Commentary

Offensive line depth sorely lacking

League needs to address shortage of blockers, a growing problem

Originally Published: November 6, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

No coach or general manager could plan for the Jonathan Martin disaster.

Forty percent of the Miami Dolphins offensive line vanished with Richie Incognito's suspension and Martin's leave of absence because of alleged bullying. A line that was the worst in football protecting Ryan Tannehill is even more beatable.

But teams better study the growing number of missed starts for offensive linemen to better prepare for future disasters. Injuries are up leaguewide, period, but the impact is very pronounced along the offensive line. I know that during my training camp tour, depth along the offensive line was at an alarmingly low level.

On the sideline, I would hold a depth chart of a team and try to figure out the sixth and seventh offensive linemen to test the true depth of a line. Too many times, I would get to No. 7 and say to myself, "This could be bad if the team has injuries."

The tight salary cap has hindered teams from paying for a middle class of offensive linemen. That's just part of the new CBA.

Surprisingly, missed starts for offensive linemen are down from last season after eight weeks of 2013, but the two-year total of missed starts is alarming compared to 2010 and 2011.

To explain, I'm counting missed starts at each position, meaning a team can't count more than 16 left tackles missing games or right guards missing games. I used eight weeks because more teams have played eight games, but those that haven't had their byes are at nine.

[+] EnlargeIncognito-Martin
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeThe Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation cost the Dolphins two of their starting offensive linemen.

After eight weeks, there were 123 missed offensive line starts in 2010 and 127 in 2011. The number jumped to 170 last year and is at 148 and growing this season. Martin and Incognito will add to this year's total. Carolina tackle Jeff Byers went on injured reserve Tuesday. Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele is done for the season.

The way guys are going down this year, I still project the number of missed games for offensive linemen this year will exceed last year's total of 447. There were 294 for the entire season in 2010. Adding this week's injuries and projecting the remaining games to be missed by players on injured reserve means the 2013 number already has passed the 2010 total.

Rules need to be changed.

First, to help develop more offensive linemen, the league needs to extend the number of games a player can qualify for the practice squad. Currently, if a player spends nine or more games on a 53-man roster, he is no longer practice squad eligible.

The rule is outdated. Practice squad players now make $6,000 a week. While that is roughly 25 percent of the rookie minimum, it's still a respectable salary for a developing player. When teams have injuries at positions such as the offensive line, they often bring up a practice squad player as a potential backup, whether he's used or not.

If those moves eat up practice squad eligibility, the player might find limited chances to get full-time work.

Second, the league needs to add more designated injured reserve options. Currently rules allow a team to designate a player to be on injured reserve for a minimum of eight weeks. Why not extend the option to two, three or four weeks. If it gives a team a chance to get a starter back by the end of the season, it's better than seeing a line torn apart by injuries.

Third, it's time to go to a 50- or 51-man active roster. Under the 46-man rules for active players, most teams keep seven active offensive linemen. Several times, two or three linemen have gone down to injuries in a game. Why not give coaches the chance to use more of the players who are already being paid?

One thing we know: The injury trend for missed starts won't regress. It can only get worse.

From the inbox

Q: Do the Bucs equal last year's Chiefs? They are loaded with talent and are arguably the greatest 0-8 team of all time. With the talent on the team and their almost guaranteed top-three draft pick, coaches should be drooling over the chance to take the job this offseason (or whenever Greg Schiano is inevitably let go). Do you think this team is a new head coach and a good draft away from the playoffs?

Jesse in Washington, D.C.

A: I don't know about the playoffs, but they are a team that could make a dramatic rise with a great offseason. They are more talented than their record now. They have one of the most talented secondaries in football. They have more offensive weapons than the Chiefs. What they need is the right quarterback. Remember, this is a team that once won 10 games when Josh Freeman was right. For talent, this should be a team between seven and nine wins, much like the Chiefs. The reason I won't go as far as saying the Bucs will reach the playoffs is I haven't figured out next year's schedule. Going into this season, the Chiefs looked as though they had an easy schedule, and that has been the case during their 9-0 start.

Q: After seeing both John Fox and Gary Kubiak having health scares this week, has something like this ever happened before? I seem to recall something similar happening to Mike Ditka, but two coaches being taken to the hospital, with similar symptoms, in the same week seems pretty rare. To me it shows just how stressful it is to be a head coach in the NFL.

Alan in Houston

A: There is a long history of similar problems. Dick Vermeil wore himself out emotionally and physically when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Several coaches have had heart problems. From what I've heard, Kubiak spent too much of his time in the office trying to fix the Texans' problems during the past three weeks. Fox knew of his heart valve problems but concentrated on helping his team. Coaches are competitive. Many will stay in their offices for several nights and not go home until they feel comfortable that they have done the most to prepare their teams. Coaches may make a lot of money, but they are totally dedicated to their jobs to a point they will sacrifice health for victories. These most recent incidents only illustrate how owners need to help their head coaches delegate more of the responsibilities during these stressful times.

Q: What do you think the problem with the Ravens is? As a fan, it is so incredibly frustrating to watch them implode the way they have. Is it the offensive line? Lack of another receiver besides Torrey Smith? Jim Caldwell's play calling? Juan Castillo's zone-blocking scheme? Joe Flacco's terrible season? Ray Rice's terrible season (which is mostly due to the offensive line)? Or just a combination of all of the above?

Andy in Bel Air, Md.

A: The offensive line is a problem. There are problems in the middle of the line. The line is taking a long time adjusting to a new scheme. Rice isn't running as well as in past years. Certain matchups can take away the separation of the pass-catchers, and it hasn't helped that Flacco lost his two main targets in the red zone -- Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. It's a lot of things that are going wrong for the Ravens.

Q: I noticed something this weekend and just wanted to run it past you. With all of the concussion hoopla going on the past few years now, I saw something from the players that is sort of, well, troubling. If you watch the replay of interceptions or long touchdowns, you see many of the larger offensive and defensive linemen smacking the WR or DB on the helmet. Now normally this would be a celebration theme, but seeing 300-plus-pound linemen smacking a player on the helmet and watching his head jerk, isn't that a concern?

Mike in Allentown, Pa.

A: I don't think it's too much of a concern. The hits aren't the type of hits that should cause head trauma. That's not to say a player can't go overboard. Remember, we've seen a quarterback, Gus Frerotte, suffer a neck injury head-butting a wall after a touchdown. Let's hope the league doesn't start adding legislation to stop those things.

Q: It seems to me that it's becoming more and more frequent for both NCAA and NFL officials to blow the whistle prematurely on plays that are not finished. In the FSU-Miami game, a Miami running back was blown down when his feet were still moving and he was running sideways while a defender was holding on with one arm. In the Texans-Colts matchup, Andrew Luck was sacked and then lost the football, but officials called the play dead before the turnover. Is this a trend related to concern over concussions and other injuries, or am I imagining things? What's the harm in letting players play and then sorting it out after the play is completed?

Scott in Gresham, Ore.

A: I contend those incidents aren't as bad as they used to be. Sure, there are going to be mistakes when an official blows a play dead too early. A bad call is a bad call, and there are always going to be bad calls in games. What used to drive me crazy was when the NFL had too many inadvertent whistles that stopped good plays. NFL crews seem to be reasonably consistent watching the play, following it to a conclusion and then blowing a whistle. I think the trend is going in the right direction. You are right. Officials have been ordered to blow a play dead to prevent injuries. I think they've done a good job in that regard.

Q: The Bengals lost Geno Atkins for the year with an ACL tear. I don't think I've ever seen this many key players with season-ending ACL injuries this early on. I don't know specific numbers, but it would seem that this is an epidemic that should be given as much attention as the current concussion issue. I'm no doctor, but I think as long as players keep getting bigger, stronger and faster, it will only increase as players put more stress on their frames. Is the NFL and NFLPA looking at this? I know it is radical, but do you think that a size/weight limitation could be put on players by position in the future?

William in Clovis, N.M.

A: The NFL looks into all injury trends and so does the NFLPA. By my count, 44 players have blown out their ACL this year. The number was around 30 last year. My theory goes to the offseason. Players don't have to work with team trainers until around the time of the draft and then stay with the team for only seven weeks. They then get a six- to seven-week break before camp. The extra rest for players is good for the joints. That's a positive. But if the player doesn't do a good job of constantly working the tendons and muscles, he leaves himself vulnerable to ACL and Achilles tears.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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