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The terrible state of NFL offensive line play

Very smart NFL writers Danny Kelly and Stephen White have a pleasant exchange exploring what's wrong with offensive linemen in the NFL and how to fix it. Also up for grabs this week: contenders and pretenders.

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Danny Kelly: We're now two weeks into the season, and one of the main themes that can be seen throughout the league — no joke, on almost every team — is a real struggle with offensive line play. In my back yard it's readily apparent. Seattle was dominated up front by the Rams in Week 1 and gave up six sacks. While they improved in pass protection versus an inferior line in Week 2 at Green Bay, they still couldn't get their run game going, largely because of poor blocking up front.

This should be no surprise in Seattle, though. The Seahawks traded their best offensive lineman in Max Unger to the Saints to acquire Jimmy Graham, and are going with a line that has "new" players at three positions. So how has it come to this, that a team like Seattle, who places such a heavy emphasis on running, is going with such a mess of an offensive line?


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The Seahawks spent a first-round pick on James Carpenter, a third-rounder on John Moffitt and neither worked out. They took Justin Britt in the second round and he's already been moved. They drafted three more this year. So, is it development? It seems that with this being such a big issue for teams around the league, there's something going on with players being pro-ready when they come out of college.

This is something that I've heard from a number of coaches, particularly when it comes to offensive linemen. What's your take on this? I know you've been keeping an eye on it as well. Why are college offensive linemen coming into the league so unprepared?

Stephen White: I agree that the state of offensive line play in the NFL leaves much to be desired right now, but I'm not all together convinced that it's going to continue trending that way. What appears to be the case is some teams make a concerted effort to build a strong offensive line, whereas others just do enough to "get by," so to speak, choosing instead to invest heavily in other parts of their team.

When I think of teams with good offensive lines, like the Cowboys and Ravens, their approaches stand out because both teams went out of their way to build in multiple ways up front. From high draft picks, to free agents, to trades, those teams went above and beyond so that even if they had some busts they still would be okay.

Of course that's easier said than done. Most teams won't have high first-round picks in consecutive years that they can afford to use on their offensive line. Being able to trade for an above average left tackle is also something that you just don't see happen every day either. Still, when teams take that throw-everything-at-the-wall-until-something-sticks approach to building their O-line, they obviously have a better chance of actually being good up front. At the same time, I can't be mad at other approaches because every team has different priorities.

Danny: Great point.

Stephen: Now, the quality of linemen coming out of college definitely has changed primarily because, as you alluded to, they aren't being asked to do a lot of the things they used to have to do in many of these new-fangled spread offenses.

Even those who are pretty good at run blocking don't get much experience pass blocking for drop-back passes, and drop-back passes are still a prominent part of most NFL offenses. That means even when you get an athletically gifted young offensive lineman in the draft, they still have to be taught a ton of stuff they should have learned in college but didn't.

That's why you see a team like the Bucs starting their two new second-round picks on the offensive line struggling early with pressures and penalties this season. Neither left tackle Donovan Smith nor right guard Ali Marpet were finished products coming out of school this year, so the offense will struggle a bit until they get up to speed.

For now, I'm going to chalk a lot of this up to it still being very early in the season. I still think many of these offensive lines will get it together. As they get more comfortable playing together game after game we should be a better product overall across the league. It's just going to take some time.

Danny: I always find the relationship between college football, which is generally spread-out and speed-oriented, and the NFL, which is still traditional at its core, fascinating. College football fans (and coaches, sometimes) are always quick to point out that the college game isn't a farm system for the NFL; it's its own entity. Well, I'm not sure the NFL feels that way, but it's interesting nonetheless.

With the college game mostly shotgun-oriented (in general, again, obviously some teams run pro-style stuff), teams are having to teach their quarterbacks the footwork involved in five- and seven-step drops, having to teach them simple stuff like turning their back on the defense to do a play-action fake, and teaching them to read defenses instead of looking over to the sideline to get the plays.

Likewise, offensive linemen have to learn to sustain blocks for more than a second or two, how to play in three-point stances, how to play with tighter splits, and a million other nuances that the pro game requires that the college game does not. On the other hand, maybe we'll see more athletic offensive linemen in the NFL take over for the big 335-pound maulers?

Either way, it's always been a tough transition from college to the pros, but as the game continues to evolve at both levels, that relationship will remain an interesting one.

For what it's worth, I looked at the last three years, and over the first two weeks of each season, sacks have actually gone down from 2013 to 2014 and again from 2014 to 2015. So is it just recency bias? Or is there a real issue? Something to keep an eye on.

Surprise teams

Stephen: We know that teams starting the season 0-2 have a very low likelihood of making the playoffs let alone winning a Super Bowl. But man, oh man, there are some teams I'd say most people perceive to be good sitting at 0-2 right now. The Seahawks, Colts, Ravens, and Lions are all 0-2 teams who, at least on paper, looked like playoff contenders this season.

I would say I'm most shocked by the Ravens being 0-2. I thought they would run away with the AFC North this year and get off to a hot start. Mind you, they've been in both games all the way down to the wire, but they still couldn't find away to get a victory. All four of the 0-2 teams mentioned have had tough games early, but I really didn't see the Ravens losing to the Raiders, especially after Oakland got demolished in Week 1 by the Bengals.

I was wrong.

So who is the most surprising 0-2 team in your estimation?

Danny: I definitely agree that it's a surprise the Ravens started out 0-2, and their loss to the Raiders might be the most shocking of the group. The Seahawks lost to the Rams and Packers on the road -- not totally surprising. The Colts lost to the Jets and Bills -- okay, I can see how that could happen. The Lions lost to the Chargers and Vikings, both thought to be playoff-caliber. While the Eagles have lost to the Falcons and Cowboys -- both solid-looking teams thus far.

I think it's the way that they've lost that has surprised me the most. Outside of two quarters, Chip Kelly's supposedly high-octane offense has looked extremely flat. I admit that the preseason play of Sam Bradford kind of suckered me into believing he was in for a huge year. With Bradford struggling and DeMarco Murray getting no traction in the run game, there's a fear that things could snowball for the Eagles and they may not find their way out of this lull.

Additionally, I am surprised that Byron Maxwell has struggled so much through two games. He was a very good player for the Seahawks and fit their scheme like a glove, so this is another good reminder that players can excel in certain schemes but not fit in others. It seems to be a poor match out of the gate.

That said, I think that the Eagles will bounce back and get things on track. I had originally pegged them as one of the leaders in the NFC this year. That prediction is looking pretty iffy at this point, but as with the other surprise 0-2 teams, it's still way too early to know. I think Bradford will adjust and the Eagles will figure out how to get the run game going. And hopefully, they'll adjust to better utilize Maxwell's talents.

Bounce-back teams

Stephen: Do you think this is the year when several 0-2 teams bounce back and make the playoffs?

Danny: I still believe there's a good chance that the Colts, Ravens, Seahawks, Eagles, and perhaps even the Lions bounce back and one or two could make the playoffs. I think the Seahawks have too much talent to continue playing how they've played, and with Kam Chancellor now back in the fold, that can't hurt things.

I think the Ravens are similar -- there's a really good defense as a solid base there. I think the offense will start picking things up and we could see them in the hunt by mid-season. The AFC North might end up beating up on each other as well, which would make things interesting in that division again.

I can see the Eagles sticking in the race in the NFC East, too. The Lions, in my eyes, have the toughest race back, because the Packers look pretty dominant thus far and could be hard to catch. The Vikings looked a lot more competent in Week 2.


Danny: Speaking of snap judgements based on the first two weeks of the season -- our colleagues over in the SB Nation Studios pointed out an interesting fact this week -- in each of the past five seasons, three teams that started out the year 2-0 ended up missing the playoffs. Of the Patriots, Jets, Bengals, Broncos, Cowboys, Packers, Panthers, Falcons, and Cardinals, do you see any pretenders?

Stephen: I think Dallas may be a pretender only because of key injuries to both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. However, I think the rest of these teams will all be in the playoff hunt deep into the season.

Maybe the team most people would be suspicious of is probably the Jets. I just took a look at the Jets defense against Andrew Luck and the Colts, and I was quickly reminded why they could definitely make the playoffs this year. It's one thing to be able to blitz whenever you want to, even seemingly just for shits and giggles at times, it's something altogether different when you can play lockdown coverage behind those blitzes.

I kept trying to find a play where Luck just missed an open read and those were few and far between. Most of the time he could only choose between which guy had the biggest sliver of daylight between his defender before he had to unload the ball, lest he get knocked into next week by a Jets pass rusher. That defense is legit and, barring major injuries, I definitely think they are strong enough on that side of the ball to be a playoff contender.

I think the Panthers may be a little suspect also because of the fact that they have a bunch of "Yeoman Johnsons" at the wide receiver position this season. I was skeptical and will probably be skeptical for this whole year that they can continue to be productive enough on offense with so few playmakers in the passing game. But somehow, some way, for the first two weeks Cam Newton has made it work.

The pass protection has also been better than I imagined it would be, but make no mistake, Newton has been playing his ass off so far both throwing the ball and running it on occasion. If he stays relatively healthy, the Panthers definitely have a shot to make it back to the playoffs this year and maybe even contend for the NFC South title again.

What about you Danny, any of these 2-0 teams give you the gas face?

Danny: Yeah, for me it's very difficult to put too much faith in the Cowboys surviving the loss of Dez Bryant and Tony Romo for most of the next two months. Their defense has definitely played better than we might've guessed it would, but the name of the game for Dallas has been ball control and keeping the football out of the hands of their opponents. With Brandon Weeden, a host of middling receivers and a yet-to-get-going run game, I just don't know how the Cowboys can expect to play their brand of ball.

The only thing that gives them a shot is an NFC East that looks to be out of sorts this year with a faltering Philly team, a choking Giants team, and an I-don't-know-what Washington team. It will be interesting.

The other unbeaten team that I just struggle to place in the top echelon of NFL teams is the Bengals, and it comes down to the quarterback position.

Maybe this is the year that Andy Dalton takes that next step and becomes the consistently high-performing passer that they need, but the history there is still concerning to me. I am not saying they won't make a run for the playoffs -- and in general I love their defense -- but even with some great weapons on offense, Dalton's the one driving that thing. I think they'll only go as far as he can take them (like most NFL teams and their quarterbacks). I actually hope he can shed some of his doubters and reach that next level this year though, because that's a talented team in Cincy.

The Bengals-Ravens game this week is on the top of my list of "must-watches."

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SB Nation presents: No offensive line could stop J.J. Watt on this play