Over the next few weeks, Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2015, break down the current personnel situation and evaluate the unit's outlook for 2016. Previously, we took a look at the defensive line and offensive tackles. Today, the interior offensive line is up.
Interior offensive line
2015 starters: C Kory Lichtensteiger, LG Shawn Lauvao, RG Brandon Scherff
Backups: Spencer Long, Josh LeRibeus, Arie Kouandjio, Brian de la Puente
Free agents: LeRibeus (de la Punte was waived before final game)
Rewind: Before we get to the part about injuries taking their toll let’s talk about the rock of the offensive line, Scherff. He played all but one of the team’s 1,163 offensive snaps (including playoffs). Only a missed snap against the Bears in Week 14 kept him from having perfect participation.
Not only did Scherff play a lot, he played well. He allowed just two sacks all year and he did well run blocking. There certainly is room for improvement there and he need to play at a consistent Pro Bowl level for him to justify his status as the fifth pick in the draft.
Lauvao started the year at the other guard spot but he suffered a broken ankle in Week 3 and he was on the shelf for the rest of the season. Spencer Long, a 2014 third-round pick, took over the starting job. Long, who was the starting right guard during OTAs and the first week of training camp until the team decided to move Scherff from right tackle to right guard, played pretty well. His run blocking was inconsistent but per Pro Football Focus he did not allow a sack and per the NFL he did not commit a penalty of any sort.
Lichtensteiger started the first five games and was struggling, perhaps due to a neck injury that ended up sending him first to the game day inactive list and then to short-term injured reserve. He missed the last 11 regular games and was activated for the playoff game against the Packers.
LeRibeus filled in for Lichtensteiger and while his blocking improved as the season went on his shotgun snaps were an issue. Although, fortunately, none sailed over Kirk Cousins’ head the quarterback often had to focus on handling a snap that was low or wide left or wide right rather than looking at the defense as the play started to unfold.
Kouandjio basically took a redshirt season. He was active for six games but only took one offensive snap. After it became apparent that Lichtensteiger would be out for a long time the team signed de la Puente. It was thought that he would challenge LeRibeus for the starting position but he never did. When Lichtensteiger was activated de la Puente was cut.
Fast forward: Let’s start with what’s not going to change. Take a Sharpie and put Scherff at the top of the depth chart at right guard we’ll proceed from there.
At center, Lichtensteiger will turn 31 next month and his cap number is just over $4 million. He’s not ancient and that’s not a huge cap hit but he is getting to the point where Scot McCloughan might think about going younger and cheaper at the position. There has been talk of Long moving over to center although at this point that talk is little more than fan and media speculation. A draft pick could also be Lichtensteiger’s replacement.
At left guard, Lauvao’s health is a big question mark. When he talked to the media the day after the playoff loss he had just undergone another surgery. It’s no sure thing that he will be ready for training camp or even the regular season. Uncertainty about Lauvao may keep Long at guard, at least in the short term. The coaches are high on Kouandjio’s potential and if there is a legitimate competition for the starting job he would have a good shot at winning it.
LeRibeus is an unrestricted free agent. There hasn’t been much talk about him returning or not but it would not be surprising to see him wind up elsewhere.