Which Teams Invested in the Offensive Line in 2021?
Every offseason, once the main part of free agency is over, I compile all the offensive line free agent signings to get a quantitative sense of which teams are investing up front. One of the best measures of a player's value and ability is the contract that they sign, so I add up the average annual value for each team's free agents in (players the team signed) and free agents out (players signed away by other teams) to come up with a net dollar value (net $ in) for each team.
More Offensive Line Content: How O-line Impacts Fantasy Football
A team with a large positive number means that they brought in significantly more talent than they lost, and the team should be better up front. Conversely, a team with a big negative number means that they lost significantly more talent than they brought in, and the team’s offensive line should be worse. Quality coaching, good drafting, and the development of younger players can offset losses in free agency.
Before we get into 2021 free agency, let’s take a look at the last two years and see how free agency and the draft have impacted offensive line play. To measure offensive line play, I’ll focus on Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR), which focus on the running game and passing game, respectively.
Eight teams spent a net $6 million or more in the last two seasons– Bills, Falcons, Packers and Texans in 2019, and the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Chargers in 2020– and those teams saw their ALY increase by 7.1% with an average ranking improvement of 4.1 spots. Those units saw their ASR decrease by 11.5% (which is good) with an associated ranking improvement of 3.0 spots. All of those teams drafted at least one lineman in the first three rounds except for the Chargers, who actually saw both their offensive line’s ALY and ASR get worse the following season.
The nine teams that saw a net decrease in spending of $6 million or more– the Panthers, Broncos, Rams, Chiefs, Patriots and Dolphins in 2019, and the Lions, Eagles, Titans in 2020 – saw their ALY decrease by 8.8% with a rankings decline of 7.9 spots. This group saw their ASR increase by 5.1% (which is bad) with an associated ranking decline of 3.0 spots.
In summary, while there will be exceptions, teams that spend on the offensive line see improvement in these metrics while teams that don’t will see a decline, on average.
Below is the offensive line free agency table for 2020. I also included the number of draft picks used in the first three rounds on the offensive line to see which teams were using draft capital to shore it up. For the first time, I also included trades to better complete the picture.
|Team||Net # In||Net $ In||Rank||Players Drafted in First Three Rounds|
A Few Takeaways
Washington (+$16.0 million) added tackle Charles Leno, who played very well for the Bears last season. They also added tackle Samuel Cosmi in the draft but cut tackle Morgan Moses in a purely financial move while adding guard/tackle Ereck Flowers via trade. This should be a solid unit in 2021.
The Colts (+$13.1 million) signed tackle Eric Fisher, tackle Sam Tevi, guard Chris Reed and tackle Julie’n Davenport. Fisher is the prize of this group. The Colts were 20th in ALY and 7th in ASR, so they have more room for improvement in the running game. The addition of Fisher gives the Colts a great group up front.
The Chargers (+$13.0 million) added center Corey Linsley, guard/tackle Matt Feiler and guard/tackle Oday Aboushi in free agency, then turned around and drafted tackle Rashawn Slater with the No. 13 pick in the first round. This unit will look very different and should be much improved in 2021, though it may take some time for the line to gel since there will be so many new starters. Consider this an upgrade for the entire offense.
The Ravens (+$10.8 million) signed guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Both players project to start alongside third-round rookie guard Ben Cleveland. These three newcomers should improve the Ravens’ pass protection (23rd in ASR in 2020), though Baltimore traded tackle Orlando Brown away, and that loss will sting.
The Cardinals (+$10.4 million) traded for center Rodney Hudson, who is an upgrade over center Mason Cole, whom they traded away. The Arizona offensive line was good in pass protection but poor in the run, and Hudson should help to improve both areas.
The Chiefs (+$9.5 million) added tackle Orlando Brown via trade, signed guard Joe Thuney and center Austin Blythe, and then drafted center Creed Humphrey in the second round. They will also get guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back after he was a COVID-19 opt-out last season. The Chiefs offensive line played well in the regular season, but faltered in the Super Bowl, giving up 29 pressures to the Bucs. This explains the makeover. Like the Chargers, this unit may take some time to gel.
The Panthers (+7.3 million) added tackle Cameron Erving and guard Pat Elfein, and then drafted tackle Brady Christensen in the third round. This group should add depth to what was a middle-of-the-road unit last season, though the Panthers let tackle Russell Okung walk and he was very effective when healthy last year.
Free-agent tackle Riley Reiff and second-round guard/tackle Jackson Carman should improve a Bengals (+5.2 million) unit that finished 31st in ALY and 24th in ASR last season. The run-blocking might be questionable, but this should be a solid unit in pass protection, which is good news for Joe Burrow and Co.
The Raiders (-$25.3 million) traded away tackle Trent Brown, guard Gabe Jackson and center Rodney Hudson, three highly-paid players who project to start for their new teams. The only newcomer is tackle/guard Alex Leatherwood, whom the Raiders drafted in the first round. However, pundits largely considered it a reach at that point in the draft. The Raiders were 18th in ALY and 10th in ASR, but given all the losses, this unit may take a big step back in 2021.
The Packers’ deficit (-$13.7 million) is thanks in large part to the loss of center Corey Linsley. The team drafted Josh Myers in the second round to replace him, though Elgton Jenkins could fill in while Myers gets up to speed. Linsley is a big loss for this unit, though if Myers is the real deal, the Packers’ O-line could continue to be a strength of the team.
The Patriots (-$10.5 million) let guard Joe Thuney walk, but added guard Alex Redmond, and traded for tackle Trent Brown. Brown was on and off the COVID-19/reserve list last year. If Brown is back to his usual production, this unit should be able to weather the loss of Thuney. The line was excellent in the running game last season but struggled in pass protection.
The Giants (-$10.0 million) lost guard Kevin Zeitler, who was their best or second-best lineman last season. They replaced him with guard Zach Fulton, who was decent for the Texans last year. This unit figures to struggle again in 2021.
The offensive line of the Steelers (-$9.6 million) could take another step back after losing both tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard/tackle Matt Feiler. Per PFF, the Steelers don’t project to start a lineman with a grade better than 66.2 last season. They did add center Kendrick Green in the third round.
Our resident offensive line expert, Justin Edwards, has published his “How Offensive Line Play Impacts Fantasy Football” article and will be back later this month with his three-part offensive line rankings series.
As smart owners continue to look for an edge over their leaguemates, offensive line analysis grows in importance each season. Pay attention to the fat guys up front.