Who makes the 53? Who doesn’t?
While the Washington Football Team managed to largely keep the offensive line intact from last season to this one, there have been some significant changes and a lot of questions remain to be answered in training camp.
Heading into the draft, it was possible to say that Washington was returning all five starting offensive linemen from the 2020 season, but, in a move that surprised most observers, including the beat reporters who cover the team, longtime starting right tackle Morgan Moses — selected by Washington in the third round of the 2014 draft — was released near the end of May, following the rookie minicamp. Moses remains a free agent, as yet unsigned by any other NFL team, and is viewed by many NFL analysts as the top free agent currently available.
The timing and surprise nature of the release have led to some speculation as to the root cause. Was there some discord between Moses and the coaching staff or a precipitating event? Or was this merely a decision that reflected how Ron Rivera and offensive line coach John Matsko felt about the tackle depth after signing free agent Charles Leno from the Bears and drafting Sam Cosmi in the second round?
Whatever the reason, the release of Morgan Moses created uncertainty at a position that had been stable for half a decade.
Let’s look at what we know, what we can guess, and what we will have to wait to find out about the Washington offensive line.
What we know
We know two things for sure:
- Chase Roullier will start at center
- Brandon Scherff will start at right guard
Roullier has been a fabulous value for Washington since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2017 draft. He started 13 games in his rookie season and has been the unquestioned starter ever since. In January, he signed a 4-year extension worth $40.5m. His play has improved every year, as evidenced by his PFF grades of 64.4, 65.0, 71.5 and 83.9 for the first four years of his career.
Brandon Scherff, of course, is playing on the franchise tag for the second season in a row. With his rookie deal, 5th year option and two franchise tags, Washington has had Scherff for seven seasons, but will need to get him to agree to a contract extension or lose him to free agency in March of 2022. There are two relevant deadlines for this. If Scherff doesn’t agree to an extension by 15 July this year, then he cannot ink a new deal with the Football Team until after the ‘21 season ends. At that point, the team would have an exclusive negotiating window with him until the start of free agency in early 2022.
Despite not agreeing to a contract extension, Scherff has repeatedly asserted that he wants to remain in Washington, adding that he leaves contract negotiations to his agent. Many people assume that Scherff is following the Kirk Cousins playbook to make as much money as possible via the franchise tag before signing a high-dollar free agent deal to get him out of town, but the possibility remains that the All-Pro guard could end up in burgundy and gold for another 4 or 5 years. For the moment, Brandon Scherff is a leader of the offensive line and the team in general, and is clearly one of Ron Rivera’s favorites. He will be the starting right guard in every game that he is healthy enough to play during the 2021 season.
What we can guess
The easiest of the three remaining starters to predict is the left tackle spot, which was manned by Geron Christian to start the ‘20 season, but which belonged to Cornelius Lucas from Week 7 onward.
While Lucas played well, and many fans were content to see him line up as the starting left tackle again in 2021, the coaches felt otherwise. When Charles Leno was released by the Bears following the draft, Washington was quick to bring him to Ashburn and sign him to a contract.
All signs point to Charles Leno being the presumptive starter at left tackle as training camp begins. Leno hadn’t missed a game at left tackle for the Bears since taking over the position in 2015, and media reports said that he was not interested in signing with a team that wanted him to play right tackle.
Leno could, of course, face competition from other players on the roster — notably Lucas, this year’s 2nd round draft pick Sam Cosmi, and last year’s 4th round selection, Saahdiq Charles, drafted from national champion LSU — but Leno’s experience is likely to be valued highly by Washington’s coaches. In addition, the one-year $5m contract from Washington makes him one of the four highest-paid offensive linemen on the team.
It looks as if left tackle will be Charles Leno’s job to lose.
With the team likely to keep 9 or 10 offensive linemen on the 53-man regular season roster, there appear to be 8 roster “locks”:
- RG Brandon Scherff
- C Chase Roullier
- LT Charles Leno
- OT Sam Cosmi
- OT Cornelius Lucas
- OG Wes Schweitzer
- OG Ereck Flowers
- OG/OT Saahdiq Charles
The starting five players will probably come from this group. That will leave one or two roster spots to be filled from the remaining 8 offensive linemen on the current roster.
Of those eight players in competition for backup roles, I think four of them will not be in serious competition for a spot on the regular season roster, but will, instead, be playing to earn a spot on the practice squad. Those four players are:
- OT Rick Leonard
- OG Beau Benzschawel
- OG Najee Toran
- OT David Steinmetz
This would leave four players “on the bubble” and competing for one or two roster spots:
- G/C Keith Ismael
- G/C Tyler Larsen
- OG Wes Martin
- RT David Sharpe
What we will have to wait to find out
How many linemen will the team carry?
We won’t know until final cutdowns are complete whether the team will carry 9 or 10 offensive linemen. The position that seems most likely to be affected by the decision on numbers is the backup center position.
If the team keeps just 9 offensive linemen, then they will need a player who can backup both guard and center, and are likely to prioritize a veteran who can be counted on to play consistently and to be able to call the line protections if he had to step in for an injured Chase Roullier. In this case, as Mark Tyler projected in his recent roster projection, I’d expect the coaches to rely on Wes Schweitzer, who started or played nearly all the offensive snaps in 14 games at LG for Washington last season, to be identified as the backup center.
Schweitzer is a 6th year veteran who was originally drafted by the Falcons in 2016, coming to Washington as a free agent a year ago. In his four seasons with the Falcons, he appeared in 46 games and started in 36. Although he was primarily a guard during that time, he also served as the backup center.
If the team goes this direction, it probably means that neither Ismael nor Larsen makes the 53-man roster, with one of them getting a practice squad spot and the other being waived.
If the team keeps 10 offensive linemen, then either Keith Ismael or Tyler Larsen could make the 53-man roster as Roullier’s primary backup and depth at one or both guard positions.
Ismael was drafted in the 5th round a year ago, and the coaches seemed very excited then about his potential. He managed to see the field for only 4 offensive snaps as a rookie, and could face a difficult battle to make the 2021 regular roster.
Tyler Larsen entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014, but his most significant playing time came in a 5-year stint with the Carolina Panthers from 2016-2020. In those five seasons, his snap counts were: 357 (354 at center), 720 (719 at center), 325 (294 at guard), 28 (19 at center), 7. At almost 30 years of age, Larsen looks to be on the downside of his career, but he would obviously bring experience as an NFL lineman and familiarity with the coaching staff’s systems and schemes.
I find it hard to judge whether the coaches would be more likely to value Larsen’s experience or Ismael’s potential.
Brandon Scherff will start at RG; the competition for starting left guard will probably be between last year’s starter, Wes Schweitzer, the 2019 starter Ereck Flowers, and 2020 draft pick Saahdiq Charles. There will be one winner.
Ron Rivera has said repeatedly that Charles will compete at both guard and tackle, but in his only NFL appearance last season, Charles started at LG.
There are three other interior linemen who could challenge for a backup guard role: Ismael, Larsen and Wes Martin.
Martin was drafted in the 4th round in 2019 and was the Week 1 starter at LG in 2020, but he played poorly and was benched in Week 6. With a deeper interior OL group than Washington had a year ago, I don’t expect the coaching staff to hang on tight to this Allen & Gruden era draft pick.
If Saahdiq Charles is seen by the coaching staff primarily as a guard (or capable of playing both positions) then that likely spells the end of Martin’s hopes of making the 53-man roster in Week 1, and he likely would head to the practice squad or another team.
If, on the other hand, the coaches decide that Charles is a tackle, then Martin has a chance to be the 4th guard on the depth chart, but the staff could opt for Ismael or Larsen, both of whom offer the flexibility of also backing up Roullier.
Martin’s hope for a roster spot seems to hinge on the team opting to keep 10 linemen, and deciding that Charles will play exclusively at tackle.
Starting right tackle
This is likely to be a two-man competition between Cornelius Lucas and Sam Cosmi for 2021, though its not clear whether the coaching staff’s long-term view of Cosmi is RT, LT or ‘wait and see’.
If Sam Cosmi lines up as the starting right tackle in Week 1, then Lucas would be the swing tackle, which is a role he is very suited to.
If Lucas lines up as the starting right tackle in Week 1, it could be temporary — just until Cosmi is ready to start, whether that happens in 2021 or 2022.
Saadhiq Charles could theoretically win the competition for a tackle job, either right or left, but I think he is likely to be used as a backup for both guard and tackle to start the season.
With Leno, Lucas and Cosmi, the team appears to have 3 tackle spots locked up. The 4th spot is likely to be filled either by utilizing Saahdiq Charles to backup both guard and tackle, or by keeping David Sharpe on the roster.
The team traded for David Sharpe a year ago. He has played for four teams in his 4-year career. He played 184 snaps last season, with the bulk of them coming in Weeks 10-12 when both Geron Christian and Cornelius Lucas were out injured. He did not play well, and ended the season with a PFF grade of 50.9. As a player who is limited to playing just one position (right tackle) and the number of OTs in front of him on the depth chart, it is hard to imagine Sharpe making the roster again in 2021.
The final offensive line depth chart should end up something like this:
Training camp and preseason will answer a lot of questions, but we aren’t likely to know the exact composition of Washington’s offensive line until after final cutdowns happen at the end of August following the third and final preseason game against the Ravens.