6 50.4
26 CHI 8 50.0
27 BUF 7 41.7
28 GNB 8 36.5
29 CAR 6 36.3
30 TAM 6 35.1
31 NYJ 7 26.6
32 PIT 4 12.1

The Indianapolis Colts tried desperately to build an offensive line to protect the #1 overall selection at QB. For the most part, their draft capital has been spent on bad investments. Since the league is mostly passing, I am going to focus on Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency stat (PBE). From 2013-2019 the Colts were consistently ranked as one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines in the league with the exception of 2018 (they were 10th in 2018). Their average PBE of 82.8 for this time period ranks 26th in the league. So they have either chosen poorly in their draft picks, or they have failed to develop those draft picks.

It should be noted that while the Pittsburgh Steelers invested the least draft capital in their offensive line during this time frame, they had invested fairly heavily in the time preceding this. They used a first round pick on the OL in 2010 and 2012 and a second round pick on the OL in 2011 and 2012. Both of those first round picks (Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro have been first team All-Pros).

Developing Your Young Offensive Lineman

A combination of the change in NFL practice rules and a change in the way offenses play in the college game has meant that very few offensive lineman are NFL-ready when the draft comes around. This has put a premium on college offensive lineman that come from pro-style offensive schemes and it has also put a premium on offensive line coaching at the NFL level.

So many of the offensive lineman coming out of college do not have a full skill-set to play the NFL game. So how can we tell which teams have been good at developing offensive lineman (spoiler: Denver hasn’t)? I did this by looking at how much draft capital that they invested in their offensive line (see above), how much salary cap space they have spent on the offensive (see below) and how well the OL performed (also see below).

OL Total Cap Spend by year 2013-2019:

TEAM 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 Average OL Spend
Jets $47,493,242 $36,847,212 $29,743,163 $29,869,419 $33,201,673 $27,006,154 $21,566,132 $32,246,714
Eagles $41,869,446 $35,461,396 $34,671,590 $33,687,976 $23,951,203 $29,446,666 $25,664,899 $32,107,597
Raiders $43,866,085 $36,376,204 $43,133,182 $36,972,041 $31,155,998 $17,354,097 $10,275,023 $31,304,661
R. Potatoes $46,130,331 $35,748,048 $35,081,227 $26,185,523 $27,764,389 $26,783,400 $20,025,614 $31,102,647
Browns $37,937,560 $34,889,282 $41,615,803 $20,849,784 $27,241,456 $30,648,671 $23,789,034 $30,995,941
Cowboys $61,265,442 $43,159,686 $23,737,956 $21,408,752 $17,609,241 $21,509,863 $19,470,710 $29,737,379
Saints $46,813,201 $35,725,330 $32,749,192 $19,176,356 $18,404,737 $25,334,966 $18,150,025 $28,050,544
Buccaneers $46,914,847 $25,173,502 $23,495,847 $28,332,177 $20,141,348 $20,487,478 $25,305,673 $27,121,553
Packers $47,730,063 $33,058,976 $28,553,585 $20,810,535 $21,177,514 $18,989,544 $17,576,974 $26,842,456
Falcons $42,199,611 $40,262,172 $25,953,036 $21,046,268 $15,191,609 $26,480,666 $16,464,048 $26,799,630
Steelers $40,048,509 $35,090,781 $39,055,012 $28,392,364 $19,423,147 $14,731,514 $10,836,255 $26,796,797
49ers $43,859,623 $33,769,652 $25,655,347 $16,923,639 $19,757,909 $22,908,605 $17,581,156 $25,779,419
Vikings $26,864,097 $26,668,316 $19,431,712 $32,879,606 $29,660,487 $24,118,962 $20,329,032 $25,707,459
Titans $38,375,517 $34,214,395 $17,127,063 $21,398,613 $11,157,861 $26,321,377 $26,721,984 $25,045,259
Bengals $34,741,556 $26,761,854 $17,262,341 $26,963,355 $26,041,777 $19,718,975 $22,390,147 $24,840,001
Broncos $30,754,302 $27,685,340 $23,704,519 $14,289,846 $25,231,140 $25,225,932 $25,550,424 $24,634,500
Chargers $38,664,938 $27,616,393 $21,498,674 $25,663,138 $18,814,927 $19,973,727 $17,428,226 $24,237,146
Texans $29,948,110 $21,831,728 $20,476,207 $31,103,538 $22,553,824 $23,273,816 $18,690,874 $23,982,585
Jaguars $34,678,100 $28,024,882 $24,024,663 $23,735,090 $24,810,232 $16,247,624 $14,812,080 $23,761,810
Panthers $28,310,937 $32,444,025 $22,836,833 $25,130,242 $21,230,527 $16,431,582 $18,981,126 $23,623,610
Rams $32,938,926 $27,763,882 $20,356,685 $18,948,473 $18,702,572 $26,264,010 $19,240,160 $23,459,244
Cardinals $36,135,886 $16,580,007 $28,917,997 $19,298,535 $29,469,242 $13,774,076 $19,171,690 $23,335,348
Chiefs $37,831,349 $34,676,355 $25,611,612 $14,976,072 $16,685,651 $12,179,435 $20,708,982 $23,238,494
Dolphins $13,747,690 $30,559,407 $22,688,764 $28,834,646 $23,159,445 $19,150,146 $17,575,011 $22,245,016
Patriots $26,496,426 $20,349,864 $22,196,744 $26,800,280 $21,165,260 $15,395,126 $22,775,490 $22,168,456
Bills $37,263,782 $13,535,618 $35,796,366 $19,315,114 $15,086,305 $19,208,595 $14,455,361 $22,094,449
Giants $35,028,108 $16,351,639 $21,971,246 $13,382,316 $23,070,742 $19,002,962 $24,235,900 $21,863,273
Bears $23,574,926 $27,038,059 $32,573,770 $25,002,276 $17,921,204 $16,590,321 $10,071,052 $21,824,515
Colts $34,162,903 $25,505,806 $20,295,961 $20,978,970 $14,365,795 $16,559,625 $18,601,449 $21,495,787
Seahawks $35,406,112 $23,349,614 $21,118,436 $6,307,577 $12,810,650 $23,339,609 $27,955,261 $21,469,608
Ravens $28,013,425 $21,740,115 $23,346,656 $18,007,403 $20,756,704 $17,657,641 $16,354,916 $20,839,551
Lions $30,181,552 $26,454,707 $23,027,789 $17,174,595 $10,416,454 $11,871,158 $13,221,451 $18,906,815

It was interesting to see that of the five teams that have spent the most salary cap space on their offensive lines during this period (NYJ, PHL, OAK, WAS and CLE), only the Eagles have been successful. It’s also interesting to note that of the bottom five teams in this table (CHI, IND, SEA, BAL and DET), three of the five have been winning teams without spending significant cap space on the OL (SEA, IND and BAL).

We now need to look at performance to find those teams, if they exist, who have gotten good offensive lines without investing a bunch of draft capital OR cap space on their OL. Those are the teams that will have the best OL coaching (and the best luck).

OL Performance and Correlations

Here is the average PBE value for every team 2013-2018 via PFF and then show correlation value to yearly cap spend (correlation values will be looking at the yearly pairing of OL cap spend and PBE even though the yearly PBE values are not shown):

TEAM Average OL Cap Spend Average PBE Correlation
Eagles $32,107,597 85.8 86%
Seahawks $21,469,608 82.6 84%
Steelers $26,796,797 86.3 71%
Chiefs $23,238,494 85.3 56%
Bears $21,824,515 85.4 55%
Falcons $26,799,630 84.8 53%
Broncos $24,634,500 85.2 53%
Rams $23,459,244 83.6 51%
49ers $25,779,419 83.2 47%
Ravens $20,839,551 86.5 43%
Browns $30,995,941 85.2 41%
Bills $22,094,449 85.7 40%
Jets $32,246,714 84.3 29%
Colts $21,495,787 82.8 27%
Raiders $31,304,661 86.1 24%
Saints $28,050,544 87.1 22%
Panthers $23,623,610 84.1 20%
Texans $23,982,585 81.8 13%
Titans $25,045,259 83.8 11%
Patriots $22,168,456 84.5 8%
Buccaneers $27,121,553 83.6 5%
Cardinals $23,335,348 80.5 -14%
Chargers $24,237,146 80.9 -17%
Dolphins $22,245,016 82.5 -17%
Lions $18,906,815 84.8 -23%
Bengals $24,840,001 86.1 -24%
Jaguars $23,761,810 84.2 -25%
Packers $26,842,456 86.5 -47%
Giants $21,863,273 83.2 -61%
Cowboys $29,737,379 86.6 -63%
Vikings $25,707,459 82.3 -70%
R. Potatoes $31,102,647 85.1 -84%

Now, make sure you keep in mind that a positive correlation just means that spend is similar to PBE performance; they could both be low, high or in the middle. We can see that the Broncos have a fairly strong correlation, but that only means that when we spent more on our OL we got better performance and when spent less our OL performance got worse.

For example in 2015, we were 8th in OL cap spend and 18th in PBE. In 2013 we were 4th in OL cap spend and 1st in PBE. Peyton Manning played a large role in this as well. He consistently made the performance of his OL better because of his ability to recognize defenses, adjust protection and get rid of the ball.

So let’s look more closely at a few teams to understand what this data is telling us.

Philly averaged the second highest cap spend on their OL over this time period and they have gotten consistently good PBE performance - hence the extremely high correlation value. Seattle, on the other hand, has a high correlation value because they have consistently skimped on their OL and have gotten consistently bad pass blocking.

Going down to the bottom of the correlation values you see Washington that has one of the highest average OL cap spends and yet gets consistently poor pass blocking. You also see Dallas has gotten elite pass blocking without much average cap spend and without heavy draft investment because they developed their OL talent (this includes Ron Leary who was an UDCFA). Now Dallas is paying the price in cap space to keep those elite offensive lineman that they developed playing for them.

So when you put all three data sets together (OL cap spend, OL draft capital and PBE) you see this picture emerge:

TEAM Average OL Cap Spend Average PBE OL Draft Capital '13-'19
Saints $28,050,544 87.1 52.7
Cowboys $29,737,379 86.6 51.3
Ravens $20,839,551 86.5 51.4
Packers $26,842,456 86.5 36.5
Steelers $26,796,797 86.3 12.1
Bengals $24,840,001 86.1 73.9
Raiders $31,304,661 86.1 50.9
Eagles $32,107,597 85.8 50.4
Bills $22,094,449 85.7 41.7
Bears $21,824,515 85.4 50.0
Chiefs $23,238,494 85.3 53.8
Broncos $24,634,500 85.2 51.5
Browns $30,995,941 85.2 53.1
R. Potatoes $31,102,647 85.1 58.5
Falcons $26,799,630 84.8 58.3
Lions $18,906,815 84.8 72.0
Patriots $22,168,456 84.5 56.6
Jets $32,246,714 84.3 26.6
Jaguars $23,761,810 84.2 72.3
Panthers $23,623,610 84.1 36.3
Titans $25,045,259 83.8 82.3
Buccaneers $27,121,553 83.6 35.1
Rams $23,459,244 83.6 75.4
Giants $21,863,273 83.2 60.6
49ers $25,779,419 83.2 54.6
Colts $21,495,787 82.8 82.9
Seahawks $21,469,608 82.6 51.0
Dolphins $22,245,016 82.5 63.4
Vikings $25,707,459 82.3 55.0
Texans $23,982,585 81.8 64.1
Chargers $24,237,146 80.9 62.2
Cardinals $23,335,348 80.5 60.9

I tried to put together a surface map to show all three variables graphically, but I ended just confusing myself so I will not present that here. I did however decide that I needed to look at run blocking as part of this analysis since the job of the OL is not pass blocking alone. I used adjusted line yards (ALY) from footballoutsiders.com which attempts to give rushing yards independent of running back talent (the rushing yards that the OL earned). I then gathered the rank in ALY by team for this time period and I looked at the correlation (or lack thereof) with cap spend and/or draft capital invested.

The table below shows ALY rank and correlation to cap spend:

TEAM 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 Correl ALY to Cap
Cowboys 8 4 4 6 1 4 64%
Jets 32 29 12 26 20 21 52%
Vikings 23 19 30 10 13 10 49%
Bears 28 28 8 7 15 20 43%
Chiefs 16 12 17 5 7 2 39%
Lions 20 32 31 22 21 13 35%
R. Potatoes 26 21 6 21 19 23 28%
Patriots 3 1 9 2 5 1 28%
Falcons 24 8 10 15 14 24 24%
Bills 30 27 16 23 26 16 24%
Buccaneers 31 16 21 9 32 27 22%
Texans 27 20 15 18 23 6 8%
Titans 17 23 5 20 17 19 -18%
Dolphins 14 30 22 28 9 28 -20%
Chargers 5 26 23 31 31 3 -22%
Packers 7 5 19 25 8 5 -29%
Bengals 22 24 14 1 11 11 -32%
Seahawks 12 31 26 4 4 9 -33%
Giants 29 15 24 11 22 30 -33%
Steelers 15 7 3 8 6 22 -33%
Panthers 11 25 25 12 27 14 -41%
Rams 1 3 29 24 18 12 -49%
Saints 2 2 1 13 2 7 -55%
Ravens 9 6 20 14 3 32 -60%
Cardinals 25 17 7 3 24 17 -64%
Browns 18 14 28 29 25 18 -68%
Broncos 6 9 18 17 12 8 -69%
Jaguars 21 13 27 16 30 31 -73%
Eagles 19 22 13 30 29 25 -75%
49ers 10 10 32 32 10 29 -80%
Colts 4 18 2 27 16 15 -83%
Raiders 13 11 11 19 28 26 -94%

Remember that correlation is not causation and that correlation can me low with low or high with high (or high with low, etc.). That being said, the Cowboys 64% positive correlation was good to see. They have been investing some draft capital in their OL but not cap space (until recently) and it has resulted in a highly ranked running game (by ALY). They drafted two-time All-Pro LT, Tyron Smith, 9th overall in 2011 so that draft investment does not factor into this time-frame. Their 64% correlation is a result of low spend correlating with low rank (good ranking).

Right below them you have the Jets, who have spent significant cap on their OL (high value), who have had a generally bad running game (high value but low rank). The teams with the best run blocking OLs over this whole time period were the Patriots, Cowboys and Saints (average ALYs of 3.5, 4.5 and 4.5). They all invested about the same amount draft capital into their OLs (56.6, 51.3 and 52.7 respectively). This would point to all three teams having excellent OL coaching.

The New England Patriots re-hired Dante Scarnecchia after he took a one year hiatus from the team. He is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, OLC’s on the planet. The Cowboys had Bill Callahan as their OLC in 2013 and 2014. While he is a terrible HC, he is decent OC and good OLC. After Callahan they had Frank Pollack 2016-2017 and then Marc Colombo in 2018. Marc Columbo is still the OLC. The New Orleans Saints had Bret Ingalls as their OLC in 2013. He was the RBC and OLC from 2009-2015. Dan Roushar, who had been with the Saints as an assistant RBC since 2013 took over as the OLC in 2016. He is still their OLC. What we should note is that teams with great offensive line play, don’t necessarily have stability at OLC over this time period. That actually seems to be the exception - New England.

The only other team that had an average ALY rank below 10 was the Chiefs (9.8). The Chiefs also had a strong correlation between OL cap spend and ALY rank. Similar to the Cowboys they did not invest much cap in their OL (low), but had low numbers in ALY ranking (low correlation to low). On the other side of the ledger the Saints generally had a fair amount of cap space in their OL (high value correlating to a low rank) and a low number ALY, hence the negative correlation of -55%. The Oakland Raiders had the third highest average OL cap spend during this time period but that did not result in a good ALY (average rank of 18) hence the -94% correlation.

The Colts are an interesting story. They have invested the most draft capital of any team in their OL 2013-2019 and yet they are 26th in average PBE, but they have actually been decent at run blocking (average ALY rank of 13.7 which is 8th best in the league). They have not sunk much cap space into their OL (average OL cap spend was 29th). So that would suggest that they are not coaching up their drafted offensive lineman since most lineman are much better at run blocking when they come out of college than they are at NFL-level pass blocking.

Can you have a great OL without investing cap space or draft capital?

So now we look for the needle in the haystack. We are trying to find a team that has gotten performance at low cost (draft and cap). There is one. The Ravens, aka Joe Flacco’s old team. They are 4th in average PBE, 10th average ALY ranking while being 21st in draft capital investment and 31st in average OL cap spend. That’s pretty darn impressive.

As someone who pays attention to offensive lines, I could not even tell you who their offensive line coach (or coaches) have been over this time frame. I looked up their current OL coach, Joe D’Allesandris (who sounds like he should be on our coaching staff given his last name), but he was only their OL coach for the past two seasons. Prior to that Juan Castillo was their OL coach from 2014-2016 and their run game coordinator in 2013. Castillo was the OL coach in Philly for 12 seasons before a disastrous two-year stint at their defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills have also gotten good pass blocking (ranked 9th and 10th) for relatively little cap (28th and 26th) and draft (26th and 27th) spend. The difference being that Bears have gotten decent run blocking (17th in ALY) while the Bills have not (28th). The Bears currently have one of the best offensive line coaches in the world (no bias here ;p) in Harry Heistand who formerly was the OL coach at Notre Dame. Heistand was actually the OL coach for one season under Mike Munchak while he was the head coach in Tennessee (2011). Prior to that Heistand was the OL coach of the Bears in 2005-2009. I would expect the Bears to continue to improve their OL with Heistand as their OLC.

A closer look at how the Baltimore Ravens have done this

Here is a table showing the Ravens starting offensive line at how the players were acquired:

POS 2018 how acquired 2017 how acquired 2016 how acquired 2015 how acquired 2014 how acquired 2013 how acquired
LT Ronnie Stanley BAL/1st/6/2016 Ronnie Stanley Ronnie Stanley no one with > 8 games Eugene Monroe JAX/1st/8/2009 Eugene Monroe
LG Alex Lewis BAL/4th/130/2016 Jame Hurst UDCFA no one with > 8 games Kelechi Osemele BAL/2nd/60/2012 Kelechi Osemele A.Q. Shipley PIT/7th/226/2009
C Matt Skura UDCFA Ryan Jensen BAL/6th/203/2013 Jeremy Zuttah* TB/3rd/83/2008 Jeremy Zuttah Jeremy Zuttah Gino Gradkowski BAL/4th/98/2012
RG Marshal Yanda* BAL/3rd/86/2007 Matt Skura Vlad Ducasse NYJ/2nd/61/2010 Marshal Yanda*+ Marshal Yanda*+ Marshal Yanda*+
RT Orlando Brown BAL/3rd/83/2018 Austin Howard UDCFA Ricky Wagner BAL/5th/168/2013 Ricky Wagner Ricky Wagner Michael Oher BAL/1st/23/2009

The first thing to note is that they struck gold when they drafted perennial All-Pro and Pro-Bowl OG, Marshal Yanda, in the 3rd round in 2007. He has been injured frequently over the past three seasons, but he was elite 2013-2015 and again in 2018. Yes they invested two first round picks in offensive tackles (Michael Oher in 2009 and Ronnie Stanley in 2016), but they were able to develop 5th round selection Ricky Wagner into one of the better RTs in the league and they also did a good job turning 2nd round Kelechi Osemele into an above average offensive guard.

So it would appear that if you want a good offensive line you either have to spend significant cap space (free agents or resigning your developed) or significant draft capital (or do both). It’s quite rare to have a great OL without doing one or both. FWIW, the Broncos have been in the middle of the pack in both cap spend and draft spend (after using a first round pick on Garett Bolles and a 2nd round pick on Dalton Risner) but our PBE was largely a function of PFM and not the quality of our OL players. Our OL had the best PBE in the league in 2013 and 2014. In 2015 we dropped to 18th, then 26th in 2016, 30th in 2017 and back up to 17th in 2018. The improvement in 2018 was partly due to Bolles year-over-year improvement, but mostly due to marginally improved QB play (Keenum vs TS/PL/BO).

The Broncos have $30.7MM of our cap space tied up in the OL. That is 24th in the league. If you had to choose which to increase to improve our offensive line which would you choose, cap spend or draft spend?

Poll

If you had to pick one way to improve the Broncos offensive line, which would it be

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    spend more on free agent offensive lineman
    (94 votes)
  • 77%
    continue our trend of using first or second round picks on the OL
    (322 votes)
416 votes total Vote Now