When free agency began, the top offensive linemen were gobbled up quickly, some to to record deals. That’s hardly surprising. Protecting the quarterback and establishing balance with an effective run game are keys to success in the NFL. This year, though, the priority on offensive linemen is a little different.
Weak offensive line play was the Achilles heel for some teams last season. It kept the Broncos out of the playoffs entirely after they won the Super Bowl the season before. The Seahawks failed to make strengthening the line a priority for a few consecutive offseasons, and it finally caught up to them in 2016. Injury after injury forced the Browns to rotate through five different starting quarterbacks.
There’s another factor at play, too. The offensive line class in this year’s draft isn’t particularly deep. Outside of a few select players, it might be tough finding linemen who can start immediately.
It’s unwise to rely too much on first-year players to fix offensive line problems right away, anyway.
Last year, the Detroit Lions drafted Taylor Decker in the first round and he went on to start every game at left tackle in 2016. But when they lost Larry Warford and Riley Reiff to free agency this year, they filled those holes with two other veterans, spending a combined $76 million to bring in T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner.
“You can't have all rookies and second-year players on your offensive line,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said at the combine.
With veterans especially, it’s easier to get them acclimated to a new system, even if they’re coming from a different background. But it’s important for the long term to find the balance between experience and inexpensive young players who can be developed and become cornerstones in a team’s system.
Here’s a look at five teams that added pieces to their offensive line in free agency, but can turn to the 2017 draft to take care of unfinished business.
Broncos’ OL work may not be done
Denver’s line was one of the worst in the league in 2016, and it made it impossible for Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch to play well enough to make the playoffs, even with a dominant defense. Denver’s line allowed 40 sacks and 100 quarterback hits on its young quarterback duo last season.
Matt Paradis was a strength at center, but Donald Stephenson struggled at right tackle last season. This offseason, the Broncos decided to move on from left tackle Russell Okung just one season after signing him.
Whether or not these moves — and the addition of new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson — will result in immediate improvement remains to be seen. Watson and Leary are both products of the two best offensive lines in football last season, but Leary was only starting in Dallas because of an injury to La’el Collins, and Watson wasn’t a starter in Oakland last season.
Who they could still target in the draft: In their most recent mocks, SB Nation’s Dan Kadar and ESPN’s Todd McShay both have the Broncos strengthening the line with a tackle in the first round. McShay projects Utah’s Garrett Bolles to Denver, and Kadar has the Broncos taking Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin.
Ramczyk is considered to be the top tackle in this draft. For teams that need a starting left tackle, though, Ramczyk may not be the best fit, according to SB Nation’s Stephen White. White believes Ramczyk isn’t a first-round NFL left tackle and is better suited for the right tackle role. Bolles also projects best as a right tackle at the next level.
Regardless of who the Broncos use their first-round pick on, there’s a clear expectation that they’ll go with a tackle. Two-thirds of mock drafts are projecting either Bolles, Ramczyk, or Alabama’s Cam Robinson to Denver with the No. 20 selection.
Seahawks failed to shore up O-line
The Seahawks went into last season with a bunch of guys who would struggle to earn starting roles elsewhere on the O-line. They drafted guard Germain Ifedi in the first round last year, and they ended up with George Fant, an undrafted free agent who played one year of college football at tight end, starting at left tackle. Fant had never played offensive tackle before.
Instability along the line caused the Seahawks to take a step back offensively last season. Russell Wilson was sacked 42 times and took 111 hits, and the Seahawks were 19th in the NFL for scoring with just 22.1 points per game. The run game suffered, too, as Seattle averaged just 99.4 yards per game on the ground.
Who they added in free agency: The Seahawks haven’t done much. They signed former first-rounder Luke Joeckel, who didn’t pan out in Jacksonville, on a one-year deal with $7 million guaranteed. Pete Carroll said during the owners’ meetings in March that the team sees Joeckel as a left tackle, and that’s where he’ll start out with the Seahawks.
Seattle also signed Oday Aboushi, who will test out the right guard position for Seattle. Ifedi, last year’s right guard, will compete for the starting right tackle role with Gerry Gilliam.
There are a handful of experienced players still bouncing around in free agency, like tackle Ryan Clady. Clady is hitting the twilight of his career, but if he can stay healthy, would bring a veteran presence at tackle.
Who they could still target in the draft: In their latest mocks, Kadar, McShay, and Mel Kiper are all expecting the Seahawks to target defensive players in the first round instead of prioritizing the line.
The Seahawks traded away their fourth-round pick to the New England Patriots during last year’s draft, and they were docked a fifth-round pick for violating the CBA’s rules covering offseason workouts.
Still, compensatory picks give them three selections in the third round, and they could use one on someone like Taylor Moton out of Western Michigan. Moton is coming off of a solid senior season at right tackle, but he played both guard and tackle in college and has the versatility to play either at the next level.
Rams trying to give Jared Goff a chance to succeed
Jared Goff was sacked a whopping 26 times over his seven starts to end the Rams’ 2016 season. The first-overall pick averaged just 155.6 passing yards per game over that span, and the Rams went 0-7. Of course strengthening the offensive line was going to be a priority for Los Angeles heading into the offseason.
Who they added in free agency: The Rams managed to snag left tackle Andrew Whitworth away from the Bengals. Whitworth was arguably the best tackle available this year, and Los Angeles locked the veteran up on a three-year deal.
Whitworth won’t be able to fix line play on his own, so the Rams still have some changes to make. They’re expected to do just that and shift Greg Robinson to right tackle. Rob Havenstein, who played right tackle last season, will move to right guard.
Nick Mangold is still available, and although he is coming off of an ankle injury, he should be able to provide stability at center. The team also showed interest in John Sullivan, who started all 16 games for the Vikings in each 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons before landing in Washington for a one-year deal.
Who they could still target in the draft: The Rams don’t even have a first-round pick this year thanks to the trade up to select Goff with the first pick in 2016. They’re also missing a third-round selection, which complicates things a bit for Los Angeles if the team is looking to the draft to add to its O-line.
Considering the glaring needs on the offensive line, though, Los Angeles could target a guard or center with the 37th pick. Indiana’s Dan Feeney should be a Day 1 starter at guard, though some teams are reportedly working him out at center, which could work for the Rams. He also played tackle in college, so he’s versatile. Ohio State’s Pat Elflein, a center, is another possibility for Los Angeles there.
The team has met with a number of offensive linemen in preparation for the draft, including Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp, Western Michigan’s Moton, and Bucknell tackle Julie’n Davenport, who may be available for the Rams on Day 3 of the draft.
Vikings have to upgrade through the draft
Poor offensive line play was a primary reason the Vikings fizzled after a hot 5-0 start in 2016. Minnesota allowed 38 sacks and 104 hits on quarterback Sam Bradford, and the run game was stagnant.
Injuries were also a factor. Left tackle Matt Kalil was lost for the season to a hip injury, and guard Alex Boone missed time with a hip injury, too. Tackle Andre Smith landed on IR with a triceps injury, and Jake Long, who was brought in as a replacement tackle, also landed on injured reserve.
The run game wasn’t helped by the fact that the team also lost Adrian Peterson for most of the season to a torn meniscus, but Peterson wasn’t terribly productive prior to injury thanks to poor run blocking.
Who they added in free agency: Tackle Riley Reiff, formerly of the Detroit Lions, was a good pickup for the Vikings. Reiff ended up at right tackle for the Lions last season after rookie Taylor Decker won the starting left tackle role, but now will take over at left tackle for Kalil, who signed with the Carolina Panthers.
The Vikings also added right tackle Mike Remmers, who had been with the Panthers. Like Reiff, Remmers has the versatility to play either side. He filled in at left tackle in Carolina for most of last season with Michael Oher sidelined with a lingering concussion.
Currently, the Vikings have just two guards on the roster — Alex Boone and Jeremiah Sirles. Joe Berger played well at center last season, and backup center Nick Easton filled in at guard in 2016 and performed admirably, so he’s an option there. Still, right guard and the interior line depth remain concerns, and the Vikings have to look to the draft to resolve it.
Who they could still target in the draft: The Vikings have eight picks in the upcoming draft, but they’re missing their first-round pick because of their trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire Sam Bradford just before last season began.
In his recent two-round mock, Kadar has the Vikings opting for running back Alvin Kamara with the No. 48 pick instead of adding to the interior line. Minnesota signed Latavius Murray away from Oakland in free agency this offseason, and they still need guys who can help block for Murray.
The Vikings could look to someone like Temple’s Dion Dawkins, who should be available in the second round and could last until the third. Dawkins can also slide over and play tackle, and that versatility may be valuable for a team that experienced catastrophic offensive line injuries last season.
Browns focused on interior line
The Cleveland Browns lost two big pieces on their offensive line last year in free agency: right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack. But they still had all-world left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Joel Bitonio.
Unfortunately, Bitonio missed most of the 2016 season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in Week 5. Cam Erving started 12 games at center before bouncing over to give right tackle a try, and the Browns’ patchwork line allowed 66 sacks on the various quarterbacks who started for Cleveland last season. That’s 17 more than the closest team, the Los Angeles Rams, allowed all year.
Who they added in free agency: This offseason, the Browns brought in former Packers center J.C. Tretter and made Kevin Zeitler the highest-paid guard in the NFL. They also signed Bitonio to a huge extension. Cleveland has 11 picks in the upcoming draft and plenty of cap space, but working through free agency to stabilize the center of the line was the smarter approach.
Who they could still target in the draft: Cleveland’s most pressing needs right now are defensive help and a viable starting quarterback, but the team also has 11 picks to work with in the upcoming draft. Whether a rookie is the starting quarterback next season or the team decides to go with someone already on the roster, like Cody Kessler, they have to protect the quarterback more effectively next season.
The only remaining question mark along Cleveland’s line is the right tackle position. Austin Pasztor filled that role last season, but he’s a free agent. Head coach Hue Jackson said the Browns could bring Pasztor back, and Erving and Shon Coleman could also battle it out to win the starting right tackle role.
Four of the Browns’ picks are in the first two rounds, and even if they prioritize the defense and quarterback, they can use some of those other seven selections to build offensive line depth. The Browns could target someone like Florida’s David Sharpe, who is projected to be selected sometime on the third day of the draft. Sharpe has some room to grow in pass protection, but projects well as a right tackle at the next level.