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Stats Corner: Shining Light on the Trenches

Explaining how to grade the individual offensive lineman

New Mexico v San Diego State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Last week in Stats Corner, we looked at the only group of football players who do not have a specific obvious statistics, the offensive line, and how to grade the entire group through the season. But outside of trial and error, which isn’t the most effective means, how do you find the individuals to recruit and create the line? Another important question, how do you determine the effectiveness of the player throughout the games and the season? Don’t forget to include if the blown play was a bad coaching call, the quarterback’s mistake, or a missed assignment on the O-line. Honestly, should that interception count against Nick Foles when Alshon Jeffery dropped the ball? Probably not, but it does.

There are two main categories to measure offensive lineman: empirical and subjective.

Empirical measurements are the easiest but least effective, think of it as raw God-given characteristics: height, weight, arm length, hand size, bench, squat, etc. The NFL combine also tracks 10-yard dash, vertical and broad jump, 3-cone, and 40-yard dash because, obviously, O-line need to be able to get 40 yards down the field in less than 6 seconds. All of these physical elements are required in order to be successful (5’10” 170 pound guys just don’t match up well with linebackers), but these are not a guarantee, remember when JaMarcus Russell blew everyone away at the combine with his measurements and was awarded the number pick in the draft and now considered one of the biggest busts of all-time. It happens all the time, the physical specimen screams talent and ability, promoting scouts and coaches to see a phenomenon when it is merely a figment of their imagination.

There are traits that lineman need which are directly connected to physical measurements. One is agility, yes we are talking about 350 pounds of human, but when over 1500 pounds of offensive linemen are moving in a tightly contained space, one person tripping over his own feet or someone else could, literally, have a domino effect. Ignoring the comment about the 40-yard dash, linemen do need to be able to move quickly. If a lineman is slow coming out of his stance, the defense will be long past him before he is ready. Not only does his initial burst, first three steps, need to be quick, hence the jump measurement, but he may need to move from his first assignment to his second assignment which likely is in a different location, the 3 cone and 10-yard dash measurements.

The second category is the subjective type, grading based on game film. A basic and quick method is simply pass/fail, did you do your job (pass) or did you not do your job (fail). Then to score the lineman take the number of pass grades to divide by the total number of plays and obtain a percentage. For example, if a player has 52 passes and 12 fails on 64 plays, then 52/64 is 81.25%. In the NFL All-Pro lineman score above 90% and those below 85% are cut. If there are 70 plays in a game, All-Pro lineman pass on 63 plays and fail on 7 plays, while those who are cut pass on 59 and fail on 11. That is a difference of 4 plays between the best and worst. This does not take into consideration who the team is playing, so if you are lining up across from USU’s Tipa Galeai and his Mountain West-leading 10.5 sacks or Nevada’s Malik Reed with 16 tackles for loss, you are probably going to have a lower score.

Think about the last pass/fail you took, the student with the high A and the student with the low D, both students received a pass for the class. While both students received the same class grade, the amount of work and effort each student put into the class varies considerably. Therefore another subjective technique is needed to grade each player on every individual play. This time using a number ranking system 0-2, 0-4, or 1-10. Then divide the total points by the number of plays and get a score for each player. Using 0-2 makes it easier to rank plays, however, the average of the players will be very close. Using 1-10 makes it easier to rank the player’s averages, but difficult to be consistent when grading, what really is the difference between a 3 and 4 grade? This is done best by the coach, because one question to answer is, what was the player’s responsibility? The potential is a player did everything correctly, but the scheme was flawed or the player next to them made a mistake, hence the negative outcome of the play. In this case, the coach or scout needs to grade the individual player, not the play itself. When grading, coaches need to be honest with themselves about what they are seeing. It is easy to rank a player higher or lower based on the coach’s mistake in play calling or how they personally feel about the player.

A low score means mental or technique error; in short, you screwed up the play for everyone else. Mental mistakes and bad technique lead to penalties and negative yards. Middle scores mean you blocked correctly (you did your job), with scores in the high range being extraordinary play. Things to consider when grading are hand position, effort, playing until the whistle, adjusting to the defense, and footwork. Bonus points can be given for picking up blitzes, pushing a linebacker back, making multiple blocks on the same play, or having a wow moment. Also, points are taken off for bad technique. A lineman may have opened a hole for the running back to score a touchdown, but received a lower score because his footwork was poor. The rationale being, poor footwork will cause problems in future plays, the lineman dodged a bullet, but it will come back to bite him.

Similarly, offensive linemen aren’t going to consistently be pushing back linebackers 6-7 yards a play with poor footwork, remember the 4 play difference between bad and great? Of course, if the touchdown won the game and qualified the team for a bowl game, the coach may give the lineman a higher score anyway. It may be biased, but that’s what subjective means anyway.

Hopefully, that gives you an idea of how to rate and what to look for when it comes to the big guys in the trenches, the unsung heroes, the offensive linemen.