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The NFL’s offensive line problem has bypassed New Orleans

A range of issues from the 2011 CBA to college football trends has made a big problem for most teams, but not the Saints.

SANTA CLARA, CA - Center Max Unger #60 of the New Orleans  Saints prepares to snap the ball against the San Francisco 49ers in the  fourth quarter on November, 6 2016 at Levi’s Stadium.
SANTA CLARA, CA - Center Max Unger #60 of the New Orleans Saints prepares to snap the ball against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter on November, 6 2016 at Levi’s Stadium.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the NFL has an offensive line problem. Points scored are declining and sacks are going up. Star quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, and Carson Wentz are seeing their seasons cut short with ugly injuries. The evolution of offensive line play - not just in-season, but the year-round training these athletes go through to prepare for it - fascinates me, so here’s my attempt at getting to the roots of this problem and examining how the New Orleans Saints have managed to defy them.

The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)

I’m sure we all remember the 2011 offseason fondly. Drew Brees signed a new contract extension after prolonged negotiations with Mickey Loomis over the franchise tag, owners locked out their players from team facilities, and Bountygate wasn’t even a thought in our minds. Rodger Goodell was an uninspiring annoyance, not yet an out-of-his-depth villain.

Anyway, that summer revolved around the NFL Players Association’s agreement to a new CBA. A big victory for player safety was reduced practice time and intensity, limiting in-season work to 14 padded sessions and whittling time before training camp down to a few weekends of padless minicamps. The Los Angeles Rams conducted a study that found it takes players about three years to log as much practice time as they experienced in a single year under the old CBA.

That’s effected no position group greater than offensive line. Every other position can get work in without much contact - quarterbacks and receivers can rehearse timing on route combinations, defensive linemen can run through bag and hoop drills, linebackers and defensive backs can run themselves ragged, etc. But offensive linemen require more hands-on time than any other group from coaches to refine and develop their technique. With limited hours to meet with their coaches, more and more players are investing time and money to privately hone their craft.

Extracurricular Training

One popular facility is the invite-only L.Bentley O-line Performance Center in Chandler, Arizona. Founded in 2008 by former Ohio State Buckeyes All-American and Saints Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, the facility emphasizes skills that specifically help linemen. Per the facility’s website, Bentley pursued an education in sports medicine after his pro career and “holds certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, FMS, Fascial Stretch Therapy and Olympic weightlifting.” Saints Pro Bowler guard Larry Warford is one of his top clients.

For example, the bench press always draws a crowd at each year’s NFL Scouting Combine. But the movement involved in that exercise doesn’t translate to hand-to-hand combat in NFL trenches. So Bentley and his staff advocate lifts that are built around natural motions athletes go through in games, bridging the distance between the practice field and weight room.

It’s not just about different weight lifting exercises. Bentley’s innovation extends to equipment on the field: his facility offers redesigned drive sleds that more-closely mimic the movement of run-blocking and a unique kick board to strengthen balance in a kick-slide for pass-protection, among other teaching tools. They even preach the importance of nutrition with suggestions for film room snacks - raw fruits high in antioxidants like cherries and blueberries are high on Bentley’s list. Gone are the days of linemen eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s every night to round out their 7,000 calories for the day.

Private consultants like Duke Manyweather are also flourishing. Manyweather previously worked with Bentley as his Director of Player Personnel before spinning off independently, with Saints left tackle Terron Armstead signing up as his latest client. It seems like more and more fresh faces are getting into the field every day, and that shouldn’t stop any time soon considering whether the NFL position coaches are up to the task; Tom Cable’s attempts at getting Russell Wilson killed turned into a job with Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders.

Changing College Prospects

There’s been much ink spilled on how unprepared offensive line prospects are coming out of college. There’s some merit to this, but not to the extent it’s often reported. Sure, the pace of play and run-pass balance have shifted dramatically - college linemen are asked to contact opponents less-frequently than ever, demanding a different body type. New-age linemen are leaner and taller than in the past, asked to reach and pull rather than square up and lean into an opponent.

That’s a problem for position coaches who haven’t been asked to teach before. They’re used to ready-made products, so-called “safe picks” early in the draft who can plug into a lineup and play immediately. Instead, they’re getting guys who haven’t been trained to emphasize success through contact and who are entering league underweight (see Saints like Armstead and Cameron Tom) or carrying too much bad weight (Andrus Peat).

However, talent is there to be found. The Senior Bowl looked far and wide to get the best prospects into Mobile, Alabama back in February to audition for NFL teams. Top schools like Michigan, Iowa, Clemson, and Oregon sent as many prospects as Maine, Appalachian State, West Georgia, Humboldt State, North Carolina A&T, and Idaho State. A guy from Wagner got drafted in the sixth round.

So what’s next? And how are the Saints getting around it?

In summary: NFL offensive lines are increasingly populated by young players who aren’t finished growing into their bodies. They’re still learning how to best take care of themselves and perform at the highest level. With slimmed-down practice time, they’re increasingly looking to private training to get through the offseason - and picking up newer, often smarter techniques along the way. As the pro game continues to evolve and pick up from the collegiate level, look for those trends to continue. Someday soon the NFL will be almost as fast-paced and pass-driven as any Pac-12 or Big Ten contest.

As for the Saints, much credit can be given into the long-term investments made along the offensive line. Position coach Dan Roushar has worked the unit since 2016, initially starting with running backs and tight ends in 2013. Before that he coached Le’Veon Bell and the Michigan State Spartans offensive line for six years, having moved up from smaller programs since 1984. His wealth of experience at different levels of football clearly played a part in the Saints fielding the NFL’s best offensive line in 2018 as they dealt with injuries at every position.

On the personnel side, a bedrock laid by Zach Strief, Jahri Evans, and Max Unger turned into fertile ground for newcomers like Armstead, Peat, and Ryan Ramczyk. It’s not quite the bludgeoning front once commanded by Evans and Carl Nicks, but the Saints offense still often goes as far as the line takes them.

2019 brings new challenges. Jermon Bushrod returns after underwhelming tours with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Underrated Senio Kelemete left for a starting gig for the Houston Texans. Rick Leonard is a rookie out of Florida State that puzzles many analysts, though it looks like the Saints see him as an undeveloped athlete with great size and explosion scores they can build from scratch. Another rookie, Will Clapp out of LSU, will be competing with second-year Southern Mississippi product Cameron Tom for the second-string center job. The Saints have deflected many of the troubles plaguing lines around the league before. We’ll see soon if they can do it again.