There are multiple ways of looking at offensive line unit performance. One of the best ways to evaluate run blocking effectiveness of the whole unit is by a stat called Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) that was developed by Football Outsiders.
Adjusted Line Yards (ALY): Statistic that attempts to, even to a small extent, separate the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line. Adjusted Line Yards begins as a measure of average rushing yards per play by running backs only, adjusted in the following way:
0-4 yards: 100% strength
5-10 yards: 50% strength
11+ yards: not included
runs for a loss: 120% strength
Each play is also adjusted based on game situation as well as quality of opponents faced. Adjusted Line Yards can be listed as total or broken down by direction to attempt to isolate ability of specific linemen.
At it’s most simple ALY tells you how much of the rushing yardage was a result of the OL and how much was a result of the runner. In other words, how much yardage the worst runner in the league would have gotten behind the specific OL.
During his time as the head coach of the Saints, Sean Payton had some amazingly effective run blocking offensive lines as measured by ALY. See below
His OL’s were ranked in the top 10 in ALY 12 times in 16 seasons. They were also ranked first or second SEVEN times. So Payton figured out how to find good run blocking offensive linemen. So even if the Saints were not great in terms of average yards per carry (some years they were near the bottom of the league), that was not the fault of the OL according to Football Outsiders. Saints rushing ranks under Payton - notice they 26th or worse in yards per attempt in five of sixteen seasons.
The most interesting season is the 2013 season. The Saints were 26th in rushing yards per attempt and in rushing attempts (25th in rushing yards and 23rd in rushing TDs). Despite that they were 7th in ALY. The Saints were tenth in scoring that season and second in passing yards.
It may seem counterintuitive to look at a team that averaged 3.8 yards per carry and conclude that they had a good run blocking OL, but FO does just that. Believe it or not, the 2013 Saints were led in rushing touchdowns by Drew Brees with three. The runner with the most yards was Pierre Thomas who had twice as many carries (147) as Mark Ingram (78) and only managed 3.7 yards per carry. Ingram got 4.9. So you can probably see where this is going. Thomas was not a very effective runner that season (his worst season when he still had some tread on his tires), but he was the one that the Saints used most often. There were two other runners who got 50 or more carries that season for the Saints (Khiry Robinson and Darren Sproles) and both got significantly more per carry than Thomas (4.1 and 4.2).
It should be noted that in 2012 and 2014 the Saints were in the top 10 in yards per carry as a team (4th and 9th) so 2013 was an anomaly. This can be clearly seen in the team rushing TD rankings. The Saints ranked no worse than 10th in rushing TDs from 2006 until 2018 with the exceptions of 2010 and 2013. This speaks to the effectiveness of the Saint OL in goal-line rushing situations when runs are shorter by definition. It also speaks to Sean Payton’s willingness to call rushing plays in the redzone.
So let’s turn to how Payton built his offensive lines. It should be noted that the 2006 Saints offensive line, Payton’s first year as HC, had one returning starter from the previous season. (asterisk denotes Pro Bowl, plus denotes first team All-Pro)
2005 New Orleans OL
- LT Wayne Gandy
- LG Kendyl Jacox
- C LeCharles Bentley*
- RG Montrae Holland
- RT Jammal Brown
- LT Jammal Brown*+
- LG Jamar Nesbit
- C Jeff Faine
- RG Jahri Evans
- RT Jon Stinchcomb
The 2005 Saints starting OL mostly scattered to the wind in 2006: Gandy moved to the Falcons; Jacox to the Dolphins and Bentley to the Browns (he never played again due a freak infection that ended his career); Montrae Holland was still on the Saints, but he did not start a single game in 2006. Bronco fans might remember him for his one season on the Denver Broncos (2007).
Jammal Brown moved over to the left tackle spot and earned first team All-Pro, in his second year in the NFL. This would be Brown’s only first and only All-Pro selection.
Rookie Jahri Evans started every game for the Saints at RG after being a 4th round selection (108th pick). Evans would have a very good career. He made the all 2010s team and has a good shot at making the Hall of Fame after he was named first team All-Pro at guard in four straight seasons from 2009 to 2012. He also made the Pro Bowl six straight years. I don’t know how much input Payton had on drafting Evans, but whoever found him in the fourth round, he was a steal.
Payton is not afraid to use rookie starters on his OL. He had seven different rookies as a primary starter on the OL in his sixteen seasons as the HC with the Saints.
In addition to Evans he used:
- LG Carl Nicks (2008)
- C Brian De La Puente (2011, technically a rookie - see below)
- RT Ryan Ramczyk (2017)
- C Erik McCoy (2019)
- RG Cesar Ruiz (2020)
- LG Calvin Throckmorton (2021) (also only a rookie by technicality)
The two of most interest to me are Brian De La Puente and Erik McCoy, since it’s possible, but not likely, the rookie Alex Forsyth could be the starting center for the Broncos in 2023.
There is no denying that Lloyd Cushenberry has been one of the worst centers in the league over his three seasons in the NFL. If you use the freely available data at SISdatahub.com, you can see the points scores by every starting center 2016-2022 (higher is better) and find how LC3 has ranked. 51 different men have been a starting center (700 or more snaps) over the past three NFL seasons like LC3. Among those LC3 ranks 46th in terms of points per game started. Only Garett Bradbury, Scott Quessenberry, Drew Dalman, Dan Feeney and Matt Hennessy have been worse. See the table below.
If you don’t like SIS, maybe you prefer PFF. By PFF overall rankings LC3 was the worst center in the league as a rookie, was 16th in his second year, and was near the bottom in 2022. His overall grade for 2022 was 56.2. His best season was 2021 in which PFF graded him at 64.2. These are on a 0-100 scale. The two best centers in the league in 2022 graded out at 89 (Creed Humphrey and Jason Kelce). Ethan Pocic was a distant 3rd at 79. For context, LC3 got a grade of 40.5 as a rookie.
PFF has 36 players listed as starting centers for 2022. Below is there overall ranking sorted from highest to lowest. While this table is not available without a subscription, the overall grade for each player is, so this table can be (and was) created by gathering the data that is freely available and compiling it into this table.
|Rank||Center||2022 PFF grade|
|32||Lloyd Cushenberry III||56.2|
LC3 was 32nd out of 36 centers in 2022. According to PFF, Graham Glasgow was no improvement at center, but I have no idea he GG graded out at center vs how he graded out at guard. Glasgow could have graded out terribly at guard and then much better at center which averaged out to an overall score comparable to LC3. If you have a sub to PFF, please let know know how GG was graded at C vs his snaps at G.
The takeaway is that the Broncos have had poor center play in 2022 (and were generally poor at most OL spots) just like they have had poor center play in 2021 and 2020. So I am sure the Zach Strief and Sean Payton are going to be looking to upgrade center like they have upgraded LG and RT. Could rookie 7th round draft pick Alex Forsyth be an upgrade at center? Let’s look at the two previous instances where Payton has chosen to go with a “rookie” starting center.
The 2010 Saints had veteran Jonathan Goodwin starting at center. The journeyman former fifth round pick of the Jets in 2002, had been the Saints starting center since 2008, earning his only Pro Bowl selection in 2009, but he left as free agent signing with the 49ers during the off-season. Brian De La Puente had been undrafted out of Cal way back in 2008, and he started the season as the backup center. Olin Kreutz was the starter for the first three games, but the grizzled veteran got injured and was ostensibly lost for the season in the third game of the year. Brian got his first career start (and first NFL snaps) in the fourth game of the season against the Jags.
While Brian was counted as a rookie, he was counted as such only by technicality. Starting in 2008 he has been on the practice squads of the 49ers, Chiefs, Seahawks, Panthers and Saints. So while 2011 was his first NFL game snaps, he had been in and around the league for four seasons. In that way, he is not comparable to Alex Forsyth. From a draft perspective he is though, since Alex came within a hair of going undrafted (he was two slots from being this year’s Mr. Irrelevant). Both players played at Pac-27 schools and were afterthoughts in the draft. Oddly enough, they tested about as poorly (in the combine or their Pro Day).
While Brian didn’t get a combine invite, he had a terrible showing at his pro-day. Forysth injured himself doing the vertical leap and was only able to get 20.5” off the ground. Brian didn’t injure himself and was only able to get 19.5” off the ground. Brian’s 8’2” broad, 4.77s short shuttle and 7.62s 3-cone assured that no team was going to draft the slow-footed IOL guy with little lower body strength. Despite his limitations, Brian was able to develop his game to the point where he had a nice little NFL career. That being said, if we are calling him comparable to Forsyth, then we should not expect much, if anything, out of Alex this season. FWIW Alex did the broad jump before he was injured and only was able to jump 7’11”, or three inches shorter than Brian.
Let’s hope that Erik McCoy is a better comparison to Alex Forsyth. Erik did start as a “true” rookie for the Saints in 2019. McCoy was drafted with the 48th overall pick out of Texas A&M in 2019 and was the third center drafted that year behind Garett Bradbury and Elgton Jenkins.
Unlike LC3, McCoy played at a fairly high level as a rookie. By SIS he earned 32 points as a rookie starting center in 2019. PFF graded him 76.2 overall as a rookie. That would have been in the top six among starting centers in 2022. Because of injury McCoy played fairly poorly in 2022 raking 25th by PFF.
McCoy started every game for the Saints at center in 2019 and played 918 regular season snaps with only 16 blown blocks (9 passing, 7 run). For comparison, LC3 as a rookie had 35 blown blocks. LC3 was able to cut that number down to 22 in 2021, but was on pace to have about the same number of blown blocks in 2022 as he did as a rookie. He had 17 blown blocks in eight games started, so he potentially could have had more blown blocks in 2022 than he did as rookie were he to have started all 17 regular season games. The worst starting center in the league in 2022 for blown blocks was Drew Dalman of the Falcons who had 41 of them. LC3’s 35 is the third most among centers for the entire span of time that SIS has data (2016-2022). Only Bradbury’s 37 and Dalman’s 41 are worse than what LC3 did as a rookie.
On the flipside, the starting center (700 or more snaps) with the fewest blown blocks during this timespan is Maurkice Pouncey who only had four blown blocks in 2016 and 2018 with 832 snaps in 2016 and 938 snaps in 2018. Honorable mention goes to Matt Paradis in 2018 when he only had 3 blown blocks in 9 starts before his injury (503 snaps). I should also note that as a rookie, Chief’s center, Creed Humphrey, only had seven blown blocks in 1108 snaps. So rookie centers can play at a really high level, but those guys usually get drafted fairly early. Humphrey and McCoy were both second round picks. Pouncey was really good as a rookie. He was a first round pick (18th) and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010.
So are there any recent examples of day three or undrafted centers turning into great players in the NFL? Well there are 54 instances of centers who have scored 30 or more points for a season according to SIS (2016-2022) with Jason Kelce’s 50 points in 2022 being the highest value. Those have been accrued by 33 different men many of whom played their rookie seasons during this timespan. Let’s see if any others played well as rookie centers (besides McCoy and Humphrey).
We don’t have to go back to far to find some others. Both Tyler Linderbaum (37) and Luke Fortner (35) scored more than 30 points as rookie centers in 2022. But other than Humphrey and McCoy, who have already been mentioned, there are no other examples of elite rookie centers recently (at least according to SIS). Linderbaum was the 25h pick in 2022 and Fortner was the 65th pick.
I should note that some of the 33 centers who have posted elite seasons over the past seven years have been day three or undrafted guys - 14 of them were such, but none of them did it as rookies.
center - draft round
- Ben Jones - 4th
- JC Tretter - 4th
- Tyler Biadasz - 4th
- Russell Bodine - 4th
- Chase Roullier - 6th
- John Sullivan - 6th
- Matt Paradis - 6th
- Ted Karras - 6th
- Austin Reiter - 7th
- David Andrews - UDFA
- Sam Mustipher - UDFA
- Trey Hopkins - UDFA
- Greg Mancz - UDFA
- Jake Brendel - UDFA
So even if Alex Forsyth does not contribute much this year, there is plenty of precedent for “afterthought” centers to have great seasons recently.
I should also note that as poorly as Luke Wattenberg played last season, he could look like a very different player with two full NFL off-seasons under his belt (he may have been able to build his “NFL body”). He could surprise and win the starting spot given how poorly LC3 played last season.
Who will be the primary starter at center for the Broncos in 2023?
This poll is closed
Lloyd Cushenberry III
Kyle (not the CB) Fuller
a player not currently on the roster