Offensive line play is dirty, under-appreciated work (as is film study on offensive line). Each NFL team has their own way of grading and evaluating players, but there is a LOT of gray area.
A few other factors that I see as challenges to OL evaluation:
- With OL (like CB), you don’t notice them until something really bad happens. Then, that’s ALL you remember about them. Even if a guy has a good overall game, one or two glaring mistakes will linger in the collective minds of fans and media … and they’ll quickly forget the other 50 plays.
- We, as fans, watching film also don’t know the exact protection calls or assignments. We can guess, based on what we see, but there’s always a chance the lineman was given a specific assignment that we aren’t privy to.
- Seth explored one example, where it's clear SOMETHING went wrong but we can't be certain whom to blame. (I still think it's Mike McGlynn's fault, but it's possible that Eric Fisher attempted to block the wrong guy, or Jamaal Charles should have helped, or Rodney Hudson made the wrong call.)
- The configuration of the defensive front can make a big difference. Sometimes there's a guy lined up across from each of the offensive linemen, but against the 3-4 defense, at least two of the linemen may be "uncovered" at the snap. Guards and centers often don't have a man directly in front of them to block but have to work in tandem with the guys next to them to combo, pass off defenders, or wait for a delayed blitz.
- Sometimes, as the play develops, there just isn't anyone for an interior lineman to block ... and he ends up standing there blocking air.
- Sometimes, a guy makes a block, only to find that the play was blown up when a defender seemingly came out of nowhere, or the offensive lineman next to him gets beat.
- The next play he could completely miss his block, but the play goes the other direction for a TD, so nobody notices.
- Then, he could sustain a perfect pass block for three seconds ... but the QB holds it for five seconds, resulting in a sack. Maybe he held the ball that long because the WR didn’t get open, or because he was "gun shy" … the point is, there are a LOT of variables that go into o-line evaluations.
- So, how an evaluator grades these "other" plays can sway the grades in one direction or the other. Grade them as "fails" and they might see a guy as a terrible Lineman, grade them as "wins" and an average guy could grade out as an All Pro.
- This is where I believe that "confirmation bias" comes into play. Fans and media have been told from day one that Eric Fisher is terrible, or that Paul Fanaika was terrible with Arizona, so they view every game through that lens. Especially for those of us who typically just watch the game and don’t focus on a single player … a couple of bad plays can "confirm our bias" that a guy is good/bad. However, upon further review, you can sometimes see that the play you thought was one guy’s fault was another’s … or it was just a really good play by the defender.
But, enough of me complaining about the challenges of grading offensive linemen. NFL teams clearly each have their own grading system, and those grades have serious ramifications for a player's career.
All offensive linemen have stats, but they're largely a matter of interpretation. Like pop quizzes taken in a classroom, the grades are often reflected in percentages, such as 82% or 93%. Although variations exist across all 32 teams, the gist is simple: a lineman gets a plus (+) for completing his assignment and a minus (-) when he fails. If a team runs 100 plays and a lineman gets 90 plusses his mark will be 90%—a solid game.
The cumulative score, for good or for worse, becomes a player's identity.
"We only get tested, so to speak, 16 times," says Eric Winston, a veteran tackle who enters free agency after playing with the Cardinals last season. "Those grades are your one and only report card."
Yet there's a fine line between living in the penthouse or the outhouse. An All-Pro grades between 89-93% while an average player grades between 85-89%. Dip below 85% and you're staring at a career change. Let that sink in: The difference between making $5-10 million a year and going back to your hometown comes down to just a few plays a game. Those fate-deciding plays could be significant or they could be inconsequential—that's how unforgiving the sport is—or your future could be determined by your opponent. If you're going up against J.J. Watt one week, you'll likely grade lower than your teammates. Catch a string a stars and, well, people may soon be questioning your ability to play in the NFL.
Developing a grading scale
The average number of offensive plays run in a game for Kansas City in 2014 was 60. In 2013, it was 65. League average was around 63 in 2014. (Philly was the highest at 70 plays per game)
So, by the standards listed above, and using league average for the total number of plays:
- All-Pro means they get the job done (complete the blocking assignment) on 56 to 59 plays (89-93%), or fail 4-7 times per game
- Average players get the job done on 53 to 56 plays (85-89%), failing 7-10 times per game
- Anyone who gets beat on more than 10 plays per game needs to have an updated resume and a good suit.
We are literally talking about 3-6 plays per game difference between the good offensive linemen and the unemployed.
I set out to grade the 2015 candidates using a similar scale that Ross Tucker mentions above, keeping in mind this great quote from his piece:
"I don’t like when guys get too grade-conscious," Devlin says. "Sometimes you just have to block the freakin’ guy."
I gave each guy a "win", "loss" or "neutral" rating on each play in an attempt to get a purely quantitative measurement (while noting qualitative information like technique, strengths/weaknesses as I go along)
- A "win" means they effectively executed their presumed assignment, and their defender didn’t factor into the play.
- A "loss" means they clearly missed an assignment or were physically beaten by a defender and it usually (but not always) resulted in the defender making a play. (A penalty is also a "loss")
- A "neutral" play is one where the lineman didn’t have anyone to block, or wasn’t involved in the play.
I then took a weighted average of the scoring, giving three points for a win, zero for a loss and two points for neutral. I also tried to note any "big wins" like pancake blocks, or other dominant moments, and I gave them a 4 for those plays.
My goal is to "scout" the probable OL contributors for the Chiefs in 2015 in a similar manner to how we look at rookie prospects: do they have traits that project to the field in 2015? Looking for athleticism and technique, but mostly "can they get the job done?"
I'll use this framework to evaluate each of the main candidates for the Chiefs Offensive Line this season, starting with the Free Agent who came over from Arizona, and the former Pro Bowl Guard that was acquired via trade with New Orleans.
Let me clear up a few things before we get started
- Please let's not even discuss Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach here. I’m sure both are great guys, and I wish them well. However, neither should have ever played significant snaps for the Chiefs last year, and we all knew they wouldn’t be back this year. They were emergency backup options for a team that didn’t have enough depth to overcome the loss of two starters (Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson) after losing two starters in the offseason (Jon Asamoah / Geoff Schwartz and Branden Albert). For the purposes of this piece, neither exists. (It’s a more pleasant world that way as I re-watch the games)
- That said, as I mentioned here, an o-line is only as good as its weakest link. It DOES matter if there’s a truly weak link in a five man offensive line. You CAN’T have even one guy who is miserably ‘effin terrible (yes, that’s some elite industry jargon there). You CAN have a line filled with average guys and be successful.
- I’m going to ignore Rodney Hudson as well, as this is a (mostly) forward-looking series. Hudson was very good for the Chiefs, and I’m sure he’ll be OK for the Raiders but the decision to let him go was about business, and the focus here will be on the options for the Chiefs line in 2015.
- I’m working under the assumption that the Chiefs will carry nine offensive linemen this season: Fisher, Grubbs, Kush, Morse, Fulton, Fanaika, Allen, Stephenson and LDT. The only question is: how will they line up? (Note: there is, of course a chance a guy like Sherrod wins the RT job or LDT, Stephenson or Allen ends up off the roster, but I think as we sit today these are the most likely nine)
- Pro Football Focus does an excellent job compiling an insane amount of data from every player, every snap. They assign run blocking and pass blocking grades, and an overall score. Now that I have a shiny new premium stats membership, I'll include PFF scores and stats after my scores below, just for the sake of comparison. However, I don't believe you can take their grade as "gospel", because of the gray areas we discussed, you have to watch for yourself.
Enough rambling... on to the film review.
- Fanaika is a huge, long limbed guy. Was drafted as an offensive tackle, and has the body type of your "road grader" RT, though it appears he's only really played RG in the NFL thus far.
- Plays hard, has a big punch and really drives through his blocks, getting near pancakes fairly often
- For a big guy, he can get low and roll his hips, get good leverage
- Great in short yardage situations
- Can be beaten (quite often) with speed, but is rarely overpowered.
- He’s very much a "phone booth" blocker, has heavy feet
- Steps his feet like a tackle, even when playing guard
- Fanaika can actually move OK for his size, once he gets going … but he generally lacks quickness
- Does a very good job walling defenders off in the run game
- He's always communicating with the center prior to the snap
- Has good awareness in assignments, able to pick up stunts, pass off defenders
- Fanaika was similar to Fulton for me (foreshadowing future Fulton review) … in that there were quite a few "neutral" grades where they didn’t have a man to block or the play went the other way, etc Example. Maybe you put your worst blocker at RG, and it’s like right field in tee ball (or a full time blogger), they get no action?
- For the season, PFF credited him with two sacks, seven hits and 30 hurries allowed and a total score of -22.8. For comparison, 2014 Chiefs RG Zach Fulton gave up three sacks, five hits and 21 hurries and a -14.6 total score.
In this GIF, Fanaika is in the foreground blocking a LB on the second level. This is the kind of punishing downfield run blocking you want to see from your RG:
Here’s Fanaika (sort of) pancaking Suh.
Games I scored:
2014 Week 3 vs SF
- 44 wins
- 2 losses
- 17 Neutral Plays
Weighted average score: 89.95% (bottom end of All Pro level)
PFF Grade: +0.6 (0 sacks, 0 hits, 1 hurry)
2014 Week 8 vs. Philly
- 44 wins
- 4 losses
- 22 neutral plays
Weighted average score: 85.19% (bottom end of average)
PFF: +0.4 (0 sacks, 0 hits, 3 hurries)
2014 Week 9 vs. Dallas
- 51 Wins
- 4 Losses
- 12 Neutral Plays
Weighted average score: 88.73% (Top end of average)
PFF: -1.5 (0 sacks, 3 hits, 1 hurry)
2014 Week 12 vs. SEA
- 40 wins
- 4 losses
- 10 neutral
- 2 "big wins"
Weighted average score: 88.10% (top end of average)
PFF: -0.2 (0 sacks, 0 hits, 2 hurries)
What others have said about Fanaika
Via Revenge of the Birds:
He allowed seven sacks in 2013, but only two in 2014. He did play banged up a lot this season and there were times when he looked really good, especially in the run game.
He should be considered a fringe starter who is solid depth. But he is a smart player, hard worker and well liked in the locker room.
Via Matt Verderame:
I believe Fanaika will push Zach Fulton and might win the job, although I would bet on the second-year pro out of Tennessee. I see them as having similar skill sets, with Fanaika having better punch and Fulton having more leg strength.
If Fanaika has to start, he will not be a disaster. He is certainly not Mike McGlynn or Jeff Linkenbach. He has his issues, but he will not get Alex Smith into trouble consistently. Provided Dorsey does not hand Fanaika a ton of guaranteed money, I find this to be a solid signing that will allow the Chiefs to survive an injury at the guard spot.
- Grubbs is definitely a better pass blocker than he is a run blocker, but he's more than competent at both.
- Grubbs may end up being the best OG on a Chiefs team since Brian Waters
- Technique and strength are both big plusses for him.
- The only negative plays I saw were ones where he got a good initial punch, but the defender was able to disengage and make a play (also noted on Mitch Morse here).
- Overall, he just looks like a pro, doesn’t panic, trusts his strength and technique.
- He can move too … looked good on zone plays and pulling.
- He really knows how to use his hands. Routinely blocked more than one guy in pass pro.
- We’re going to notice a HUGE difference at LG this year.
- For the season, PFF credited him with one sack, six hits and 27 hurries allowed and a total score of -0.2. For comparison, 2014 Chiefs LGs gave up eight sacks, five hits and 27 hurries with at total score of -38.7.
Here you can see Grubbs driving into the endzone hitting multiple guys along the way:
Here, Grubbs shows what it looks like when a LG and LT work together, passing off blockers to make sure everyone is accounted for. I think he’ll really help Fisher in this regard… awareness, smarts, and help (combo block) when he needs it.
Games I scored:
Week 4 vs Dallas
- 43 wins
- 2 losses
- 17 neutral plays
Weighted Average Score: 87.63% (Average)
PFF: -.7 (0 hits, 0 sacks, 1 hurry)
Week 8 vs. Green Bay
- 49 wins
- 4 losses
- 14 neutral
- 4 big wins
89.67% score (lower end of "All Pro" level)
PFF: -2.0 (0 sacks, 0 hits, 1 hurry) Note: they gave him a -3.2 in run blocking in this game. +1.0 in pass blocking)
Week 13 vs Pittsburgh
- 45 wins
- 4 losses
- 7 neutral plays
- 1 "big win"
Weighted Average Score: 89.47% (lower end of "All Pro" level)
PFF: -3.9 (-3.2 run block, 0 hits, 0 sacks, 2 hurries)
Week 14 vs Carolina
8 Neutral plays
Weighted Average Score: 90.34% (All Pro level)
PFF: +1.6 (0 sacks, 1 hit, 1 hurry)
Ben Grubbs is a legit top talent at LG. He should instantly improve the entire left half of the Chiefs offensive line. I have zero concerns about his ability, he’s clearly a "plug and play" guy … but, where you might see the biggest impact is on Eric Fisher in pass protection (and to some extent, Eric Kush). Grubbs is an excellent pass blocker (especially adept at combo blocks and picking up stunts and blitzes), and a good (not elite) run blocker.
Where Grubbs wins: Pass protection, zone run blocking. This lines up nicely with what the Chiefs need from him, and what they didn't get from last year's LGs.
Where Grubbs doesn't win: Sometimes doesn't hold his blocks long enough, defenders can eventually shed him to make a play. This may not be as much of an issue with the Chiefs, as they have a QB that generally gets the ball out quickly, and an elite RB that doesn't require his o-linemen to hold their blocks very long.
Paul Fanaika is a mauling RG/RT type that’s best served as a backup. He's a good run blocker, and a decent pass blocker. He won’t hurt the offense if he is forced into action, but I think the Chiefs will want someone with a higher athletic ceiling for the starting job. There are things he does well, and things he can’t do. Overall, I believe he’s "insurance" to avoid the meltdown we saw last year when trying to (at the last minute) replace a Starter (Jeff Allen) with guys off the street. His contract details seem to agree with what I saw: Lower-end Starter / High-quality backup.
Where Fanaika wins: Power run blocking, and (surprisingly) second level blocks on screens. Assuming he's a backup, I could see Fanaika brought in as the extra lineman on heavy packages and short yardage situations, as he can really move the pile.
Where Fanaika doesn't win: Struggles with speed rushers. Luckily, RG isn't a position that typically requires an elite pass blocker. If he starts getting reps at RT, I might be a bit more concerned about this issue.
Please let me know your thoughts on these two and the grading system / format. My plan is to continue the series with the rest of the Chiefs OL candidates, (Eric Fisher is up next, so get your pitchforks ready). I am also "upgrading" my GIF-creation ability, so the next piece should be better visually.