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Study: Offensive Line Performance Tied To 1st Round Running Backs

With the recent release of Steelers G David DeCastro, many national media members are approaching the situation from “the sky is falling” perspective when addressing the offensive line outlook for 2021. More specifically, ties have been made to the loss of DeCastro as a means to knock rookie RB Najee Harris and his potential impact Year One. This topic got me interested in the correlation between rookie RB production and the offensive lines that blocked for them upfront, so I pulled several names of notable first round rookie running backs since 2007 as well as the offensive linemen that started the majority of games from each spot. All statistics and starting lineups are provided via Pro Football Reference:

Adrian Peterson 2007 Rookie Stats:

238 carries for 1341 yards and 12 TDs, 19 receptions for 268 yards and one TD in 14 games played/ nine games started

2007 Vikings Offensive Line:

LT Bryant McKinnie
LG Steve Hutchinson
C Matt Birk
RG Anthony Herrera
RT Ryan Cook

Doug Martin 2012 Rookie Stats:

319 carries for 1454 yards and 11 TDs, 49 receptions for 472 yards and one TD in 16 games played/started

2012 Buccaneers Offensive Line:

LT Donald Penn
LG Jeremy Zuttah
C Ted Larsen
RG Jamon Meredith
RT Demar Dotson

2015 Todd Gurley Rookie Stats:

229 carries for 1,106 yards and ten TDs, 21 receptions for 188 yards in 12 games played/started

2015 Rams Offensive Line:

LT Greg Robinson
LG Garrett Reynolds
C Tim Barnes
RG Cody Wichmann
RT Rob Havenstein

Ezekiel Elliot 2016 Rookie Stats:

322 carries for 1631 yards and 15 TDs, 32 receptions for 363 yards and one TD in 15 games played/started

2016 Cowboys Offensive Line:

LT Tyron Smith
LG Ronald Leary
C Travis Frederick
RG Zack Martin
RT Doug Free

Leonard Fournette 2017 Rookie Stats:

268 rushes for 1040 yards and nine TDs, 36 receptions for 302 yard and one TD in 13 games played/started

2017 Jaguars Offensive Line:

LT Cam Robinson
LG Patrick Omameh
C Brandon Linder
RG A.J. Cann
RT Jeremy Parnell

Saquon Barkley 2018 Rookie Stats:

261 carries for 1307 yards and 11 TDs, 91 receptions for 721 yards and four TDs in 16 games played/started

2018 Giants Offensive Line:

LT Nate Solder
LG Will Hernandez
C Spencer Pulley
RG Jamon Brown
RT Chad Wheeler

Josh Jacobs 2019 Rookie Stats:

242 carries for 1150 yards and seven TDs, 20 receptions for 166 yards in 13 games played/started

2019 Raiders Offensive Line:

LT Kolton Miller
LG Richie Incognito
C Rodney Hudson
RG Gabe Jackson
RT Trent Brown

When looking at the study, there are several situations that stick out. Rookie backs like Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Josh Jacob enjoyed having stellar offensive lines upfront to pave the way for them with Peterson and Elliott especially having incredible seasons from an efficiency standpoint. Saquon Barkley may have the worst offensive line group here on the list, but his explosiveness and big-play ability allowed him to rip off long runs and make a substantial impact in the receiving game catching short dump-off passes from Eli Manning. Projecting Harris for production like Barkley as a rookie wouldn’t be realistic given that Barkley enjoyed one of the greatest seasons by a rookie RB in NFL history.

Now rookies like Doug Martin, Todd Gurley, and Leonard Fournette enjoyed productive rookie seasons despite having offensive lines that were either unproven at the time or were simply below average compared to the rest of the league. Martin was the only one that played a full 16 games, but the 16-game pace numbers for both Gurley and Fournette were more than acceptable for rookie backs. If you take Martin’s 16-game stats and extrapolate Gurley’s and Fournette’s stats to a 16-game season, the averages of the three players would go as follows:

318 carries for 1403 yards (4.41 YPC) and 11 TDs, 40 receptions for 390 yards (9.75 YPR) and one TD

Now let’s take these totals and extrapolate them to a 17-gmae schedule like we will see in 2021:

337 carries for 1490 yards and 11 TDs, 43 receptions for 414 yards and one TD

Now it may be a stretch to expect these types of numbers for Najee Harris as a rookie from first glance, but when looking at the situations of the three players compared to in this study, it may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Sure, Doug Martin and Todd Gurley both average over 4.5 YPC which we may not expect Harris to hit, but their respective offensive lines were both questionable to say the least like Pittsburgh’s figures to be this season. Also, while Harris may not be the most explosive straight-line runner, his ability to pick up yards after contact and be elusive behind the LOS for a big back has been well-documented by the staff here at Steelers Depot, suggesting a YPC average close to that 4.5 mark isn’t unrealistic.

Harris figures to be the feature back in an offense that wants to alleviate the stress off of Ben Roethlisberger by committing to Art Rooney II’s vision of an upgraded, physical running game, so the overall workload should be there. Based on his receiving prowess coming out of college, it’s not a stretch to say that Harris surpasses the receptions and receiving yardage averages that have been provided as well over the course of a 17-game season, being a more natural receiver out of the backfield and split out wide than the guys compared to in this study. I would also venture to say that Harris was the better overall prospect than both Martin and Fournette from a skillset perspective with Gurley edging out Gurley from an explosive, big play standpoint.

So, while the release of DeCastro will undoubtedly leave an impact on the team and offense as a whole, I would think that this loss won’t destroy Harris’s production in 2021. DeCastro wasn’t right for all of 2020 with the ankle and core muscle injuries, and the move from a passive approach upfront to a more physical style with younger players could actually see the team improve, which should be easy to accomplish given the team finished dead-last in the league in rushing last season. He may not post the exact statistics of the averages posted above and you have to factor in the possibly of injuries, but I am confident in Harris having a productive rookie campaign despite the uncertainty along the offensive line this upcoming season.

What are your thoughts on Najee Harris and his outlook heading into 2021 given the state of the offensive line? Do you think he has the talent and opportunity to overcome the uncertainty upfront, or do you think that all the changes and losses this offseason will derail his rookie campaign? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks again for reading!

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