NFL priority shift crosses the line

Pete Dougherty
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Last year the Dallas Cowboys’ acclaimed offensive line was almost universally considered the NFL’s best.

It helped produce the league's No. 5 scoring offense, its leader in passer rating (Tony Romo) and an 1,800-yard rusher (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys went 12-4, finished first in the NFC East and won a wild-card playoff game.

This year the Cowboys have the same offensive linemen except for an upgrade at left guard, where highly-regarded rookie La’el Collins replaced Ronald Leary in mid-October.

But they’ve had Romo for only two full games and lost Murray in free agency last spring. Now they rank No. 29 in scoring and No. 13 in rushing. At 4-8 they’re still on the fringe of the playoff race only because they play in a terrible division, where the other three teams are 5-7.

So how much do you hear about the Cowboys’ offensive line now? Did you know that in November, Pro Football Focus still rated it as the league’s best?

Yes, of course offensive line play matters. But lines don’t stay together long anymore and even the league’s best don’t dominate. The Cowboys’ 2015 season tells you most of what you need to know about offensive line play in today’s NFL.

“It’s the quarterback,” said a scout with an NFC team this week. “Look how much different it is when they have Romo.”

One of the great challenges for NFL general managers is deciding where to put their most valuable resources – salary cap and high draft picks – and the Cowboys provide a possible lesson.

There might have been a time in the NFL when routinely drafting offensive linemen with first-round picks was prudent. But the Cowboys have used three first-rounders on blockers the last five drafts (left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, center Travis Frederick in ‘13 and guard Zack Martin in ’14), and even though all three have panned out, it’s hard to argue all three were worth the opportunity cost. Romo and to a lesser degree Murray are what made that offense go, and without them it hasn't mattered who was blocking.

New England, on the other hand, has used only one first-round pick on an offensive lineman in that time, tackle Nate Solder in ’11, and the Patriots lost him early in the season to a torn bicep. Since drafting Solder, the Patriots haven’t selected an offensive lineman higher than the fourth round. And their current starting five consists of one second-round pick (Sebastian Vollmer) and four players who range from fourth-round picks to an undrafted free agent.

Yet the Patriots are 10-2 because Tom Brady makes it work. Coach Bill Belichick instead has spent his prime picks on defense in recent years – of his first four selections in each of the last four drafts, he’s spent 13 on defensive players and only three on offense.

Similarly, the Green Bay Packers’ preferred starting five consists of one first-round pick (right tackle Bryan Bulaga); three fourth-rounders (Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari) and a fifth-rounder (Corey Linsley). If Linsley doesn’t play Sunday because of an ankle injury – he was listed as doubtful going into the weekend – another fourth-rounder, JC Tretter, will start in his place.

The Packers are 8-4, and while they have significant issues on offense, their offensive line is not high on the list.

Teams can’t have everything with free agency, the salary cap and limited draft selections, so many are picking and choosing when to spring for an offensive lineman, and saving their bigger swings for other positions.

“A lot of places might go out and get you a first-rounder to play left tackle,” said an offensive line coach for a playoff contender, “and then you’re going to get your sixth-rounders and college free agents, and you have to develop them. You use all of your salary cap at quarterback and for edge rushers and (defensive backs). It makes sense. You have to decide where you’re going to spend your money.”

The Packers this year rank in the middle of the pack (No. 16) in offensive line pay, according to Over The Cap’s salary information. At about $21 million, they’re spending about two-thirds of the league leader, the New York Jets ($33 million). They should be fine with that.

Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked the Packers’ offensive line No. 4 in the NFL. This year in November that dropped to No. 20, but the Packers have injury issues they didn’t have in 2014. Most notably, Bulaga had knee-cartilage surgery early in the season and an ankle injury more recently that has sidelined him and hindered his play, and Bakhtiari has been on and off the injury report a couple times because of a knee injury.

Regardless, when the Packers’ starters have been on the field – and when Tretter has played in place of Linsley – the line has been fine. It’s been plenty good enough to win.

Bakhtiari probably has had the most obvious problems of the starters. The third-year pro still is vulnerable to power rushes and is tied for second-most penalties (11) of all offensive linemen in the NFL. Yet, anyone arguing that the Packers need a new left tackle is wrong.

Yeah, he needs to develop a stronger anchor, but he’s good enough even for that difficult position and still is a developing player. The Packers lack depth at tackle – after undergoing ACL surgery last year, Don Barclay is a stretch playing tackle and probably should be only a guard. But general manager Ted Thompson would be crazy to spend a draft pick in the first three rounds at tackle when he has so many other more pressing needs (outside linebacker, inside linebacker, tight end and receiver).

More than any other position group, the offensive line is more about being good enough than being good. That often means finding players who are smart and tough, and a position coach who can make it work with whatever you give him.

“You always want a good offensive line coach because everything starts there,” the aforementioned scout said. “I feel the same way about a secondary coach, you should always have a good secondary coach. Two of the best guys on your staff should be at those positions.”

Really, Thompson has taken the best approach to building an offensive line for today’s NFL. There’s nothing wrong with drafting one high, but going to that well regularly doesn’t make sense. You’re better off taking shots at playmakers with those higher picks.

Of course at some point, if the talent deteriorates too much or injuries hit hard, an offensive line can be a major liability. Chicago and Detroit, for instance, flirted with that territory in recent years.

But one of the marks of a good quarterback is that he can win with almost any line. And a good running back can do more for his linemen than good linemen can do for a running back.

“I’ve seen first-hand how you can make it work with lesser talent if you kind of stay the course,” the offensive line coach said. “But like I said, we’ve been getting pretty good quarterback play.

“You have whoever they give you. You can sit there and (expletive) and moan and demand guys, but if you don’t have them on draft day or you didn’t get out there and sign veteran free agents, then basically you have what you have, and you better find a way to make it work. If you don’t, then they’ll find someone else who can.”

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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