An offensive lineman has never won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Is that a tragedy? Or does it make sense? Offensive linemen rarely ever score touchdowns, pick up yards, or do the Griddy (although a few have tried). That said, they have proven to be some of the most valuable assets a team can invest in. Don’t let the Bengals’ recent Super Bowl run misguide you, a strong offensive line is one of the quickest ways to elevate your team to football relevancy. That’s why they’re so dang expensive. The Dolphins’ new left tackle Terron Armstead commands a whopping $15 million a year on his new deal. 49ers’ left tackle Trent Williams makes $23 million a year. David Bakhtiari? $23 million as well. They can get expensive. That’s where rookies come in.
Long has the NFL exploited rookies. Since you don’t know what they can do, you don’t have to pay them as much as you would your veterans. While that trend is changing more recently (Lions’ rookie Aidan Hutchinson has the 30th highest salary in the NFL already), it’s still how several NFL teams try to build foundation in key positional groups like their offensive line. Talented O-linemen on their rookie contracts are some of the most valuable assets in the NFL. Whether it be the Bucs’ Tristan Wirfs ($4 million average salary), the Chargers’ Rashawn Slater ($4.16 million), the Chiefs’ Creed Humphrey ($1. 4 million), or the Patriots’ Mike Onwenu ($874,369), young, underpaid offensive lineman have proven time and time again to be invaluable to their franchises. So, why can’t they ever win Rookie of the Year?
Even All-Pro offensive linemen doubt that the day will ever come. In an interview with OddsChecker US, former Bengals’ left tackle Willie Anderson said that offensive linemen have stopped getting the respect they deserve. They are no longer stars to casual fans, and their fall from grace started when John Madden stopped calling games.
“The death of the popularity of offensive linemen was when John Madden stopped calling games. John Madden made offensive linemen stars because he and his crew were highlighting and talking about that,” Anderson claimed. “Now every guy who’s announcing these games and are hired by these networks that are former players play what position? Quarterback, running back, wide receiver. So they’re not going to highlight those guys. It’s all about the TV and who’s covering the game.” Because of this change in coverage, offensive linemen have fallen by the wayside. Despite incredible rookie performances from the likes of athletes like I mentioned earlier, coverage and analysis just hasn’t evolved for O-line positions the same way it has for the skill positions, but I’m not sure that’s truly the case.
Since 2010, we’ve seen six different offensive linemen receive votes for the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award (Maurkice Pouncey, Larry Warford, Zack Martin, Quenton Nelson, Creed Humphrey, Rashawn Slater). Anderson claims that offensive linemen used to get recognized for their work in the ’80s, “Maybe in the ’80s that was true, but these guys are high level athletes.” However, through the entire decade of the 1980s only four offensive linemen received votes for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, or Offensive Rookie of the Year — 1981 Anthony Muñoz (OPOY), 1985 Bill Fralic (OROY), 1987 Bruce Armstrong (OROY), and 1987 Harris Barton (OROY). I know that’s two fewer years than the span I just mentioned, but the pace isn’t far off. If anything, the recognition, at least for the rookies, has increased.
If anything, at least from what I’ve seen, the recognition for offensive linemen in general has increased in recent years. Analytical sites like Pro Football Focus continually give credit where credit is due. Their recent top-50 player rankings listed 49ers’ tackle Trent Williams as the second-best player in the NFL behind only the Rams’ Aaron Donald. In fact, those top-50 rankings included more offensive linemen (8) than quarterbacks (6). You could argue that that’s obviously going to happen since there are five times as many O-linemen in the NFL as quarterbacks, but I’d argue it’s still a huge step in the right direction.
I wholeheartedly agree that offensive linemen do not get the credit they deserve in today’s NFL. However, I do believe that fans are coming back around toward the big men. It’s a slow burn, but a burn nonetheless. Considering the fact that six offensive linemen were drafted before the first quarterback this year too, 2022 could be a season where AP voters start looking at the trenches. It’s still a long shot, and the betting odds reflect that. According to OddsChecker, not a single rookie offensive lineman ranks within the top-40 rookies for implied Rookie of the Year odds. The best odds are currently being given to Ravens’ center Tyler Linderbaum (+15000), which ranks him 43rd. Giants’ tackle Evan Neal, Panthers’ tackle Ikem Ekwonu, and Seahawks’ tackle Charles Cross are all being given +20000 odds, ranking them 45th.
There has to come a day where the stars align and every receiver, running back, and quarterback drafted just doesn’t live up to expectations while a rookie tackle or guard establishes himself as one of the most feared big men in the NFL, right? It has to happen eventually. Could it happen this year? Doubtful, but given that the players with the best odds to win the award are:
1) A quarterback struggling to win a starting role over Mitch Trubisky
2) A halfback who will be forced to compete for carries with Michael Carter, at least for the early part of the season, and just lost his starting left tackle for the year (although they did sign Duane Brown soon after)
3) A wide receiver with Marcus Mariota throwing him the ball
4) A wide receiver who has to compete with a finally healthy Michael Thomas for targets
I don’t think an O-lineman winning the award is out of the question. The Ravens run a gap scheme-oriented offense. Centers are pivotal to the success of that scheme. That’s all the more reason for Linderbaum to get recognition should the Ravens’ run game be elite in 2022. The Seahawks are rolling either Drew Lock or Geno Smith out at quarterback and just lost halfback Chris Carson to retirement. If their offense is going to do anything, it’ll have to come from their offensive line creating holes on run plays, and buying time on pass plays. Perhaps there’s a situation where he could get some national attention.
That said, give me Breece Hall at +1000. Maybe next year the hogs will get their due.