American Football

How important is it for an offensive line to stay healthy?


New England Patriots v New York Jets
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Can the Jets get a healthy season out of their offensive line?

There’s no question that the New York Jets had a rough time with injuries on their offensive line in 2023 and that this had a material impact on their performance.

Everyone was in agreement that the Jets needed to retool their offensive line, and they’ve already done that. They’re also expected to continue this process and further improve their depth during the upcoming draft.

However, will this approach be doomed to failure if the Jets have a similar sequence of bad injury luck in 2024? Conversely, had they remained healthy throughout the 2023 season, would the offensive line performance have been good enough that it wasn’t regarded as such a big priority after all? Also, how could any other team cope if forced to deal with the same kind of injuries?

Let’s begin there, because one factor that was apparent throughout the postseason was that the teams with the best win-loss records in the NFL all had much better continuity, cohesion and stability on their offensive lines than the Jets did.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line basically stayed fully intact until December, until Wanya Morris had to start four games down the stretch. Nick Allegretti started the season finale and then found himself in the starting lineup in the championship game and Super Bowl when Joe Thuney got hurt. Such a loss is a lot easier to mitigate when your other four starters are healthy though.

The San Francisco 49ers had four starters that remained healthy all year. The only change was at left guard, where the original starter, Spencer Burford, lost his job to veteran Jon Feliciano halfway through the season due to a minor injury. In that case, the only enforced change proved to be an upgrade. Ironically, Burford was called into action due to injury in the Super Bowl itself and made a few particularly costly errors.

The losing semi-finalists weren’t quite as lucky, but still had pretty good consistency. Three of the Baltimore Ravens starters played over 1,000 snaps and the other two, Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses, played over 800. Patrick Mekari picked up the slack at both tackle positions and Ezra Cleveland, Daniel Faaele and Sam Mustipher all started games in relief. The Detroit Lions had four starters that played over 1,000 snaps and the other played just under 900. Four different players started multiple games in relief though.

The pattern continued as you look at the teams who made the last eight. The Bills didn’t have any starters on the line missing time. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their left guard Matt Feiler in the sixth game, but Aaron Stinnie started for the rest of the season and the other four starters played the whole year. The Green Bay Packers had four starters that played 1,000 snaps and Rasheed Walker played 966. Three players made multiple starts in relief.

The exception that proves the rule is the Houston Texans, who made the last eight despite 10 different players starting games for them over the course of the season. However, their situation underlines the importance of who you lose and when. Shaq Mason played the entire season, George Fant played over 1,000 snaps and Laremy Tunsil played 958 snaps. With good stability at those three spots, the Texans were able to stay afloat even with the constant changes at other positions — and despite having a rookie quarterback at the helm.

One of the most interesting cases in respect of the teams that didn’t make the last eight was the Cleveland Browns. Their situation reinforces the previous point of how important it is who you lose and when. They were forced to turn to backups at both tackle positions, but still made a late season run to the postseason. However, they stabilized because of their interior line that was able to anchor things down the stretch. The Browns probably have the strongest interior trio in the NFL, and all three played over 1,000 snaps.

If you have an elite guard inside you then there’s a chance you can be rescued if you get beaten at the tackle position. However, you might only be one injury away from the person on your inside shoulder being even more inexperienced than you are.

Another interesting case is the New York Giants. They had documented earlier season injury issues and the offensive line was in chaos. However, down the stretch they finally got healthy, with Andrew Thomas’ return to the line-up particularly impactful. This resulted in much better offensive performance and an improved win-loss record from that point onwards.

11 different Giants started at least one game and nobody played 800 snaps at any one position all year, as players like Justin Pugh and Ben Bredeson started games at multiple positions.

Which brings us back to the Jets.

As bad as things were for the Giants early in the season, the Jets’ issues persisted all year. They had 13 different players starting at least one game.

When you look at who did stay healthy, it wasn’t the kind of players that would have been able to keep the line afloat with weaker players around them. Ideally, you’d want Alijah Vera-Tucker to stay healthy, for example, and he lasted just five games.

Laken Tomlinson played 100 percent of the snaps but was considered a weak link on the line, a fact backed up by the Jets choosing to let him go even though that kind of durability is something they’re actively looking for.

Mekhi Becton played almost 900 snaps, but he had to move over to left tackle, which wasn’t the original plan, and was playing hurt through much of that action.

The next highest snap count was Joe Tippmann, who began the season as a reserve. Tippmann played over 850 snaps.

Apart from these three, none of the other 10 linemen to start at least one game played 500 snaps as the Jets used five right tackles, but none of those players were there for 400 snaps, and eight right guards, with none of those players there for 250. Clearly the continuity from week-to-week was non-existent.

The Jets’ offensive line performance was poor for the season as a whole, but there were times where they played well enough for the Jets to have some offensive success. They managed to get to 4-3, but the fourth win came at a cost, with Connor McGovern and Wes Schweitzer both suffering injuries within 10 snaps of each other.

Tippmann returned from his own injury for the following game and played center for the rest of the year, but the Jets’ right guard position was a revolving door the rest of the way.

The only other time that the offensive line seemed to play well was right at the end of the year after veteran Trevor Siemian took over at quarterback. An experienced veteran can ensure everyone knows their assignment and make smart and decisive decisions that can mitigate any weaknesses on the line. That’s something the Jets hope to benefit from when Aaron Rodgers returns to the line-up next season.

In conclusion, the Jets have had bad luck recently on the offensive line, with 2022 having played out similarly. This could easily be a pattern that repeats itself in 2024, and if the Jets have to dig as deep into their depth reserves as they did in the last two years, then they will inevitably be forced to find ways to mitigate the inclusion of weaker and less experienced players in the line-up.

Of course, this could happen to some of the Jets’ rivals too, and it will be interesting to see if they’re able to cope better than the 2022 and 2023 Jets did.

Hopefully the moves made so far — and those to come — will protect against this. If the Jets are lucky enough to experience an offensive line that remains healthy and can play together all year, perhaps they will enjoy similar postseason success to those teams in the Rex Ryan era, when this last happened.

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