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Up Front: Who Invested in the Offensive Line?

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Does a team really need to invest in the trenches? For that matter, is there really that much of a difference in the approach teams take? There is, but it’s hard to say that it matters.

NFL: Chicago Bears-Minicamp Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

One football truism is that a good team is built by investing in the offensive line. Chicago fans in particular have had reasons to doubt the team’s offensive line over the years, and I have to admit that I was never really sure where Chicago placed in terms of investing in its line. Was it as bad as I remembered?

To answer this question, I looked at a five-year window (from 2009 to 2013) and considered what sort of investment teams tended to make up front. As a very modest sort of check against disaster, I ruled out any player who failed to take the field in at least one game. I picked the older window because that makes it possible for fans to draw their own inferences about how things played out after these drafts took place.

Overview

Overall, 176 linemen were drafted, for about 5 or 6 players per team (or to put it another way, a little more than one lineman per year per team). 44 of those players were picked inside the first fifty selections (1.4 per team), and 81 players were picked over the first 100 selections (2.5 per team).

By far, the leaders in terms of investment over this time were the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs. While the Jaguars only invested 4 picks, 3 of those were with a Top 50 selection and all four were within the Top 100. Two of them were first-rounders, and a total of 4720 “Jimmy Johnson” points of draft value were spend across just four players. By contrast, Kansas City drafted 7 players over 5 years, but only two of them were in the Top 50. Even the Chiefs fall short of the 9 offensive linemen drafted by Pittsburgh over these five years, and while Green Bay drafted 8 players in this time, only two of them were taken with a pick in the Top 100.

At the other end of the spectrum, Carolina (501 points, 2 total selections, and 1 player in the Top 50) and New Orleans (535 points, 4 picks, and no players taken in the top 50) suggest either confidence or disregard. Other truly low-investing teams were the Texans, the Jets, and the Falcons—all of whom spent less than half of the average amount of draft capital on the offensive line during this time. Actually, taken together, these five teams invested roughly as many draft points in their lines as Seattle, which came in fourth overall.

During this same time, the Chicago Bears invested 1523.3 “chart points” in the offensive line. That’s below the 1776.5 mean and the 1530.3 median. The 5 total picks were also below the median and a hair below the mean.

Outcomes

Let’s be clear about something—it is really hard to draw any sort of cause-effect relationship in a sport like football by looking at win-loss ratio and connecting it to any single variable. However, even if there were a way to do this, it would take a lot of generalization, because there’s just too much consistency in how teams approach drafting the offensive line. Looking at how many teams spent “high” draft picks doesn’t help, because only two teams spent three Top 50 picks, and five spent none; three-quarters of the league took 1 or 2 players in this range (as a side note, looking at “value” of picks doesn’t help, because of course teams with losing records and higher draft picks spent more on their offensive line—they had more points to spend). Additionally, there is likely to be some regression to mediocrity by all teams, especially with scheduling.

Consider this—the top five teams in terms of investment in the offensive line (points-wise) were Jacksonville, Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle, and Philadelphia. For the five years under study, 2 had winning records and 3 had losing records; accepting a two-year stagger (to account for the players actually settling in and making their impact), there are two losing records, two winning records, and one team (the Chiefs) at the .500 mark.

Meanwhile, the bottom five teams in terms of investment (the Falcons, the Jets, the Texans, the Saints, and the Panthers) had three winning records and two losing records in this time; with a two-year stagger that became four winning records and one losing record (the Jets).

During this time, the team with the least invested in its offensive line (Carolina or New Orleans, depending on which measure you want to use) contended for a Super Bowl. So did a team with the most (Seattle or Pittsburgh).

Back to the Bears

Chicago invested what was actually an average amount in the offensive line in terms of total draft capital, in terms of number of picks, and in terms of number of high picks. What ultimately seems to have mattered in their case was not how much they invested but rather the quality of the players that they invested in, plus the luck those players experienced. The bad luck represented by Gabe Carimi’s misfortunes represent a lost step in keeping up with the league.

However, Pace’s apparent strategy of spending about a pick a year on the offensive line, sometimes for a Cody Whitehair in the second and sometimes for a Jordan Morgan in the fifth, seems to represent just typical policy in the NFL. There is certainly no clear evidence that more investment is needed, and while many of us might envy the current line enjoyed by Dallas, their fortune seems to be more linked to the quality of the decisions they made, not the draft capital that powered those decisions.