There is no doubt that the most under-appreciated football players are the offensive linemen. They’re expected to play every snap without rest and wrestle defenders their size (or bigger) on every down. Casual fans rarely recognize their successes but often blame them when plays go nowhere.
While fans often underrate an offensive line’s impact, great NFL teams do not. Some of the all-time great teams were known for their offensive lines.
The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers had Hall of Fame center Mike Webster — along with mainstays like Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins. Webster would eventually earn a place on the Kansas City Chiefs’ Ring of Honor when he concluded his career in Kansas City.
The Hogs of the 1980s’ Washington Redskins teams — including All-Pro players like Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm — paved the way for three Super Bowl titles. The mid-90s Dallas Cowboys teams wouldn’t have won three championships in four years without Hall of Famer Larry Allen and All-Pros Erik Williams and Nate Newton.
A few years later, the Denver Broncos would earn back-to-back rings behind a dominant offensive line including Pro Bowlers Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and Tony Jones.
Yes... these examples include elite individual talent. But that isn’t the most important factor for building a title-winning offensive line.
Modern football has evolved, and the increased emphasis on passing has made it as important as ever to have the offensive line on the same page. Pass-protection schemes can be very complicated because NFL defenses are naturally at a disadvantage due to the rules of the game. Defenses must get creative in order to slow down a throwing offense like the Chiefs; you see crazy blitzes and unique line stunts, which can really disrupt an offensive line’s game plan. So if the offensive linemen can’t communicate on the fly, it can get ugly.
That’s where continuity becomes key. Continuity is arguably more important than talent on the offensive side of the trenches. You need to look no further than recent Super Bowl winners to see this is true.
The defending champion New England Patriots had four out of five offensive linemen as their primary starters for the last three seasons. The lone newcomer was left tackle Trent Brown, who played well enough for the Oakland Raiders to make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history this offseason. New England’s 2014 title team also had four out of five starters that had been there for three consecutive seasons.
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles started three offensive linemen that played the majority of their position’s snaps in 2016 and 2017 and would have had a fourth if not for Jason Peters’ midseason injury. Defensive-oriented Super Bowl winners like the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seattle Seahawks did not follow this model as much, but the 2012 San Francisco 49ers did. They boasted four players that started all 16 regular-season games in 2011 and 2012 and three starters that had been there since 2010. The 2011 New York Giants had three linemen that had been starting for three years, as did the 2010 Green Bay Packers.
While there are obviously good (and great) individual players among these units, the last nine Super Bowl champions have only had two All-Pros and seven Pro Bowlers total during their championship seasons, with the 2017 Eagles accounting for one of those All-Pros and three of the Pro Bowlers.
So how does the 2019 Chiefs offensive line compare to those championship units?
Well... for starters, their continuity rivals any of the teams I’ve mentioned.
Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz are entering their fourth year starting at the tackle spots. Between them, they’ve only missed one start in that three-season span. In 2017’s Week 17, Fisher sat out with the rest of the starters. Schwartz, however, played in that game to preserve his consecutive snaps streak. He has not missed a single snap during his seven-year career, and he has expressed pride in that fact.
That kind of durability between the two most important spots on the line is part of what allows a franchise quarterback to feel comfortable in the pocket, knowing those two understand the system and can communicate effectively with the two linemen inside of them.
Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has been the starter there since he earned it as a second-year, sixth-round pick back in 2015, but he hasn’t been as healthy as his teammates at tackle. This season, he’ll be coming off of a broken fibula. He recovered enough to be activated and was under consideration to play in last year’s postseason, so he should be a full go in 2019.
The other two spots don’t boast as much continuity from previous seasons — but the starters aren’t newcomers, either.
Cameron Erving is the incumbent left guard and has been with the team since the beginning of 2017. Andrew Wylie will compete with Erving for that spot — and should win it — considering Erving has missed all of the offseason activities as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Wylie started the last 12 games of 2018 — including the playoffs — and played well enough to earn the Mack Lee Hill award, which is the team’s annual rookie of the year honor.
If Wylie does get the job, then Erving would become the swing tackle. He would be able to back up every position along the line because he’s had reps at all of them during his short career in Kansas City. A versatile second-stringer like Erving — who is going into his third year in the same system — is very valuable.
At center, it looks like it will be Austin Reiter. After being brought in a week before 2018 began, Reiter performed impressively enough to earn a contract extension after just four starts filling in for the injured (and now departed) Mitch Morse.
Seventh-round pick Nick Allegreti may battle for the center job, but it’s hard to see a rookie coming in and starting immediately — especially considering with the complexity of Andy Reid’s offense.
That adds up to three starters who have had their spots for at least the last four years, and two positions that will be filled by returning players.
Familiarity between the players on the offensive line may be important, but they still have to perform at a high level.
The Patriots have continuity, but they also have Dante Scarnecchia — a very well respected offensive line coach who gets the most out of his players. According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive lines of last year’s Super Bowl teams — the Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams — were the two highest-graded lines of 2018 and were the only two units to have both an 80-plus grade in pass blocking and a 70-plus grade in run blocking. PFF also named the Eagles’ line as the best in the NFL following their 2017 title run and gave that same label to the 2012 49ers following their championship season.
The Chiefs can’t say they have the best line in the pros, but their pass blocking last year was up towards the top.
With a top-5 team pass-blocking grade in the NFL, the Chiefs led the AFC West in that regard last season, by a considerable margin pic.twitter.com/c2lpyETRDB— PFF (@PFF) June 3, 2019
It doesn’t hurt to have the best offensive lineman in football, either.
Mitchell Schwartz is our PFF Matthews Award winner for top offensive linemen from the 2018 season.https://t.co/mZvZOH9ReC pic.twitter.com/kmLI6YsKKZ— PFF (@PFF) January 17, 2019
The pass protection is obviously very important in today’s NFL — a point that is underscored when you see how great Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is when he throws from a clean pocket.
Patrick Mahomes owns the highest clean pocket passer rating from an outdoor stadium in the PFF era! pic.twitter.com/dP6d6APv7N— PFF (@PFF) July 9, 2019
Keeping defenders off the franchise quarterback is definitely the most important part of an offensive lineman’s duties. But in 2018, the Chiefs linemen weren’t lacking in the run game.
The Broncos’ run-blocking unit claimed the top spot in their division a season ago! pic.twitter.com/Q1i0vNcubI— PFF (@PFF) June 7, 2019
These statistics are even more impressive when you consider all the injuries suffered among the interior offensive line last season. Health is never guaranteed. But besides Erving, no one else on the offensive line has missed any time this offseason (knock on wood), and the camaraderie being built in the trenches will only help improve the unit’s performance.
If offensive line plays up to its potential, they could be one of the biggest reasons why this offense doesn’t take a step back and the team breaks through to the Super Bowl in 2019.