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The 5 O’Clock Club: Washington’s offensive line as an inkblot test

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.... What do you see?

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The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


The Rorschach (inkblot) Test is a projective psychological test developed in 1921 by Hermann Rorschach to measure thought disorder for the purpose of identifying mental illness. It was inspired by the observation that schizophrenia patients often interpret the things they see in unusual ways. In the test, the participant is shown a series of ten ink blot cards and directed to respond to each with what they see in the inkblot.

The heart of the test is its ambiguous images that allow an observer to interpret each ink blot image in any way they wish. Test-takers are allowed to hold the cards in any position they may want, whether it is upside down or sideways. The respondents are free to interpret the ambiguous image however they want. They may also respond in any way that they want. They may say that they see one thing, several different things, or even nothing at all. Test-takers can focus on the image as a whole, on certain aspects of the image, or even on the white space that surrounds the image.

Washington Football Team

It strikes me that the 2021 Washington Football Team offense is a lot like the Rorschach test — fans can interpret the offensive roster in any way they wish; they are free to interpret ambiguousness however they want; they may say that they see one thing, several different things, or even nothing at all; fans can focus on the roster as a whole, on certain aspects of the roster, or even what they don’t see on the roster.

Yesterday, I published an article that looked at the quarterback position as a sort of ‘inkblot’ test for fans. Today, I’d like to do the same with the offensive line.

OL competition

The very nature of offensive line play makes it difficult to measure statistically. While the play of wide receivers and quarterbacks can be quantified fairly easily, the dynamic interaction of a 5-man unit with a set of attacking defensive players has very few quantifiable outcomes that can be ascribed to the individual players who comprise the OL unit. Even the outcomes that people use to measure the play of the unit collectively — things like yards per carry or pressures/sacks given up — are heavily dependent on the decisions made by other players (i.e. running back or quarterback) who are not part of the unit.

This makes evaluation of offensive line play highly subjective. Quantifiable measures can provide a broad indication of the quality of line play, but proper assessment of offensive line play, which is, by its nature, chaotic and complex, requires post-game film study by a skilled evaluator.

Most casual NFL fans form their opinions on less scientific analysis. They remember two holding penalties or a crucial false start on 3rd & 1, or they see the running back get ‘blown up’ by a defensive tackle three yards behind the line of scrimmage, and they decide that a particular offensive lineman “sucks”. Alternately, the fans watch a game where the TV analyst points out that the running back has gained positive yards and 3 first downs on the last five running plays that went to the left, and the fans become convinced that the guard-tackle tandem on the left side of the line is destined for the Pro Bowl.

The highly complex ballet that is offensive line play is very hard to assess if you don’t have the luxury of watching the All-22 while sober and unhurried, equipped with a reasonable understanding of offensive line responsibilities and techniques.

But, as fans, intricate knowledge of scheme or responsibility isn’t necessary. We are passionate and that passion gives us the right to hold strong opinions. We know good play when we see it and we know bad play when we see it. If it walks like a duck....

Some organizational opinions

Pro Football Focus (PFF) is an organization that generates almost as much passion, both positive and negative, as football teams themselves. PFF rates players, units and teams. PFF grades have often been mocked by players and fans; usually the focus of the criticism is that the PFF ‘analysts’ are untrained evaluators who are unfamiliar with a player’s responsibilities on a given play. Because of this, and because PFF grades are sometimes well out of sync with fan perceptions, the organization and its grades are dismissed as uninformed drivel.

The criticism of PFF is probably most venomous when it comes to analysis of offensive line play, where the grading often puzzles those who read the grades and scratch their heads over what kind of process could have created these results.

But PFF has thrived and grown over the years. I think this is because of three reasons:

  1. PFF gives football fans something they desperately want — simple grades that allow apples-to-apples comparisons of players.
  2. PFF has mastered the use of social media to put their product in the hands of fans in an attractive, exciting and easily digestible format.
  3. PFF never stops; even in the depths of the offseason when nothing is happening in the world of football, PFF cranks out rankings, reviews, previews and overviews that provide fans with discussion points.

As a result, even PFF’s critics have fallen into the habit of discussing PFF’s grades, using them to bolster their own conclusions about a player or team when PFF supports them, and bashing PFF as a bunch of clueless nerds when they don’t. Either way, the constant reference to PFF — whether positive or negative — builds their brand and their integral role as an enabler of fandom, and an intermediary between fans and the NFL.

PFF as a data point is now pretty much an accepted part of NFL discussions, and PFF analysis or grades often form the starting point for discussions about players, units or teams, especially in the offseason.

So, give it whatever level of significance you will, but I will start off this discussion of Washington’s offensive line with where they ended up the 2020 season according to PFF.

PFF ranked Washington’s offensive line as the 6th best in the 2020 season. With that as a starting point, let’s see how the 2021 version holds up as a specimen in the Rorschach Test.

Washington’s 2021 offensive line

The offensive line in 2021 is a study in contrasts. For example, it is true to say that the OL returns 4 out of 5 starters from 2020 (Lucas, Schweitzer, Roullier, Scherff) which sounds as though the unit has a high level of consistency and cohesiveness, but only two of those four players are locked in as starters at the same position as last season.

Cornelius Lucas

Lucas finished the 2020 season as Washington’s starting left tackle, after he replaced Geron Christian, who was benched for poor play and has since been released. Lucas was a journeyman OT who had been on 4 different NFL teams before joining Washington, and who had previously played primarily on the right side. He did a competent job in 2020, with the 14th highest pass blocking grade from PFF and the 23rd best overall offensive grade.

Some analysts have suggested that Lucas benefited from Washington’s offensive scheme, which put a premium on the quick short passing game that integrated backs and tight ends. Quick releases and shallow depth-of-target meant that Washington’s offensive line wasn’t asked to do as much to succeed as other OLs that were part of passing schemes that attacked deeper downfield more consistently.

Wherever the truth lies, Washington’s coaching staff clearly felt that they needed to upgrade. They signed Charles Leno, a 29-year-old veteran left tackle from the Bears, to replace Lucas. This is not unfamiliar territory for Lucas, who was Leno’s teammate in 2019 when they spent much of the season in Chicago holding down the left and right sides of the Bears offensive line.

For what it’s worth, PFF graded Leno lower than Lucas on 2 out of 3 primary grades for the 2020 season, but Leno appears to be the more consistent overall blocker, grading out much better than Lucas in the running game.

Has the team truly upgraded the position? Has it simply gotten deeper at the tackle position? Those seem to be good ‘inkblot questions’.

Wes Schweitzer

The parallels between last year’s LG Schweitzer and LT Lucas are significant. Like Lucas, the veteran Schweitzer was signed as a low-cost and low-profile free agent in the 2020 offseason. Schweitzer had spent his career with the Falcons, starting at both right and left guard, since being picked by Atlanta in the 6th round of the 2016 draft. The veteran began the ‘20 season backing up the younger Wes Martin, but took over the starting role in Week 6 when Martin was benched for poor play and Saahdiq Charles suffered a dislocated kneecap.

This offseason, Washington traded for Ereck Flowers, who was the team’s starting left guard in 2019, but who left in free agency to play for the Dolphins in 2020.

No clear favorite

Heading into 2021, it’s unclear who will start at the left guard position. It seems natural to think that Wes Schweitzer, after playing well in 2020, would have the inside track, but Flowers played the same position in 2019 and played very well, albeit for a different coaching staff. Of course, it also can’t be ignored that it was Saahdiq Charles who was tapped to replace Martin as the starter at LG in Week 6 last year — not Schweitzer. Apparently, the coaches preferred Charles then. Also, Charles was drafted by Washington in Rivera’s inaugural year in the Capital city, which means that the current staff could be more invested in him than either of the veteran free agents (Schweitzer and Flowers) that he is competing with.

Position flex

Another factor in Charles’ favor might be his presumed ability to play tackle if needed. He was the starting left tackle for the national champion LSU Tigers in 2019. Schweitzer has a similar advantage with respect to being able to back up another position; in Atlanta, he was the backup center. Flowers, of course, began his NFL career as a tackle, so, in theory, he has positional flexibility as well, but I can’t think of many people who would be keen to see Ereck Flowers lining up at the OT position for the Washington offense.

PFF Grades for the veterans

I’m not sure how much useful information can be gleaned from a comparison of the PFF grades for the two veterans; they cover two seasons, three teams and 4 different coaching staffs. 2019 was Schweitzer’s lowest graded season by far for his 4 years in Atlanta. If there’s anything to be gleaned from these PFF grades, it may be simply that the competition at the LG guard position will be intense.

Right now, last year’s opening day starter — Wes Martin — may be fighting a losing battle for a spot on the ‘21 roster. He appears to be 4th on the depth chart behind Schweitzer, Flowers, and Charles.

Right Tackle

Morgan Moses is gone. He was PFF’s 7th highest graded tackle in 2020, earning an overall offensive grade of 80.6, with a run blocking grade of 85.9 (7th) but a pass blocking grade that put him outside the top-50 OTs in 2020 according to PFF.

It appears to be a two-man competition for his spot. Cornelius Lucas, who played most of 2020 at Left Tackle for Washington, but who played right tackle for most of his career prior to that, appears to be in competition with rookie Samuel Cosmi, who was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft in April.

The winner of the competition in training camp — especially if it turns out to be Lucas — may not be the starter all year. It could be that Sam Cosmi would take over partway through the season when the coaching staff felt he was ready for NFL competition.

This could be affected, however, by the team’s long-term plans for Cosmi. If they see him as their left tackle of the future, it might make more sense to train him on the left side as Leno’s backup, with an eye towards a starting role in 2022. If they see him as more of a Lane Johnson-type of athletic right tackle, then I imagine the staff would want to push his development at that position this year, relying on Lucas as the swing tackle, backing up both the left and right side of the offensive line.

A dark-horse candidate would be Saahdiq Charles, but given that his sole appearance in a game last season was at left guard, I’m guessing that the coaching staff sees him primarily as an interior lineman with flexibility to backup the tackle position if needed, as opposed to a starting tackle.

Is Lucas an upgrade to Moses?

I’ve argued in the past that he might well be. I wrote this in May last year:

Cornelius Lucas was looked at as the emergency option at left tackle when he was signed, but he has only rarely played left tackle in his pro career. Cornelius Lucas is a right tackle.

Lucas had a real breakthrough with the Bears last season as the swing tackle and extra blocker on power plays. He played 472 snaps at right tackle, with several starts — one in Week 3 and another 5 in Weeks 14-17.

Cornelius Lucas may not have been drafted, and he may not be a star, but he has toiled for 6 years in the NFL and was on the regular season rosters of four different teams before signing with Washington. Make no mistake, however — he is an NFL offensive lineman; he has never been on a practice squad, and has accumulated 16 starts in his career.

More to the point, he is an NFL right tackle. The 2019 season showed that Lucas, who admittedly isn’t a star, is a lunchpail-toting toiler who is still ascending as he enters his seventh year in the league.

Lucas vs Moses

Let’s turn to the imperfect PFF for some comparisons.

snaps

Last season Moses played 858 snaps, exclusively at RT.

Lucas played 507 snaps, with the 472 coming at RT and 49 as the 6th OL (technically at TE)

penalties

Morgan Moses had 11 yellow flags thrown against him in 2019 — tied for 14th most in the NFL.

Lucas was penalty-free for the season.

sacks, hurries, pressures

Moses was charged with giving up 5 sacks, 25 hurries and 37 pressures in 542 pass-blocking snaps.

Lucas was charged with giving up 1 sack, 10 hurries and 12 pressures in 297 pass-blocking snaps.

offensive grade

PFF graded Moses at 65.2.

Lucas was graded at 72.2.

pass blocking

Moses was graded at 66.1.

Lucas earned a grade of 74.9.

run blocking

Morgan Moses graded out at 60.8.

Lucas received a grade of 62.6.

Some of these data, like penalties, are completely objective. Others, like sacks, hurries and pressures, are generally accepted as objective measures. The PFF grades are subjective and open to criticism.

But the overall picture that I get from this review is that Cornelius Lucas isn’t any worse at playing right tackle than is Morgan Moses — and probably better.

I was convinced at this time last year that Lucas was an upgrade to Morgan Moses. This offseason, with the total depth at the tackle position — including Lucas, Leno and Cosmi — the Washington decision-makers felt as if they had enough to move on from Morgan Moses and his roughly $8.5m cap hit.

Was that a good decision? That seems like another good ‘inkblot question’.

PFN 2021 Projection

Pro Football Network (that’s PFN, not PFF) recently published a projection of the 32 offensive lines in the NFL for 2021, saying that the rankings were produced based on a statistical analysis of the projected starting unit using data from Sports Info Solutions.

Glass half full

PFN projected the Washington Football Team to have the 3rd best offensive line in the NFL this season, behind the Saints and Cowboys. Here’s part of what they had to say:

The Washington Football Team will return four of their five starters in 2021. The only change is the addition of Charles Leno Jr., who replaces Morgan Moses.

Playing at left tackle last season, Cornelius Lucas was impressive. He had just 8 blown blocks in over 500 snaps and was credited with just 2 sacks. In fact, the entire remainder of the line had a blown block rate below 2%. The quality of Brandon Scherff is well-known, while Chase Roullier has become one of the best centers in the league. Furthermore, Wes Schweitzer impressed in his first season in Washington, with just 16 blown blocks on 931 snaps.

This strong projection is based, in part, on the continuity of the Washington offensive line unit, which could turn out to be a phantom.

Sure, the starting five could turn out to be similar to last season with Leno, Schweitzer, Roullier, Scherff and Lucas lining up as the starters.

Glass half empty

But it could also look very different, with 60% of the starters being new faces. Consider, for example, how different the OL will look if the starters are Leno, Charles, Roullier, Scherff and Cosmi. In that case, three of the five starters will combine for two NFL snaps in a Washington uniform prior to the opening day game at home against the Chargers.

We don’t really know who will start at LG or RT this season. I’m not sure that it’s clear that Leno is an upgrade to Lucas, or that either Lucas or Cosmi is an upgrade to Moses. Cosmi is an unproven rookie, and Saahdiq Charles has only two NFL snaps in his resume. Lucas was a career backup, Charles has a chequered history with character concerns coming out of college and injury concerns from his rookie season. Flowers has been considered a disappointment in every season except his 2019 year spent in DC.

Interpreting the inkblot

It seems as if the Washington offensive line, for all the faith that the Pro Football Network places in it, is as full of questions and unknowns as the quarterback position that was discussed yesterday. Fans can focus on the strong PFF ranking from last season, the return of 4 starters, and the upside potential of a well-coached group, or they can focus instead on the lack of experience of two potentially key players (Cosmi and Charles) and the unimpressive resumes of several veterans (Leno, Lucas, Schweitzer, Flowers).

Each fan’s interpretation of what they see may be quite unique, depending on whether they focus on what is there or what isn’t, and whether they see the limitations of the group or its potential.

Ultimately, the analysis, the grades and the projected rankings will mean nothing. All that will matter will be the team’s win-loss record, and despite the number of wins the team actually achieves, there will be huge disagreement about the offensive line play because, in the end, it’s hard to assess the process and outcome of 65 episodes of hand-to-hand combat between 5 linemen on offense and their counterparts on defense every week for a full season. Results are difficult to quantify; opinions are hard to support.

But that’s why fans exist. Irrational and passionate support of the burgundy & gold is what binds us together, and good-natured argument about the players, units, plays and games is what makes it all so much fun.

Poll

Who will be the starting left guard on opening day against the Chargers?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Wes Schweitzer
    (94 votes)
  • 52%
    Ereck Flowers
    (135 votes)
  • 10%
    Saahdiq Charles
    (27 votes)
  • 0%
    Wes Martin
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Someone else
    (1 vote)
258 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who will be the starting right tackle on opening day against the Chargers?

This poll is closed

  • 66%
    Cornelius Lucas
    (154 votes)
  • 29%
    Sam Cosmi
    (69 votes)
  • 2%
    Saahdiq Charles
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else
    (2 votes)
231 votes total Vote Now

Poll

In your opinion, where does the WFT offensive line rank?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Best in the NFL
    (3 votes)
  • 14%
    Top 5
    (37 votes)
  • 60%
    6-11
    (151 votes)
  • 22%
    12-21
    (57 votes)
  • 0%
    22-32
    (1 vote)
249 votes total Vote Now