Be it running up the middle or stifling pass-rushers coming that way, the AFC South’s looking for change on interior offensive lines heading toward the 2010 season.
The Tennessee Titans, who blocked for just the sixth 2,000-yard rusher in league history, have made an alteration. The Indianapolis Colts, the defending AFC champs who allowed a league-low 13 sacks, are auditioning interior candidates. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars both identified the interior line as an area in need of improvement, too.
Yet of 32 draft picks by the four teams, just two were used on offensive linemen -- a fourth-rounder by the Colts for guard Jacques McClendon and a sixth-rounder by the Texans for guard Shelley Smith. And only three veteran additions seem like they can influence the mixes -- Justin Smiley in Jacksonville, Wade Smith in Houston and Andy Alleman in Indianapolis.
Said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “Didn't anyone in this division address the interior offensive line during the draft with any pick of substance? That seems odd.”
So here’s a team-by-team look at what’s going on inside, with some thoughts from Williamson:
The Jaguars appear willing to have true competitions to hash things out.
Last year’s interior trio of left guard Vince Manuwai, center Brad Meester and right guard Uche Nwaneri is back. But the team is willing to shuffle, and at least two others are in play now as well -- Smiley, a guard acquired recently from Miami in a trade for an undisclosed draft pick believed to be a conditional seventh, and Kynan Forney, a backup guard last year.
At minicamp the weekend following the draft, Jags head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive line coach Andy Heck had flipped Manuwai to the right side, figuring he and right tackle Eben Britton are the team’s best run-blockers. With the aid of tight end Marcedes Lewis and fullback Greg Jones, the Jaguars could send Maurice Jones-Drew that direction and dare people to stop it.
But at organized team activities (OTAs) this week, Manuwai wasn’t working with the starters and Del Rio was talking about how the torn ACL the guard suffered back in the season opener of 2008 was still a factor for him.
“I think he’s still a little bothered by that but at some point you’ve got to get beyond that and go and he knows that,” Del Rio said. “I think Vinny still has a ways to go. I think Vinny’s working at it. He’s got his weight down. He’s trying but he needs to play better. I think he knows that. He’s working hard it and trying …
“We clearly [come] out of last year saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to have better play with our line, period,’ and our two young tackles [Eugene Monroe and Britton] we know are going to grow and get better but our interior line needs to pick it up as well. And they are working at it and they are challenging and competing and we expect them to play at a much higher level for us.”
I honestly think it’s wide open, but I’d be very surprised if Manuwai, who can be a very effective run-blocker, isn’t in the starting lineup for the opener against Denver.
Williamson says: “Adding Smiley could pay dividends, as this offensive line (especially on the interior) really was a problem area last year. Their protection up the gut was really poor. While I have some real doubts any more about Meester, I do like Manuwai quite a bit and expect more from him this year.”
The Texans' run troubles were in large part because of their backs. But they lost guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel early and it’s a tough order for any team to replace 40 percent of its line and keep plugging. Steve Slaton had a miserable year as he tried to deal with a neck injury, couldn’t hold onto the ball and wound up on injured reserve.
Pitts is a free agent who won’t be back and Brisiel has been working as a backup so far in OTAs. The team’s lined up with Kasey Studdard at left guard, Chris Myers and at center and Antoine Caldwell at right guard. But Smith’s been rotated in some early at center.
With offensive line guru Alex Gibbs gone, the team will still be using his principles. But the three remaining coaches who oversee the position -- John Benton, Frank Pollack and Bruce Matthews -- may have fresher eyes and a willingness to shuffle. And odds are it's second-round pick Ben Tate getting many of the carries behind that line.
We should see some real competition for all three slots. I’ve repeatedly hear good things about Myers. And because Caldwell was a third-rounder, I expect the team would probably like to see him stake a claim.
Gary Kubiak said Studdard and Caldwell have earned the right to say they are starters “right now.”
“We are as competitive in there as we’ve ever been as a team,” Kubiak said. “It’s going to be hard to hold a job, and it’s going to be very competitive to get one. So that makes the team better.”
Williamson says: “I thought Myers played real well and he is an excellent fit in this system. Their interior offensive line is loaded with no-name guys, but overall they are well coached and effective enough. Still, an upgrade at one of the starting guard spots would have been a real nice addition. … Smith is an ideal sixth guy, but not a liability as a starter.”
The Colts paid him a bonus, but still cut Ryan Lilja who seemed pretty effective to me at left guard last season. Team officials have worked hard to deflect the idea the Colts made the move because they want to be bigger on the line. But it’s a sensible time for a change with Pete Metzelaars taking over for Howard Mudd as line coach and the team looking to be more effective in clutch third-and-short situations and the like.
Tony Ugoh, who lost out at left tackle, has worked at left guard in recent offseason practice sessions. Jeff Saturday is entrenched as Peyton Manning's guy at center. Kyle DeVan is the incumbent right guard, who came out of nowhere last season.
Bill Polian has talked about throwing everybody out there and seeing what happens. With a new position coach, the fight for roles may not start with any true favorites. While they have to continue to favor pass blocking above all else, I do think it’s in their best interest to be a bit more determined to be able to call for and execute runs in key situations with more success.
Williamson says: “Saturday is obviously the leader and his symbiotic relationship with Peyton carries a ton of weight. He is smart and very technically sound. I do think his game is falling off ever so slightly though. I was shocked that they let Lilja go and thought he was far and away their best guard. Now, they really need to count on youngsters and those youngsters still have a lot to prove.”
The Titans had the least concern here as they considered their roster, but with Kevin Mawae getting older and Leroy Harris on the bench and ready to play, they decided to go with youth and size. So last year’s left guard, Eugene Amano, is replacing Mawae at center, with Harris taking over at left guard.
Tennessee loses leadership and experience in the equation, but gains significant strength. Harris is very much an interior guy, but he’s athletic and smart enough that he played effectively at right tackle in a win at San Francisco last season.
A Hall of Famer as a player, line coach Mike Munchak knows when a guy is ready, and he’s fully endorsed this plan or the Titans wouldn’t be going with it. Whether Chris Johnson or someone like LeGarrette Blount is running up the middle, I think they’ll find a bit more daylight. And Vince Young should feel less inside rush closing in on him.
Williamson says: “You have to wonder how much Mawae will be missed. It isn't that he played great -- and clearly he isn't what he once was -- but just from the standpoint of making the calls and especially from a leadership perspective. So, this interior line is in transition. Right guard Jake Scott probably hasn't quite lived up to what Tennessee was expecting to get from him when they signed him in free agency, but he is a quality starting guard. I think Harris has a good amount of ability and could surprise with more playing time.”