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How they were built: The Titans offensive line

Seahawks fans have debated the team's offensive line, so today we're looking at how the Titans built their elite line.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans
Titans LT Taylor Lewan
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Amid constant debates on the topic of the Seattle Seahawks offensive line, one of the things that is often brought up is how other teams do it in comparison. As such, this is the first piece in a new series this season that will look at how each Seahawks opponent has built their offensive line, who their coaching staff is, and how the unit has performed in seasons past.

Of course, I choose to start this series off with a doozy, as the Tennessee Titans are not only in a small group of teams that happen to have a very good offensive line, they also have one of the youngest offensive lines in the NFL. One of the things that I looked at and discussed during the last installment on the Hawks offensive line was the age of the linemen relative to Russell Wilson. The Titans are one of only four teams in the NFL without a single lineman on their roster older than Russ, but their starting five is older than that of Seattle’s.

The Line Coach

To start, we’ll look at the man in charge of Tennessee’s line, Hall of Famer Russ Grimm. Fans who have been around since the early years of the Seahawks will likely remember the name Russ Grimm from his play for the Washington Redskins during the 1980s, when he was a member of the famed Hogs for the Skins during their heyday under Joe Gibbs. Between playing and coaching, Grimm has four Super Bowl rings, and has been in charge of the Titans offensive line since being lured out of retirement by Mike Mularkey in 2016.

Upon retiring from the Redskins offensive line after the 1991 season, Grimm became the Redskins TE coach, a position he held until 1997 before moving to be the team’s offensive line coach under Norv Turner. After Turner was relieved of his duties during the 2000 season, Grimm left Washington to become the offensive line coach under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. He held that position through the 2006 season, when Ken Whisenhunt recruited him away to the southwest, where he took over as the line coach for the Arizona Cardinals. Grimm held that position for the Cardinals from 2007 through 2012, and while the 2012 season started strong for the Cardinals, it did not end well. The Cardinals opened 4-0 before dropping 11 of the next 12 games, including the 58-0 shellacking the Hawks handed them in Week 13. Three weeks later, Grimm, along with the rest of the coaching staff was fired and stayed away from the NFL until 2016.

Thus, Grimm brings Tennessee a record of success as both a player and a coach, and with both Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray running behind the young, yet somewhat experienced line of the Titans, the future looks bright for the team’s Exotic Smashmouth.

Assisting Grimm in his duties is Mike Sullivan, who was the offensive line coach for Tennessee beginning in 2014, and who remained in place as the Assistant Offensive Line coach for the Titans when Grimm was brought out of retirement in 2016. Just as a bit of trivia, Sullivan was on the staff of the 2008 Cleveland Browns team that ended the season having gone 24 consecutive quarters, six full games, without scoring an offensive touchdown.

The Line Itself

The Titans starting line left to right is LT Taylor Lewan, LG Quinton Spain, C Ben Jones, RG Josh Kline, and RT Jack Conklin.

Both tackles, Lewan and Conklin, were drafted in the first round by the Titans, with Lewan taken at 1.11 in 2014 and Conklin being selected at 1.8 in 2016.

Lewan struggled as a rookie in 2014 and played sparingly in spite of having been chosen 11th overall, playing only 354 of 967 offensive snaps for the Titans that season. In 2015, he improved and saw his playing time increase drastically, playing in 15 of the 16 games and participating in just under 90% of Tennessee’s offensive plays. In his third season, under the tutelage of Grimm, Lewan truly blossomed into his own, making the Pro Bowl for the first time. The Titans appear to have found their franchise left tackle, and thus exercised their fifth-year option on Lewan, placing him under contract to the team through 2017. Because Lewan was drafted 11th overall, the fifth year option for 2017 will cost them just $9.341M. Had Lewan been selected just one spot earlier at 10th, the exact same first year option would have cost the team $12.496M.

They appear to have hit paydirt again on the right side, as Conklin became only the second rookie linemen in the Super Bowl era to be voted as an All-Pro, with Zack Martin having been the first. Interestingly, Conklin failed to make the Pro Bowl last season in spite of allowing just a single sack in 1061 offensive snaps. Now, this season Conklin has already been credited with allowing half a sack, so if Cliff Avril is somehow able to take Marcus Mariota down during the game this weekend, Conklin will have allowed more sacks before the end of September than he allowed all of 2016.

Manning the middle of the line is center Ben Jones, who was originally a fourth round draft choice of the Houston Texans in 2012. After four years in Houston, including starting for all of 2014 and 2015, Jones was allowed to leave via free agency, and as his performance in Houston left a lot to be desired, his market in free agency was lukewarm. The Titans signed him to a four-year, $13.5M contract, with $7.5M of that money fully-guaranteed (55%), and that may prove to be one of the biggest steals of the 2016 free agency period. Things appear to have clicked for Jones, as by certain metrics his performance markedly improved.

In the second part of the offensive line series, I looked at a metric of sacks allowed per 1000 snaps played by linemen. Looking at this metric for Jones, the pattern is clear regarding his improvement over time, and in particular his performance in 2016.

Ben Jones performance in the NFL

Year Snaps Sacks Allowed Sacks Allowed per 1000 snaps
Year Snaps Sacks Allowed Sacks Allowed per 1000 snaps
2012 689 4 5.81
2013 228 1 4.39
2014 1049 3 2.86
2015 1184 4 3.38
2016 1061 1.5 1.41

Again, this metric is far from perfect and there are factors involved outside of just Jones’ performance on the field, however the numbers do bear out that things appear to have finally clicked for Jones in his fourth season as a starter.

Moving on to the guard positions, their starters are both players who entered the league as undrafted free agents. On the right side is Josh Kline, undrafted out of Kent State in 2013, then signing with the New England Patriots where he took on a backup role, playing sparingly through the season, but starting week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens. His performance was good enough that he stuck around and made four starts for the 2014 Patriots, but was one of only two players who dressed on the active 46-man roster in the Super Bowl that year but did not appear in the game (the other was Jimmy Garoppolo).

That led to Kline winning the starting spot in 2015, with the Patriots seeing enough in his performance to sign him to a two year contract extension that November. (Author’s note: as an undrafted free agent, Kline was extension eligible after two seasons, rather than after the requisite three seasons for drafted players.)

You are probably wondering how a player that New England extended through 2017 ended up playing for Tennessee in 2016, and that’s a fairly simple question to answer: Kline was a starter on that 2015 Patriots line that did everything in its power to end Tom Brady’s career, and he went into the AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos with just one fewer career start than RT Marcus Cannon, but more career starts than either C Bryan Stork or RG Shaq Mason. That inexperienced unit allowed Brady to be sacked four times and take 17 more hits from the Denver Broncos defense on the day, and just to put those numbers in perspective: through the first two games of this season, Russell Wilson has taken six sacks and been subject to 16 additional QB hits. Basically, that line let Brady take just about the same amount of punishment that Russell has taken over the first two weeks of this season and compressed it into a single afternoon of Brady-hating enjoyment.

Following that performance, the Pats changed their line coach, luring Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement to take over coaching the line in 2016. Scarnecchia apparently had no use for Kline, so in spite of having signed him to a contract extension in November 2015 and surviving final cuts in 2016, Kline was waived when they acquired nickel corner Eric Rowe from the Philadelphia Eagles the day before the 2016 NFL season.

Kline was awarded to the Titans on waivers, and after spending the first two weeks of the season learning their system, took over as a starter in Week 3, playing all but one snap over the final 14 games of the season. During that timeframe he allowed three sacks on 929 snaps, putting him at 3.23 sacks allowed per 1000 snaps, which is roughly in line with Mark Glowinski, who clocked in at 3.31 sacks allowed per 1000 snaps. (It is important to remember that the Titans passed the ball materially less than the Seahawks, as they attempted 504 passes in 2016 while Seattle attempted 12.5% more at 567).

Speaking of Mark Glowinski, that brings us to the final member of Tennessee’s starting line, Quinton Spain. Spain was not only Glowinski’s teammate on the West Virginia Mountaineers, he was his guardmate the majority of the two seasons Glowinski spent in Morgantown. Glow played every game in 2013 and 2014 at RG for the Mountaineers, while Spain started the first four games of 2013 at LT before starting the remaining eight games of the season and all of 2014 at LG.

Spain played in seven games, including six starts as a rookie, before winning the starting LG role out of camp in 2016. He played well, allowing only 2 sacks on 820 snaps, putting his sacks per 1000 snaps metric at a very respectable 2.44. His largest issue last season appears to have been false starts, as he tied Lewan for the team lead with three, but this is nowhere even close to Russell Okung levels of false starting, so he should be fine. So far this season he is yet to allow a sack or be called for a false start, so there remains hope.

Looking Forward

The Titans have the core players on their line locked up for the foreseeable future. Jones is under contract through 2019, Conklin is on a rookie contract that will take him through 2019, with the team holding the fifth year option for 2020, and Lewan is in the fourth year of his rookie contract, with his fifth year option having been exercised ensuring the team can keep him through at least 2018.

There is more uncertainty at the guard position moving forward, as both Kline and Spain are only signed through 2017. Kline is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, while Spain will be a restricted free agent. With competent offensive linemen being in high demand, Kline could command a contract similar to that signed by J.R. Sweezy with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, and even Spain could see demand from other teams. Teams are using never-before-seen cap space and significant amounts of draft capital on quality offensive linemen, and it will be interesting to see what level of restricted free agent tender the Titans place on Spain.

With another solid season, it is not difficult to imagine Spain having a second round tender, potentially even a first round tender, placed on him as the salaries being handed out to offensive linemen these days are reaching astronomical levels. A second round tender is likely to carry a cap number in the $2.95M range, and that could easily be considered a bargain if Spain continues to perform as he has.

And that’s the rundown on the offensive line that Seattle’s premier defensive line will be facing on Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see how many one-on-one battles Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, and Avril will be able to get an advantage on, because pressuring Mariota will be just as important as how many times Wilson is being pressured on the other side.

And that’ll almost certainly be: A lot.