Saturday, July 11, 2009

Position Overview: Offensive Line

Confidence Level: 5 out of 10

The O-line is, correctly, the chief focus of concern for most Redskins fans. However, before simply dismissing it as a shambles, let's take stock of what we have, both good and bad.

Let's start with the man who I consider the Redskins' single most important player this season. When the Redskins had a dominant running game the first have of 2008, most of the runs were behind Samuels. The run blocking on the left side was so dominant that, even with everyone knowing we were running left (due largely to Heyer's and Jansen's ineffectiveness on the right side), they still couldn't stop it. His pass protection hasn't slipped much either. According to the Football Outsiders game charting data, in 2008 Samuels was charged with only three blown blocks that led to sacks, and two of those were to DeMarcus Ware, possibly the most feared pass rusher in the league. While it would be wrong to dismiss the age issue and injury potential, let's not forget that as long as Samuels is upright the Redskins are as set as any team could hope for at left tackle. We will discuss depth - and its limitations - at the end of this post.

Moving through the rest of the starters:

Derrick Dockery is back. I like it in the long term, although for 2009 purposes it may not be such an upgrade because Kendall had such a great rapport with Samuels last year. Of course Dockery has worked with Samuels before, and under the same line coach no less, so I imagine they will get along just fine. Dockery is an extremely powerful blocker, and we should thank the Bills for mismanaging their cap to the point that they had to cut him.

At center, Casey Rabach is adequate. He tends to get physically overwhelmed by physical DTs, but on most teams the center is the weakest blocker on the line. When he can get to the second level, he is excellent at squaring up linebackers and taking them out of the play. Against Cleveland, for example, the guards continually took out Shaun Rogers' legs, allowing Rabach to get to the LBs untouched and open up running lanes. I’d rather not have to scheme around his weakness, but the need at center is far from urgent.

The right side of the line is worrisome. Randy Thomas was once a powerful and agile blocker, but the regression last year was visible. That was due not only to age, but also to a sever neck injury (herniated disk). It came out after the season that he had risked paralysis to play through it. He had offseason surgery to repair it, but at his age there's no guarantee he will be back to his old self. Apparently the hope is to eventually replace him with Chad Reinhart, who has supposedly turned it around after underachieving in practice last season.

Right tackle is Stephon Heyer's job to lose, but he has done nothing to convince me he is a quality NFL starter. He provides absolutely no push in the running game, and his pass protection is adequate at best. I am hoping that either Jeremy Bridges or Mike Williams proves themselves to be effective enough to make a push for the job. My money would be on Bridges: he has started sporadically before, so must have shown some level of ability. Mike Williams has spent the offseason trying to get his weight down from 450 pounds and hasn't played for two years, so I am counting on nothing from him and will count it as a pleasant surprise if he turns out to be useful.

Now let's talk about this offensive line depth that everyone wants.

Quick: name a backup offensive tackle on a team other than the Redskins. Stuck? That's because nobody has real depth at this position. Offensive line is one of only two positions (QB is the other) where the backups get no playing time whatsoever. And anyone who has demonstrated they can play the position well is considered valuable enough that they're starting somewhere for alot of money. Even if we had used our first round pick on Michael Oher, rookies are notoriously unsuited to picking up the nuances of offensive line at the NFL level. There are exceptions (Ryan Clady and Joe Thomas), but for this year I would be more comfortable having to put in a mediocre veteran like Bridges over a rookie with high upside. Let's also not forget that on gamedays a team usually activates only two backup linemen, three at the most. And of course one of them has to be a guy who knows how to snap the ball in case the center goes down. It is just a fact of life that when a starting lineman goes down, especially at an elite position like tackle, you are going to be forced to put in either a broken down veteran who is barely hanging in the league, or a kid who is likely to be victimized.

The Redskins will be in serious trouble if Samuels or one of their other starters go down. But let's not act like that situation is at all unique. So pray day and night for the health of Chris Samuels, and realize that if we can keep him standing the left side of the line should continue to dominate.

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