The Redskins have thrown a lot of resources at their putrid offensive line from the last two years in a desperate attempt to make it seem not quite so awful this year. Their efforts landed them G Kory Lichtensteiger and G-T Artis Hicks in free agency, and then T Trent Williams, G Erik Cook, and T Selvish Capers in the draft. They they traded a pick or three for T Jamaal Brown. If you’re keeping track, that’s six offensive lineman who weren’t on the team next year, of which the team is likely to keep five for the season, which could be more than 50% of the entire line.
Change is much welcome to a unit that never really seemed to get any better…or even to be all that interested in a sustained improvement. Out are the veterans who couldn’t stay healthy (Chris Samuels retires, while Randy Thomas is likely to retire after being released), and who started this whole mess. Also gone is Levi Jones, whose contract has expired after playing in just ten games with the Redskins.
Furthermore, the team pushed out…actually, that’s it for players pushed out by the Redskins. They got rid of three players, all veterans, one of whom a 6-time pro bowler who retired, most recently making the pro bowl way back in 2008. Everyone else is back. Casey Rabach and Mike Williams both contributed to the line’s struggles last year, but at least offered the saving grace of expired contracts. They’ve been extended, each for three…more…years.
Despite the change to the roster, this is pretty much the same interior group that played last year: it’s going to be Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, and Mike Williams in the middle of the line. Dockery and Rabach work well together, at least, though neither is as valuable as was Pete Kendall just two years ago. Williams offers some upside at guard: he’s only 29 and was at one point considered to be an elite LT coming out of college — it’s still possible he takes to the Right Guard position and dominates like he was always supposed to. But overall, that’s just not very good on the interior. Dallas probably has the best interior OL in the division, but what the Redskins offer isn’t even comparable to the three guys on the interior of the New York Giants line.
Where the Redskins make up their ground on the NFC East, and the rest of the conference, is at the tackle position, where there just aren’t very many good offensive tackles. The Redskins should have great confidence that between Doug Free, Jason Peters, and David Diehl, it’s not going to take Trent Williams long to establish himself as the premier LT in the division. And at right tackle, where the Redskins had been starting Stephon Heyer, there is now no discernible advantage for any of the four teams between Kareem McKenzie, Marc Columbo, Winston Justice, and Brown. That might sound a little like I’m underselling Brown, but that’s a huge improvement to cut down that gap at RT between the Redskins and the NFC East to meaningless: one that probably makes another 0-6 record against division opponents unrealistic based on the similarities in the roster.
Position by position — or how most fans try to compare offensive lines — the Redskins don’t appear to stack up well against the rest of the NFC East. However, offensive lines tend to function more as units than as a group of individuals, which is what makes player evaluation so difficult for the untrained eye. For every person who thinks, on paper, that Jamaal Brown is a better player than Kareem McKenzie because he has played in more pro bowls; ignoring, of course, that the pro bowl honor is biased towards the left tackles in a high powered offense, is failing to understand the evaluation of single players. But evaluating offensive lines is so much more than knowing that “the Giants have better players, so they have the better unit”. Injuries disproportionately affect the quality of offensive lines versus other positions. So when you have a heavily injured OL unit, you don’t just lose the talented first stringers. You lose the talented first stringer that gets hurt AND the combined value of his relationship with both of his linemates on either side.
If Randy Thomas gets hurt in Week 1 (imagine that), the Redskins have to replace Thomas with Will Montgomery, a large downgrade in skill, they also lose all the accrued value that Thomas has with Rabach and that Thomas has with Stephon Heyer in working the same blocking scheme. Montgomery has none of that. If he had, instead, gone through the whole offseason as the starting RG, he would have had value with Casey Rabach and value with Stephon Heyer, despite a lack of talent. This is a big principle that Vinny Cerrato was leaning on when he built the lines the last two years: if less-than-talented players can stay healthy and play together, he can get more out of the whole than the sum of its parts. When Thomas got hurt early, those ideas were brought into question. When Samuels got hurt, they were crushed. When Joe Bugel and Jim Zorn failed to agree on a starting RG…well, the offense never did find it’s stride.
By getting rid of their oft-injured linemen, the Redskins decrease their terrible OL attrition rate, and give themselves a better chance to outperform teams in their division over the course of the year. Derrick Dockery and Casey Rabach are hardly ever hurt, no matter how much each struggles individually. Jammal Brown misses games but he also has multiple 16 game seasons in his career. Trent Williams was a college workhorse. Mike Williams is the wild card here, of course, but he might lose his job to Artis Hicks.
Based on this, even though they hardly have the most talented offensive line, they have a durable one, and have invested enough in improvements for this year to really make a difference in the hierarchy of NFC East offensive lines. To be ranked number one in the division at year’s end is something that probably won’t be achieved. It’s much more likely, however, than just a year ago.
There will be incremental improvement in the offensive line — and at least the opportunity to be very, very good.