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Washington’s offensive line has been very good for the past two years. Expect it again in 2022.

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In what seems like an annual ritual among Washington fans, the late spring/early summer handwringing about the quality of the offensive line has begun yet again. That despite the fact that, by multiple evaluations, Washington’s OL has been very solidly in the top 6 for the past two years.

In 2020, Pro Football Focus scored Washington as the 6th best OL in the league, despite them coming into the season ranked 29th.

Solid play from Lucas and Wes Schweitzer on the left side, paired with top-10 grades from each of Chase Roullier, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses at the other starting spots, resulted in a much-improved group from a season ago.

The team swapped out its two starting tackles and didn’t miss a beat. Last season, PFF again had Washington at 6th once the season ended, even with serious injuries, including losing their best starter - Chase Roullier - for much of the season and starting 3 different centers in his place:

There was no weak link on the unit, especially in pass protection, and even the players who replaced injured starters acquitted themselves well. The dynamics did shift a little with those injuries. Samuel Cosmi, Wes Schweitzer and Chase Roullier earned the three best PFF run-blocking grades, but each missed significant time, and their replacements were better pass-blockers than run-blockers.

Don’t like the PFF evaluation model? That’s fine. Let’s look at ESPN’s evaluation: In 2021, Washington’s offense had the top “run block win rate (RBWR)” in the league, and the ninth best “pass block win rate (PBWR).”

Brandon Scherff and Sam Cosmi each had top three RBWRs in the league at their respective positions (Andrew Norwell was the #7 guard), and Charles Leno and Ereck Flowers had top 10 PBWRs at their positions. Roullier had been a top 10 center in both RBWR and PBWR in 2020, his last full season.

But if Washington’s offensive line has been so solid for the past two years, why have they only won seven games in each season?

The analysis above, by Ben Baldwin, begins to get at the issue. Look at the bottom left quadrant. The “WAS2020” and “WAS2021” points show that - in this case, on third downs - Washington has had a top 4 pass block rank for the past two years. Generally, performing that well gets you a playoff berth (and it narrowly did for Washington in 2020, of course).

But, the y-axis here is “expected points per dropback on 3rd down.” What are “expected points?” A full explanation can be found here, but:

Simply put, Expected Points describes how many points, on average, a team is expected to score on a possession given a particular game context.

So, here, “zero” would be league average QB play.

In the top right quadrant you can see what great QB play with a top end OL gets you: Matt Stafford’s Super Bowl winning year, Aaron Rodgers’ 2020 MVP season, as well as Lamar Jackson’s 2019 MVP season, and the “Pat Mahomes cluster.”

The two great Washington OL performances from 2020-2021 are also marked by the lowest ranking QB play of any teams in this zone during the five years studied. In case there was any doubt, this evaluation strongly suggests that the perceived deficits of the offensive line over the past couple of years were very likely the result of badly sub-par QB. Meanwhile, one shudders to think what the team’s records might have been had the OL been even average.

QBs and Sack Rates

I’ve posted before that there’s convincing evidence that sacks are, in fact, a QB stat.

Completion percentage and the percentage of time a quarterback takes a sack are the two most consistent things over a career. Completion percentage can be influenced by scheme, philosophy on types of routes, teammates and opponents, but it also has a lot of accuracy baked in. Sack rate can be influenced by those things as well but has a lot of pocket awareness and ability to read defenses pre-snap and post-snap built in.

Interestingly, the data to this effect continue to build, and to explore the reality that not all sacks are created equally. For instance, some QBs take a lot of sacks, such as Lamar Jackson, but take them in situations where they don’t end up costing their team a lot of points. Other, like Daniel Jones, end up taking a lot of sacks - his sack rate is nearly identical to Jackson’s - but cost their team far more in terms of “expected points.” These sacks are the most damaging.

For better or worse, Carson Wentz clusters at just about the middle of the pack of NFL QBs both in terms of sack rate and sack impact over the past three years (though he was absolutely atrocious in 2020).

The good news for Washington is that this tends to be fairly consistent for QBs from year to year. For those interested, Taylor Heinicke (2020-2021) had both a lower sack rate and less costly sacks than Wentz did, while Dwayne Haskins (2019-2020) had both a higher sack rate and more costly sacks than Wentz did over the period examined.

But What About 2022?

So Washington’s offensive line has been solid - even with pretty poor QB play - for the past two years. How predictive is that of future performance, particularly given offensive line turnover? Washington lost Brandon Scherff to free agency and released Ereck Flowers, though it returns both starting tackles and Roullier.

When healthy, Roullier is one of the top centers in the NFL, and though he’s not currently participating in the on-field portion of OTAs, he’s expected to be fully available once the season starts.

Charles Leno played well enough last season to get a 3-year, $37.5M contract extension this offseason, and he was also named Washington’s “most underrated” player by PFF:

Leno is the classic example of a player whose reputation suffers simply because he’s not one of the best tackles in the game. He often loses as a pass protector, surrendering five or more sacks in each of the past four seasons. But 43 different tackles posted a worse PFF pass-blocking efficiency rate in 2021, and Leno’s overall PFF grade (81.2) was enough to rank 12th. He is a good player, but not a great one, and that’s enough to draw the ire of a certain section of the fanbase that isn’t interested in anything short of elite.

Rookie, Sam Cosmi played well at right tackle before going down midway through the season with injury. He will almost certainly be the starter to begin 2022, but swing tackle Cornelius Lucas was actually the third highest graded offensive lineman on the team last year, filling in when Cosmi went down. Another offseason under the tutelage of offensive line coach John Matsko and in an NFL strength training regime should ensure that Cosmi is even better in 2022.

Nominally, one would assume the loss of two starting guards would be a concerning issue, but as he had in his prior three seasons, former All Pro guard Brandon Scherff missed serious time (6 games) in 2021. If the most important “ability” for NFL players is “availability,” Scherff gets serious marks against on that front. Ereck Flowers was very solid in 2021, but his level of play simply didn’t merit the $10M he was slated to get in 2022, and he was released.

Scherff and Flowers will be replaced with some combination of Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner - both of whom have previously played with Matsko and Rivera - and Wes Schweitzer, who filled in when Scherff went down last year. Here’s brief description of Norwell and Turner from a profile of Matsko I wrote a couple of years ago:

Matsko helped nurture some pretty impressive offensive linemen in Carolina. Center Ryan Kalil (second rounder) was a multi-year All Pro. Andrew Norwell was taken as an UDFA in 2014 and groomed into an All Pro by 2017. Trai Turner, selected in third round in 2014, is now a 5 time Pro Bowler. And 2015 fourth rounder, Daryl Williams was named second team All Pro in 2017. And, Matsko’s connection to his guys seems to persist even after they’ve left his team:

“I’ll give it to you short and sweet. I still talk to him. I talked to him yesterday,” Turner said after a Jan. 23 practice before the 2020 Pro Bowl. “He’s a guy that I lean on heavily. He’s just a great coach and a great mentor to my career.”

I think it’s reasonable to expect both players will have their careers reinvigorated by a reunion with the maestro. Norwell had been one of the rare bright spots on a terrible Jaguars offensive line last year, and Turner was actually the top-rated offensive lineman on a bad Steelers OL that was aided tremendously by Big Ben’s quick release. By many accounts, the tandem should be a pretty reasonable replacement for Scherff and Flowers, though I still have some expectation that Wes Schweitzer, who had Washington’s best grade at guard last year, could end up snagging a starting spot.

This generally rosy outlook also seems to be corroborated by analytic projections based on the past performance of Washington’s expected 2022 starters on the OL:

But Washington’s starters are just a piece of their offensive line strength. As mentioned in both the PFF reviews, Washington’s line has had important injuries both of the past two years and still held up. Starting quality back-ups and young, developing depth players are a true asset for this unit.

Offensive Line Depth

Cornelius Lucas (T)

As mentioned above, Cornelius Lucas is a starting tackle quality as the team’s swing tackle. In 2020, he’s was the 11th rated tackle in the league, playing on the left side, and in 2021, he filled in ably on the right flank. Lucas was wisely rewarded for his play with a two-year contract for $6.4M this offseason.

Wes Schweitzer (G/C)

Schweitzer’s 3-year, $13.5M deal, signed in 2020 is quietly one of the best free agent contracts that Ron Rivera has executed in his time in DC. Schweitzer played in all 16 games in 2020 (starting 11), and played in 11 last year (starting 5). He’s absolutely a starting caliber guard, and could end up being a starting guard this season, but he has the flexibility to play all the interior line positions.

Tyler Larsen (C)

With Roullier down last season, Larsen started three games at center. Either he or Keith Ismael likely end up occupying this back-up center slot. Both are passable depth behind the normally very durable Roullier.

Saahdiq Charles (G/T)

Charles enters his third season with relatively high expectations. When he was drafted in 2020, it was with the understanding that he was going to need at least a season of conditioning and skills training to be ready for primetime. He’s now had two. He started four games at tackle last year and was average. The hope, I would expect, is that he’s able to push for starting time at guard at some point this season, with Trai Turner on a 1-year deal, and Schweitzer’s contract up after 2022.

Chris Paul (G)

The 7th round rookie out of Tulsa is already garnering serious hype. Originally predicted to go in the 5th round, Paul is making an impression in OTAs, including on former Washington tight end Logan Paulsen, who called out Paul as his “surprise” roster addition this fall. John Keim interviewed Paul’s coach at Tulsa, who also coached first rounder Tyler Smith, and that interview is available at the link below. It’s well worth a listen if you’re interested in the young man’s prospects.

Poll

How do you feel about Washington’s OL this year.

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    I think this is a top 5 group.
    (185 votes)
  • 62%
    I think this is a top 10 group.
    (456 votes)
  • 9%
    I think this is an average group.
    (68 votes)
  • 2%
    I refuse to buy the hype. We should have drafted more OL and re-signed Scherff and Flowers.
    (19 votes)
728 votes total Vote Now