In my continuing mission to spare Commanders fans the heartbreak and disappointment that comes from setting unrealistically high expectations, this offseason I am examining the statistical reality of the hype surrounding several of the Commanders’ most unproven returning players. To date, I have attempted to shed some light on the likelihood of TE Cole Turner and DE Chase Young having breakout seasons in 2023.
The third instalment of the Offseason Skeptic will change the script a little. Rather than addressing hopes and expectations developing within the fanbase, this article will examine the confidence that the coaching staff appears to have in one, possibly two, unproven player(s) to man the left guard position heading into training camp.
I have recently written about Ron Rivera neglect of the offensive line in the draft throughout his four years in Washington. That appears to be consistent with a larger pattern of neglect. For the second offseason season in a row, Rivera seems to have simply forgot to find a plausible starter at left guard in free agency or the draft. Rather than signing a proven vet or using an early round pick on a likely first-year starter, the Commanders’ front office appears to be happy to let fourth-year depth player, Saahdiq Charles, compete with 2022 seventh-round pick Chris Paul for the starting job, with journeyman Keaton Sutherland and roster hopeful Nolan Laufenberg as potential backups.
Is Rivera’s apparent confidence in Saahdiq Charles reasonably based? The left tackle out of LSU was selected 108th overall in the 2020 draft. At the time, there were suggestions that the highly athletic offensive lineman had potential to be one of the steals of the draft if concerns about his work ethic and marijuana usage proved unfounded. NFL.com’s Lance Zeirlein rated him as having potential to become an average starter at OT, which would indeed be great value in the fourth round.
Through three seasons in Washington, Charles has yet to live up to that potential. In part, his development may have been limited by injuries.
In his rookie season, Charles was active and listed as the starter for one game, but only saw the field for a total of 2 offensive snaps before suffering a season ending kneecap dislocation. The following season, he was active for 10 games and started four, replacing injured players at tackle and guard, and played a total of 253 offensive snaps. In 2022, despite the offensive line’s struggles, he only saw a modest increase in playing time in relief of injured starters. He had three official starts and played 85% of snaps in the Week 4 game at Dallas and 40% of snaps in the Week 12 game against Atlanta. He finished his third season having played a total of 290 offensive snaps in six games.
In the two seasons when Charles has seen significant playing time his performance appears to have gone backward, at least as judged by PFF blocking grades. In 2021, splitting time between right guard (115 snaps), right tackle (71 snaps) and left guard (56 snaps), he had an overall blocking grade of 67.6 (ranked 48th among guards), a pass blocking grade of 62.3 (ranked 64th) and an impressive run blocking grade of 79.2 (ranked 10th). In 2022, playing 287/290 snaps at right guard, his grades declined dramatically. His overall blocking grade dropped to 43.6 (ranked 121st), his pass blocking grade dropped to 29.7 (ranked 121st) and his run blocking grade dropped to 51.3 (ranked 108th).
Despite limited production in his first three seasons in Washington, heading into camp, all indications are that Charles is the leading contender for the starting left guard position. He has taken all the starting reps in offseason activities and Ron Rivera has spoken highly of his performance.
The only other player that Rivera has mentioned as being in serious contention for the position is second-year OL Chris Paul, who has played one game for the Commanders, in the season finale against Dallas. In that one start, Paul posted an overall PFF blocking grade of 55.6 (rank 86th), pass blocking grade of 56.9 (rank 80th) and a run blocking grade of 55.0 (rank 87th).
How comfortable should we be with Rivera’s confidence that one of these two largely unproven players will break out in 2023 and successfully man the starting left guard position? To get an idea of the likelihood that this will work out, I searched historical player data over the past decade to ask how common it is for offensive linemen with similar playing time to Saahdiq Charles in 2022 to break out and become starters in their fourth season in the NFL. Early in the offseason I estimated the likelihood of late round interior offensive linemen starting in their second seasons and will revisit those data to get an idea of Chris Paul’s chance of beating out Charles for the starting position.
What’s the Chance that Saahdiq Charles Breaks Out in 2023?
To help calibrate our expectations for Saahdiq Charles in 2023, I used the Pro Football Reference database to ask how frequently in the past decade offensive linemen with similar playing time to Saahdiq Charles in their third NFL seasons broke out and became primary starters in their fourth seasons in the league.
Charles played 290 offensive snaps in 2022. To find comparable players, I searched for players who were drafted in rounds 4 through 7, who were listed as Offensive Linemen, Offensive Tackle or Offensive Guard and played their third NFL season from 2012 to 2021. I didn’t explicitly search for Centers, but I turned up a few of those as well. I wasn’t too concerned about matching O-line positions because, like Charles, later round offensive linemen tend to get moved around quite a bit. To find comparable players to Saahdiq, I then narrowed the search to linemen with offensive snap counts within 20% of 290 (232 to 348 snaps).
Those criteria turned up the following players:
A total of 24 players met the Year-3 snap count criterion. These OL played between 21.7% and 32.9% of offensive snaps for their teams in their third seasons, which puts them in the range of Saahdiq who played 24.4% of offensive snaps in 2022. Four of the players who met the Year-3 snap count criterion were out of the NFL by their fourth seasons.
My initial criterion for breakout players was simply linemen who played more than 50% of offensive snaps in Year 4 of their careers. Six players out of 24 met this criterion and are indicated in bold. Further investigation revealed that two of these players, John Miller and J.D. Walton, had been starters throughout their first three seasons and had their third seasons cut short due to injury. I considered them to be false positives, because they actually broke out in their rookie seasons and just got included here due to accidental injury.
The remaining four players, indicated in red font, are the fourth-year breakout candidates. Among these players, Ryan Jensen and Redskins’ draft pick Austin Reiter had true breakouts of the type we are hoping for from Saahdiq Charles. Both Jensen and Reiter got relatively limited playing time, with a few starts, through their first three seasons and then became full time starters, playing 100% of offensive snaps (Jensen) or close to it (Reiter) in their fourth NFL seasons. Of the two Jensen remained a full time starter for four more seasons after breaking out. Reiter started for one more season in Kansas City and then started 6 more games for Miami where he ended his career in 2021.
The other two fourth-year breakout players do not quite fit the breakout concept we are going for. Brandon Parker started 12 games as a rookie and then spent the following two seasons as a backup before breaking back into the starting lineup in his fourth season. He is entering his fifth season this year. You could say he broke back out in his fourth season after being a day-one starter if you are so inclined. Oday Aboushi broke into the starting lineup in Week 7 of his rookie season. He struggled with injuries throughout his first five seasons, but started whenever he was healthy. After his fifth season he moved to a backup role. It could be argued that Parker broke out in his fourth season, but Aboushi is clearly a first-year starter whose early career was limited by injury.
Altogether, two to three players out of 24 with similar playing time to Saahdiq Charles in their third seasons truly broke out to become full time starters in their fourth seasons. If you count Brandon Parker as a fourth-year break out player, then the fourth year breakout rate is 3/24 = 0.125, or 12.5%. If you count Parker as a first-year starter, then the fourth-year breakout rate drops to 2/24 = 0.083, or 8.3%.
That places the estimated chance that a player like Charles will become a full time starter in his fourth season at between 8.3% and 12.5%.
What Is the Chance that Chris Paul’s Breaks Out in 2023?
OL Chris Paul was drafted 230th overall in the seventh round of the 2022 draft. He played in a single game as a rookie, starting the season finale against Dallas. In that game, he played 66 offensive snaps and recorded PFF blocking grades which ranked him in the 80s amongst guards who played in 2022.
Does that one start give us any information beyond his draft status regarding his chance for a breakout in 2023? That’s a tough one. The fact that he didn’t earn his way onto the field, despite Washington’s struggles at guard, might simply reflect Ron Rivera’s well known penchant for playing older, trusted veterans instead of promising young players. Flipping that coin, he might have got his one opportunity to start because Rivera wanted to evaluate young players in a meaningless game to end the season, rather than because he earned it.
In an article on offensive player development timelines earlier this offseason, I estimated the probability of an interior offensive lineman drafted on late Day 3 (draft rounds 5-7) becoming a primary starter in his second season to be 0.179 (17.9% chance). I used a more stringent criterion of starting 10 games to identify second-year starters in that analysis.
Just for fun, I decided to have a look to see if having started exactly one game as a rookie has an effect on a player’s chance of becoming a starter in their second season. In the decade from 2012 to 2021, 27 offensive linemen drafted in rounds five through seven started just one game in their rookie season. Only two only played a single game like Paul: OT Adam Bisnowaty, and our old friend C Austin Reiter.
Sticking to just the directly analogous players, there are two directions Paul’s career could head. Bisnowaty’s NFL career ended after his rookie season. Reiter, on the other hand, was cut by the Redskins who drafted him in the 7th round in 2017, and spent two seasons as a depth player for Cleveland. He signed with the Chiefs in 2018, earned the starting job in 2019 and collected a Super Bowl ring, and started for two more seasons, ending his six-year career in Miami. Neither Reiter nor Bisnowaty became a full time starter in their second season.
That sample might be a little small to draw really meaningful conclusions. Let’s have a look at all 27 players who started a single game as rookies.
Out of 27 offensive linemen who started a single game in their first seasons over the last decade, five played more than 50% of offensive snaps in their second seasons, giving a starting conversion rate of 0.185, or 18.5%. That is so close to the previous estimate that I wouldn’t worry about the difference, particularly since I used a different criterion to identify starters.
Those numbers seem to bode reasonably well for Chris Paul, giving him an estimated chance of starting close to one in five. In fact, he would seem to have the edge on Saahdiq Charles, whom I have estimated to have an 8.3% to 12.5% chance of becoming a full time starter in 2023.
However, a note of caution is in order. With one notable exception, the players who became second-year starters tended to be those who got more playing time as rookies. Four of the five second-year starters played more than 130 offensive snaps as rookies, which roughly equates to two whole games worth of playing time. The one exception is the 2023 Commanders’ starting left tackle, Charles Leno, who only played 29 offensive snaps, despite starting a game in his rookie season. Aside from Leno, no player who got as little playing time as Chris Paul as a rookie played more than 25% of offensive snaps in his second season. Therefore, Paul’s chance of starting in 2023 could actually be lower than the 18.5% estimate above.
What Is the Commanders’ Outlook at Left Guard in 2023?
Putting the most optimistic possible spin on these numbers, the Commanders enter camp with two unproven players on rookie contracts competing for the starting left guard position. One of those players has a generously estimated 0.185 probability of breaking out and becoming a full-time starter in 2023. The other has a 0.125 probability of breaking out.
Using those numbers, we can calculate the probability of Rivera’s plan failing to find a starting left guard. The probability of Chris Paul failing to become a starter is 1.000 – 0.185 = 0.815. The probability of Saahdiq Charles failing to become a starter is 1.000 – 0.125 = 0.875. The joint probability of both players failing to become a starter in 2023 is therefore 0.815 x 0.875 = 0.713 or 71.3%.
So, based on the historical player data, I am estimating there is around a 71% chance that neither Saahdiq Charles nor Chris Paul will establish themselves as the Commanders’ starting left guard this season.
In that event, I suppose the options to fill the gap could include shifting one of the centers to guard, using Cornelius Lucas as a stopgap, digging further down the depth chart, signing a free agent at roster cut downs or poaching from practice squads.
It’s good to know they have options. But perhaps it would have been better to sign a vet free agent earlier in the offseason. This is the price we pay for Ron Rivera’s failure to invest draft capital in the position in his previous three seasons in Washington.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett.
Who will start at left guard on opening day?
This poll is closed
Someone else on the roster whom I will name in the comments
Someone not currently on the roster
Someone who played for Rivera in Carolina
Do we really need five offensive linemen?
Who will play the majority of snaps at left guard in the final four games of the season?
This poll is closed
Someone else on the current roster
Someone added in camp/preseason
Street free agent signed midseason
Stop asking questions I can’t answer!