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How fragile are offensive lines in pass protection?

As we inch ever closer to free agency, and then the draft, teams will be looking to fortify units that were reasons they fell short in 2019. For many teams, this unit will be the offensive line. The Los Angeles Rams, after losing starters due to retirement and free agency up front, saw their yards per play offensively decrease from 6.4 (second in the NFL) to 5.7 (12th), and with that their win-loss record from 13-3 to 9-7. The Cleveland Browns, as predicted by PFF Forecast guest Ross Tucker, built a pretty talented offense everywhere but up front, and paid dearly for it when second-year signal-caller Baker Mayfield faced too much pressure and Odell Beckham Jr. regressed. 

So, a natural step in the progression of thought here is to invest in the offensive line both via the draft or free agency. George Chahrouri and I (along with many others) like the upcoming tackle class a lot and pick them frequently in our version of our company’s mock draft. The upcoming free agent class has some good players in Anthony Castonzo, Jack Conklin, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney and Andrew Whitworth.

But how is said investment to be distributed if optimality is desired? According to OverTheCap.com, the highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL are a mixed bag of very good players (Lane Johnson (first), Brandon Brooks (seventh), Jake Matthews (sixth), Zack Martin (eighth) and Joe Staley (ninth) and… less-than-elite players in Trent Brown (second), Taylor Lewan (third), Nate Solder (fourth), D.J. Humphries (fifth) and Donovan Smith (10th). The highest-drafted players along the offensive line offer less in terms of a price but have a relatively-steep learning curve, meaning that plucking those players for immediate need is a bit speculative at best.

There’s hope, though. As we talked about last week on the defensive side of the ball, there are some aspects of football that are more fragile than others, where the performance of top-end talent matters less than the performance of mid- and lower-tier players. We apply the same thought process in modeling offensive line here:

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