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Data Lies: Part II

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There are two teams I’m going to focus on for the purposes of this article, both of which had very young offensive lines that dealt with early season injuries in 2011. Young offensive lines are often guilty of ‘gel’ problems, and when you add injuries and no offseason to the equation, problems can be expected. These two teams were no exception.

First, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks spent first-round picks on offensive tackles in both the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Two problems - the No. 6 pick of the 2010 draft (Russell Okung) has had all sorts of problems staying on the field. He had an ankle problem that stems all the way back to college. These ankle issues have hindered his offseason work each of his first two seasons in the league and has leaked into the season, in which his play has been spotty and inconsistent. The other problem was James Carpenter, a widely criticized reach in the draft, he backed that up with poor play before blowing out his knee (he still isn’t back) midseason. They also had a new blocking scheme being implemented by former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable, a highly regarded offensive line coach.

Now, why do you care about all of the above?  Because it helps explain the slow start to Marshawn Lynch’s 2011 season. With the shortened offseason, injuries at key positions, new scheme being implemented, and replacements getting acclimated, there was a longer learning curve for this unit than other teams. There were other factors limiting Lynch at the start of last season (notably, his back), but this was a big factor in him starting off with just 346 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in his first seven games.

As the line gelled, that is when Lynch took off. He finished sixth in running back fantasy points despite being replacement level for almost half the season. Just to show how valuable he was in the second half, if you extrapolate his last nine games over a full season he would have had a little better than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. That’s No. 1 overall most years. Fantasy owners undoubtedly remember his heroics last year, but given his price tag even before the legal issues, it seemed many weren’t sold yet because he was not a Top 5 back last year, or any year in his career.

There is a big contract-year motivator hurdle to cross when evaluating Lynch, as well as pending legal charges, and admittedly I am having a difficult time getting past both of those issues. But the above information cannot be ignored when determining if he’s worth the risk in 2012. I was initially hesitant, but am now onboard with him in the third round if he slips because of his legal issues and a big part of that is because of the big guys up front. Even if Lynch’s legal woes lead to a suspension, I am confident rookie backup Robert Turbin would replace him nicely and he can be had at a bargain basement price.

Another team that had injury, youth, and a new scheme to adjust to in 2011 was the Cleveland Browns. There is no way to sugar coat it, the 2011 Cleveland Browns offense was not watchable. It was one of the most horrid displays of football in years, but due to issues at the skill positions, the growth of the offensive line went largely unnoticed.

Coming into training camp, the Browns had three positions locked up with reliable starters (center, left guard and left tackle), several young guys competing for the right guard position, and an issue at right tackle that was questionably not addressed. The issues on the right side were concerning, but nothing the Browns hadn’t worked through before. Then Eric Steinbach suffered a back injury, ending his season in August. The dominos on the offensive line came crashing down after that.

The depth behind the two competing for the right guard position (second-year player Shawn Lauvao and rookie Jason Pinkston) was already weak, so essentially instead of having the two compete for one role they were both thrust into two different roles. The results were ugly. Pinkston played like a third-day draft pick that wasn’t ready for the bright lights of the NFL, and Lauvao did not step up as hoped in Year 2. Compound this with the atrocity at right tackle (usually unhealthy Tony Pashos and at other times street free agent types) and the line was a mess.

This developed another problem, also -  Joe Thomas and Alex Mack had developed comfort in the man playing between them (Steinbach). As the problems elsewhere on the line became apparent, they began to be more concerned about what was going on around them rather than just doing their job. However, as many don’t know because no one in their right mind watched the Browns after Halloween, the line gelled late in the season and played very well (right tackle withstanding). It didn’t show in the stats because the skill positions were just that bad.

What does all of this mean for 2012?  Do not judge Trent Richardson based on the success of the 2011 offense because the biggest holes have been filled. The horizontal offense of 2011 is gone as the drafting of Brandon Weeden will make this scheme more vertical. As will the acquisitions of Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon. While Pinkston was not ready for 2011, it will help him this year as he slots in between Thomas and Mack. Evan Moore was horribly underutilized in 2011 and it was in large part because of the issues at right tackle. Moore, for as strong of a receiver as he is, is a horrible blocker. Alex Smith needed to be used more than he should have been because of the right tackle issues. Since Smith and Ben Watson were the primary tight ends most plays, the seam was not attacked as it should. They’re just not capable of doing that. Moore and Jordan Cameron will change that this year. Most importantly, the black hole at right tackle has been repaired. The aging and awful Pashos is gone and has been replaced by, arguably, the most NFL-ready right tackle prospect in the draft, Mitchell Schwartz.

Notice that I haven’t even mentioned the actual running back position. Everything around running back has improved and is primed for a bounceback, and the biggest upgrade of the offseason was at running back. While the stats from the skill positions lie about the effectiveness of the offensive line, upgrades were made elsewhere. This will help show these improvements. The Browns running backs were the worst in the NFL in 2011. The line didn’t help nor did the passing game, but individually speaking, the rotation of mediocrity after Peyton Hillis’ season went downhill after Week 2 was as bad as could be in the NFL last year. Even doubters of Trent Richardson’s talent (I’m not one of them) will have difficulty arguing there isn’t reason to believe Richardson can match Hillis’ 2010 performance in a worst-case scenario.

Make no mistake - in the win-loss column, the Browns probably won’t be good this year. Winning games late in the NFL with a combined one year of NFL experience between the talent at running back, quarterback and wide receiver is going to be exceedingly difficult. However, regarding raw production, at least through the focal point of the offense (Richardson), it will be there. Don’t let the numbers from last year’s Browns running backs tell you otherwise. Those drafting at the end of Round 1 or sitting there in the middle/end of Round 2, get Richardson.