This past off-season, the Green Bay Packers signed veteran guard, Jahri Evans, to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million. At first glance, this move looks like a band-aid over a position that saw Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang walk in free agency. But looking a little bit more closely, it could be a move for a future trend in the NFL.
Last week, The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote a smart piece on declining offensive line play in the NFL. He speaks in the piece about how a lot of rookie linemen are coming into the NFL ill-prepared for the technical aspects of playing on the offensive line and how a lack of practice time has produced poorly-developed linemen. Offensive linemen have mechanics they need to work on and develop, and today’s defenders don’t allow for linemen to rely on pure athleticism. The offensive line is often patient zero when we’re talking about the NFL’s poor offensive play ailments.
This is where league veterans come in. As Mays puts it:
“Acquiring veterans has eliminated team concerns about how well players can grasp fronts, identify Mike linebackers, and protect.”
The drawback is, of course, that not every scheme or playbook language is the same, but the fact remains that they can be more well-equipped to step in from day one and fill a need. There are several examples around the league of veteran linemen stepping in and paying huge dividends this season.
Last season, the Los Angeles Rams couldn’t run the ball outside the tackles if their lives depended on it. This season, they brought in veteran All-Pro LT Andrew Whitworth (Age 35) to fortify the line. They now have a Top-3 offense in football and 2017 Todd Gurley looks more like 2015 Todd Gurley.
The Cleveland Browns paid a premium for G Kevin Zeitler (Age 27) and he hasn’t allowed a sack all season. He’s on the younger end of the veteran spectrum, but the effect can still be observed. Now, the average age of Cincinnati’s starters up front — without Zeitler and Whitworth — is 25. The Bengals rank 30th in offensive line DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, while Zeitler has helped Cleveland reach 14th on that same list.
Kelvin Beachum signed a deal with the Jets and has added some strong line play for a scrappy Jets team. The Jets elected to take the chance on this 28-year-old veteran— who has struggled with injuries the past two seasons — instead of a younger practice squad prospect.
Against the Detroit Lions, Pro Football Focus gave Jahri Evans the highest grade (83.0) of any Packers offensive lineman. Only six pressures on 43 pass-blocking snaps were charged to the offensive line, despite Brett Hundley looking a little lost at times in the pocket. Throughout the season, Evans has been solid in run blocking, and he is a big reason why the Packers have gained the most yards on the ground running to the right (204 yards, 5.5 yard average) compared to other directions. That’s particularly impressive considering the guy lined up to Evans’ right is seemingly a new player every week.
You know how the Packers seemed to have a full injury report every week this season? Well, Jahri Evans hasn’t even been on it! Not only that, but he hasn’t missed a snap. Only he and Corey Linsley have played 100% of the available offensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference. Evans has even logged 27 special teams snaps.
As offensive lines continue to struggle, bringing in veterans, whether it be for big pay days (Zeitler) or savvy tire-kicking deals (Evans), is a trend that could start to mirror the bridge QB. Sign a veteran lineman while the rookie and second-year pros learn the technical aspects of NFL line play on the second unit during practice.
While Packer fans currently toil in the darkest timeline, Jahri Evans has been a bright spot and the front office may have stumbled onto the best way to build their line for the future. That’s something to provide a little hope.