The LA Rams did a better job along the offensive line in 2020 than many people had expected them to do, but were they great in that area? And was the offensive line as good as it had been during Sean McVay’s first two seasons at the helm?
At the end of 2020, ProFootballFocus ranked the Rams as having the third-best offensive line in the NFL.
There really wasn’t a whole lot of movement from the Rams this past offseason to add to the group, so the change centered around improvement from the players who were already on the roster. Andrew Whitworth improved his PFF grade by 16 points before his injury, while Austin Blythe’s and Austin Corbett’s grades each jumped nearly 20 points. Those improvements paled in comparison to Rob Havenstein’s jump from a 50.9 PFF grade in 2019 to 80.0 heading into this year’s postseason.
As a result, Jared Goff has been pressured on fewer than 30% of his dropbacks after that number sat at 36% in 2019.
PFF understandably likes to use their grades, but they remain meaningless to me until greater transparency reveals what I’m supposed to take away from random numbers and colors. It’s very Sesame Street-y. I think we owe Andrew Whitworth and every other offensive lineman in the league the benefit of the doubt before we glance at their PFF bio and assume that a season can be summed up efficiently as “71.1” and “slightly green” and call it a day.
How do we know that said player wasn’t only one sack allowed away from a “73.3” and “more green” or “68.6” and “more yellow”? And what is the sentence I even just typed? Am I writing about football or meteorology?
However, it doesn’t mean that PFF is “wrong” either. It would be hard to be wrong, since PFF is only giving their opinions on these linemen — as that is the only thing possible to give when handing out player evaluations. The numbers they spit out for each individual sure do look like stats — that’s why people share them so readily — but essentially it is no different than PFF being a movie critic.
“During my viewing of Austin Blythe’s dramatic performance in “vs. the Green Bay Packers,” I wept ... but not in a good way. C-.”
That is all PFF is doing and any argument to the contrary would fly in the face of logic. I can tell you who led the NFL in touchdown passes, but that won’t always be the best quarterback. I can tell you who led the NFL in rushing attempts, but that won’t always be the most valuable running back. I can tell you who led the NFL in sacks, but that won’t always be the most dangerous pass rusher.
Stats tell you what happened.
Grades tell you what “I think” happened.
PFF is telling you “Grades” but showing you something that looks like “Stats” and they only do that because when Fangraphs popularized WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in baseball, it proved that there’s value in companies that provide “values” for players.
Sports center around competition, and that extends to the fans who want to debate what’s happened, what’s happening, and what will happen. Who the best teams are, the best players, and in the case of “Moneyball,” the best way to win in the future regardless of resources. In the NFL, where the salary cap is notorious for sabotaging future franchise plans, a “Moneyball” approach has fantastic appeal.
The Cleveland Browns even went as far as to hire analytics expert Paul “You may remember me as Jonah Hill in Moneyball” DePodesta as their chief strategy officer in 2016.
That may be working out well for DePodesta and the Browns right now, but there are a lot of differences between how to win in each sport, as well as how to evaluate players since baseball is basically a team of nine individuals and football is a group of 11 who almost always have to work together on each play.
This is especially true of the offensive line, which is best described as a “hand” or a “fist” and not five individual fingers. Individual offensive linemen have to have chemistry if they are going to be successful as a unit.
In 2018, the Rams o-line succeeded together, finishing sixth in PFF’s o-line rankings.
In 2019, the Rams o-line failed together, finishing 31st.
And in 2020, they were third again.
It’s not a strong endorsement of the grades to see such dramatic fluctuation with the same players, but more than anything else it makes it difficult to understand why anyone should care; if LA can be so great in 2018 and so terrible in 2019 and so great in 2020 — with largely the same players — then what guarantee does anyone have of what’s going to happen next season?
Obviously, we get no such guarantee. But we can still reflect on 2020 and maybe even decide that 2019 was an outlier worth trashing.
The good news is that even outside of PFF’s “movie reviews disguised as stats,” these players are getting good marks.
Over at the SIS DataHub, Rob Havenstein was their highest rated offensive lineman of 2020. Not just on the Rams, but of any offensive lineman in the entire NFL. Havenstein edged out Orlando Brown, Jr and Bradley Bozeman of the Baltimore Ravens. (Fail together, succeed together.)
Havenstein had four penalties and 23 blown blocks on 1,021 snaps, and for whatever reason, earned the most “points” at SIS. There’s been little argument that Havenstein didn’t just have an excellent season at right tackle and he is signed for two more years at roughly $8.5 million per.
The second-highest rated Rams offensive lineman is Austin Corbett, who had four penalties and 20 blown blocks at right guard. He is the sixth-ranked guard at SIS and tied in “points” with all-pro Quenton Nelson of the Colts. Corbett is signed through 2021 and could be a consideration at center if Blythe leaves in free agency. But doing so and taking Corbett off of right guard could potentially make two positions weaker.
Ranking just inside the top-60 for all offensive linemen is left guard David Edwards, who had one penalty and 16 blown blocks in 14 starts. Edwards remains on his rookie deal for two more seasons.
Andrew Whitworth was playing well in 2020 and was unfortunately injured midseason. Had he played a full season, Whitworth could have easily ranked inside the top-5. But missing games is only going to become less surprising as he reaches age 40 and that too must be a major consideration for how LA approaches its o-line building this offseason.
Whitworth was blamed for five penalties in only nine games, but he only had four blown blocks — an elite rate of blown blocks only reserved for all-pro level offensive linemen like Zack Martin and David Bakhtiari and Joe Thuney and Andrew Whitworth.
Finally, Blythe had just one penalty and 23 blown blocks over 1,023 snaps at center. He ranked at roughly average for starting centers in “points” and may stick out as the weak point on the line — which also emphasizes why they were rated so highly as a unit.
If Austin Blythe is your worst offensive lineman, that’s a good sign. On some teams, he would have been the best.
Surprisingly, Joe Noteboom ranked low at SIS, posting 14 blown blocks and three penalties in 575 snaps. But again, this is not a fair and complete evaluation of Noteboom, as it wouldn’t be for any offensive lineman. He played in two different spots on the line, which isn’t shown in his “points” or his “grade.” He stepped in at left tackle and played adequately for a team that desperately needed a left tackle after Whitworth was injured. Noteboom should be given a lot more credit than simply “13 points” or “60.3, yellow.”
Some Rams fans saw the offensive line as a great strength in 2020. Others see it as an area of weakness that requires significant upgrades to its interior positions while also planning for potential departures at both tackle spots within the next year or two. Both could be right.
Knowing what we pretend to “know” now, how should the Rams approach the offensive line in the offseason?
It is possible that the addition of Matthew Stafford alone will be enough to upgrade the perceived and actual performance of the offensive line. And it is because of the Stafford trade that the Rams know that they won’t have as many resources to upgrade the offensive line moving forward. We can safely assume that Whitworth will return, until he says otherwise. We can also write in Edwards, Corbett, and Havenstein for starting jobs. If Blythe is re-signed, as he was a year ago, then nothing will be expected to change.
LA could draft a “developmental” tackle and a “pro ready” interior lineman and that will basically be the only thing different this offseason as compared to last. And the Rams plan at offensive line last offseason — to do nothing — worked out pretty well.
“Had me on the edge of my seat!” - Variety
“Havenstein’s finest performance to date!” - The Hollywood Reporter
“73.3!” - PFF