Offensive Linemen: A Character Study
The Dolphins took a chance when they stopped Laremy Tunsil’s draft-night free fall. And they should feel good about the risk—recent data shows offensive linemen usually stay out of trouble, and understanding the position they play shows why
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The most sensational story of this year’s draft was Laremy Tunsil’s fall and the risk Miami took in selecting him at 13. A hack and ambush of Tunsil’s social media accounts, mixed in with some already existing concerns about him (suspended seven games at Ole Miss for receiving improper benefits; swirling family drama) draped Tunsil with the dreaded character red flag.
Concerns about him are fair, but history says they’ll soon disappear. Look closely at the data and you’ll see that NFL offensive linemen rarely get in trouble. In the last 10 years, a total of 30 have been suspended. That’s fewest among all positions except quarterback and, just barely, tight end. And don’t forget: there are about nine offensive linemen on every roster, making it the most abundant position along with defensive line. When you divide into total players, over the last 10 years, one in every 78 NFL offensive linemen annually gets suspended. Look how this compares to other positions:
Offensive line: 1 in every 78
Running backs: 1 in every 51
Wide receiver: 1 in every 42
Tight end: 1 in every 92
Defensive line: 1 in every 45
Linebacker: 1 in every 57
Defensive Back: 1 in every 59
Kicker/punter: nobody cares
And this data is for total suspensions, which includes performance-enhancing drug violations. The nightmare of steroids in baseball conditioned fans to think that PEDs are evil incarnate. That’s a nice, righteous notion, but no one actually behaves as if it’s true. The level of outrage over Antonio Gates’s PED violation in 2015 was nonexistent compared to the outrage over Ray Rice or Greg Hardy. (You may have even forgotten that Gates was suspended.) Are these extreme examples? Sure. But the point is: Fans don’t really care about PED use in football, and neither do people within football. Even privately, I’ve never heard a coach or player mention PEDs one way or another. It’s a classic don’t-ask-don’t-tell. And when a player does test positive, the reaction is basically: whoops.
So take out the PED suspensions; no teams consider it relevant to character. Focus just on behavior (including recreational substance abuse violations) and you’re left with one in every 204 offensive linemen getting suspended each year on average. How do the other positions stack up?
Offensive line: 1 in every 204
Running backs: 1 in every 65
Wide receiver: 1 in every 48
Tight end: 1 in every 196
Defensive line: 1 in every 76
Linebacker: 1 in every 97
Defensive back: 1 in every 83
Kicker/punter: still, nobody cares
This can’t be a coincidence, and the more I learn about football and talk with coaches, the more I realize it’s not. Think about the nature of playing offensive line:
• You must check your ego at the door because when you do something great, most fans don’t notice and, frankly, neither do many announcers. The position requires humility.
• By nature, you’re working in unison with four other guys. Teamwork and cooperation.
• You have a heavier mental burden than any position on the field save for quarterback. Intelligence.
This last item is the one people don’t think about. Offensive linemen are big and burly, and so therefore they must be dumb. Not true. Almost to a man, every NFL offensive coach I have ever spoken with has said that, without question, linemen are the smartest men on the field behind quarterback. They have to be. Playing up on the line of scrimmage means you’re sorting out more defensive bodies and in less space. That means more variables to identify and digest.
It also means that those already hard-to-decipher variables can change quickly after the snap. When a cornerback and safety rotate in a disguised coverage, they must cover a lot of ground between them. And they’re already at least 10, and probably about 15 or 20, yards away from the ball, making them less threatening and their disguised tactic easier to identify.
When a defensive lineman, on the other hand, drops into a zone blitz’s shallow coverage, and a linebacker quickly replaces him in the pass rush, those two have about four yards between them and are already about five yards from the ball. The action is inherently much faster and easier to disguise. It’s the offensive line’s job to recognize it and adjust. Considering that most defensive linemen and linebackers are markedly more athletic than offensive linemen, the only way for an offensive lineman to compete is by being smart.
If humility, teamwork and especially intelligence are defining characteristics of NFL offensive linemen, then it’s no surprise these guys cause little trouble off the field or in the workplace. You almost never hear about an offensive lineman being a locker room cancer. Go ahead, name one lineman who clearly has what we’ll call Terrell Owens Syndrome. We’ll wait...
Chances are you came up with none, or you said Richie Incognito. However, the Incognito bullying scandal is viewed differently within NFL circles than it is by the public. Many NFL insiders place little blame on Incognito, and most teams would admit they’d love to have him on their roster. It’s why Incognito, almost 33, is coming off a Pro Bowl caliber season in Buffalo and is touted for the new maturity he found during his one-year exile.
Anyway, that was the old Dolphins locker room. It’s a much different one now: new coaching staff, remade front office, mostly different players. In Tunsil, the Dolphins took a risk on a talented player with a less than clean slate. It’s possible the risk will blow up in their face. But the data regarding the men who play on the offensive line suggests it won’t.