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Learning to pass block in the NFL

Some history on recent young lineman who failed miserably at first, but then figured it out.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos will most likely draft an offensive tackle in this draft and all of my fellow “tackle bros” will rejoice with me. With the NFL game trending more and more toward the passing game on offense, having five starting offensive linemen who are at least decent at pass protection is imperative. The Broncos signed T/G Tom Compton as a free agent and he was one of the worst pass blockers in the league last season. He was the only offensive lineman who had more than 75 pass blocking snaps and allowed a sack on 3.0 percent or more of those snaps. For comparison according to SISdatahub.com, there were eight offensive lineman with 400 or more pass block snaps that didn’t allow a single sack in 2021. Compton allowed 11 on 291.

SIS has data going back to 2016. There are only twelve offensive linemen who have allowed 12 or more sacks in a season over the past six regular seasons. I thought that it would be informative to look at each player and answer a couple of questions

  1. What year of the player’s career did this bad sack year happen?
  2. If the player stayed in the league as a starter, how much did they improve as a pass blocker and how quickly?

Below is the table with the “dirty dozen”, which includes recently signed Billy Turner. Sack percentage is sacks/pass block snaps. Compton just missed being on this list.

Player Year Year of Player's Career PB Snaps Blown Pass Blocks PBB% Sacks Allowed Sack % Holding Penalties
Kolton Miller 2018 rookie 543 20 3.7% 14 2.6% 1
Kaleb McGary 2019 rookie 670 37 5.5% 14 2.1% 0
Brandon Parker 2018 rookie 424 20 4.7% 14 3.3% 2
Jawaan Taylor 2020 second 689 41 6.0% 13 1.9% 2
Mitchell Schwartz 2016 fifth 535 26 4.9% 13 2.4% 2
Nate Solder 2019 ninth 600 40 6.7% 13 2.2% 4
Julie'n Davenport 2018 second 539 29 5.4% 13 2.4% 4
Spencer Drango 2017 second 358 34 9.5% 13 3.6% 0
Austin Pasztor 2016 fifth 611 16 2.6% 12 2.0% 5
Liam Eichenberg 2021 rookie 647 40 6.2% 12 1.9% 3
Billy Turner 2019 sixth 554 22 4.0% 12 2.2% 0
Ryan Schraeder 2018 sixth 520 22 4.2% 12 2.3% 1

So these guys break down into two main groups: guys at the beginning of their careers and guys at or near the end of theirs.

Nate Solder is in the latter group. From what I can tell, he just had one bad season (2019). In every other year he is at least average in sack percentage allowed. That being said, his sack percentage allowed seems to be trending upward as he ages. Starting with 2016: 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 2.2, and 1.5. The former Buffalo will be 34 next season, but as Andrew Whitworth showed last season, elite offensive tackles can continue playing at a high level well into their 30s. Having an elite QB to protect can also help. Going from Tom Brady to Daniel Jones has not helped Solder’s numbers.

Ryan Schraeder is another guy from the latter group. He played terribly in 2018 and it was his final NFL season. Similar to Schraeder, Austin Pasztor was a guy who was near the end of his career when he had his terrible pass blocking year in 2016. He was never good enough to be a regular starter (2013 and 2016 were his only years as such) and he was out of the league after the 2018 season.

Spencer Drango, is a part of both groups; he played so poorly in his first two NFL seasons that they were his only two NFL seasons. He has been out of the league since 2018.

As an Irish fan I hope that Liam Eichenberg can improve upon his terrible rookie season. I’m hoping he can follow the trend set by Kolton Miller that you will read about later.

Jawaan Taylor was bad at pass blocking as a rookie, but not terrible enough to make the dirty dozen. He actually got worse in his second year before improving fairly dramatically in 2021. He went from 1.6 to 1.9 to 0.6 percent sacks allowed - effectively cutting his sack rate allowed by two thirds. Part of that might have been blocking for a different quarterback (#1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence instead of Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton).

The three guys who allowed fourteen sacks were all rookies, but the three have had very different career paths (partly based on draft status as higher drafted players get more chances to fail). Kolton Miller improved is sack rate from 2.6 in 2018 as a rookie to 1.5 to 0.4. His sack percentage in 2021 was 0.6. He went from one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league as a rookie in 2018 to one of the best in the league in 2021.

Kaleb McGary has had a similar journey to Miller. His sack percentage went from 2.1 to 0.4 in his second season (fourteen sacks allowed down to two). He regressed some in his third season (2021) allowing six sacks (1.0 percent). Unlike with Jawaan Taylor, we can’t account for any of this by a change in QB as McGary was blocking for Matt Ryan all three years.

Brandon Parker did not have the draft status of Miller and McGary who were both first round picks. He was a third round pick. He was forced to start as a rookie due to injury and he played poorly allowing a sack on 3.3 percent of his pass block snaps. His play was poor enough that he did not get another starting gig until his fourth NFL season when he started 13 games for the Raiders in 2021. His sack percentage allowed in 2021 was not great (1.3 percent), but is a significant improvement from the number he posted as a rookie.

Another player who had a rough start is Julie’n Davenport. He was a raw FCS prospect coming out of Bucknell (4th round pick in 2017) and he was allowed to develop while playing sparingly as a rookie. Bill O’Brien though he was ready for a starting gig in his second season and Davenport allowed a sack on 2.4 percent of his pass block snaps. He was traded to the Dolphins where he improved his pass blocking some in his third season (1.5 percent), but then he got injured and missed most of the 2020 season. He ended up on the Colts in 2021 and apparently his pass blocking still had not improved too much. He allowed four sacks on 155 PB snaps in 2021 (2.6 percent). He could still turn things around much like Mitchell Schwartz and Billy Turner have.

Mitchell Schwartz was the 37th overall pick of the Browns in 2012. He was an immediate starter for them as a rookie. SIS data only goes back to 2016, but he was bad at pass blocking in 2016 which was his first year on the Chiefs. He was the starting RT for a Chiefs team that allowed 32 sacks (Alex Smith started 15 of 16 games and took 28 of those sacks). The Chiefs’ starting left tackle, #1 overall pick Eric Fisher, allowed six sacks. Both Fisher and Schwartz started all 16 regular season games. I don’t know how well Schwartz played while he was the starting RT for the Browns, but PFF shows that he allowed 5, 11, 7 and 3 sacks in his first four seasons starting every game at RT for the Browns. So he appears to have been erratic. His 2016 season was his worst sack percentage allowed with KC and he improved year over year with them until his final season. Starting in 2016 his sack percentages: 2.4, 1.7, 1.1, 0.5 and 0.9. He was injured and playing hurt for most of the year in his final season (2020) and that accounts for that upward movement to 0.9. He still only allowed two sacks on 221 PB snaps in 2020.

While Billy Turner was not drafted as highly as Schwartz, he was the 67th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Unlike Schwartz, he almost didn’t play as a rookie (17 offensive snaps). He was thrust into a starting role for the Dolphins as G/T player in his second season when he started twelve games for them. PFF shows that he allowed eight sacks that year. He ended up on the Broncos towards the end of the 2016 season after being waived by Miami, then picked up and waived by the Ravens. He played 138 offensive snaps combined in 2016 and was, by PFF, one of the worst offensive linemen in the league (overall grade of 32.3). He allowed four sacks on something like 70 PB snaps. 2017 was another season on the fringe for Turner as he would play a total for 46 offensive snaps (and still allow one sack).

In 2018 Turner ended up getting inserted into the starting lineup in the fifth game at right tackle for the Broncos and then he was moved to left guard where he started games 10-16. According to SIS, Turner only allowed two sacks on 451 PB snaps in 2018 (0.4 percent). The Packers signed him to a four year free agent deal after the season (worth 28 million). Tuner was their starting right guard for all eighteen games (they lost in the NFCC) in 2019. His 12 sacks was the third worst total in the league, but he was the only guard in the top 10 in sacks allowed in 2019 and he and Drango are the only guys who were playing guard when they had their “dirty dozen” year.

Turner was moved to right tackle for the 2020 season where he started 14 regular season games (first start at RT was game three). Because of injury to David Bakhtiari, Turner was the starting left tackle for the Packers in the NFCC in 2020. Turner played much better at RT for the Packers in 2020, allowing only five sacks on 491 PB snaps (1.0 percent). Turner was again playing right tackle for them in 2021 and started in their divisional round loss to the 49ers. Tom Compton was the starting right tackle for the 49ers in that game.

According to SIS, Turner only allowed one sack on 467 PB snaps in 2021 (0.2 percent) which would make him one of the best pass blocking RTs in the league last season (PFF shows him allowing three sacks). By SIS, only two offensive tackles had a better sack allowed percentage in 2021 than Turner (min 400 PB snap): Trent Williams and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Both allowed zero sacks.

So it would appear that Turner has been improving year over year as an offensive tackle. Based on his upward trend (and Compton’s poor pass protection in 2021), I would expect Turner to be the starting right tackle for the Broncos entering training camp. With a tiny sample size (171 career PB snaps), Calvin Anderson has only allowed two sacks (1.2 percent for his career). I would not risk projecting that to hold over the course of a full season. Opposing coaches will find the weakest link on the offensive line and target that player. If Garett Bolles and Billy Turner are the Bronco starting tackles in 2022, I would expect the weakest link in pass protection to be one of the starting interior offensive line guys.

Poll

Seeing Turner’s data, how do you expect him to perform for the Broncos if he is the starter at RT?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Comparable to 2021 (sack% of 0.4 or better)
    (102 votes)
  • 30%
    Sack % of 0.5-0.8
    (107 votes)
  • 28%
    Sack % of 0.9-1.5
    (98 votes)
  • 8%
    Sack % of 1.6-2.2
    (31 votes)
  • 3%
    Sack % of 2.3 or worse
    (11 votes)
349 votes total Vote Now