Last year, ESPN's John Clayton wrote about a "Theory of 150", and explained that if the combined age of your starting offensive line exceeds 150 years, you should expect a decline in performance. A combined age of 150 years means the average age of your linemen is 30 years, and as a group, that may be too old:
If a team lets its starting offensive line exceed the total age of 150 years for five starters, the clock is ticking on its remaining success. Three teams hit that mark over a three-year period -- the Bears, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. The New York Giants hit the 150 mark a couple years ago and, even though they won a Super Bowl, they had concerns along the offensive line.
The 150 number that Clayton chose for his cutoff point is a little arbitrary, but it chimes nicely with the widely held belief that for NFL players, decline inevitably sets in at age 30. There are many arguments to be made for why the cutoff point should be a different number, but the 150 is a simple number and most people can actually figure out that five linemen aged 30 adds up to 150. Also, the number serves to illustrate a point, so we'll stick to it today.
The graph below shows the age distribution of the 160 projected O-line starters for the 2013 season. The data is taken from the ourlads.com team depth charts, which are usually quite accurate and up-to-date.
What you can see on the chart is that there is indeed quite a strong dropoff among the starting linemen in the NFL, albeit after age 31. According to the ourlads depth charts, there are only 11 offensive linemen starters in the NFL who are 32 years old or older. Interestingly, six of those players are centers, including the league's oldest offensive lineman, 36-year old Brad Meester of Jacksonville.
At the other end of the scale, we have eight starting players who are 22-years old or younger. Seven of them, including the Cowboys' Travis Frederick, are rookies, one is a third-year veteran: the Cowboys' own Tyron Smith, who in his third year in the league is still one of the youngest offensive lineman in the NFL.
But back to Clayton's Theory of 150: Adding up the current ages of the projected Cowboys linemen, Smith (22) - Livings (31) - Frederick (22) - Bernadeau (27) - Free (29), gives the Cowboys a total of 131, the fifth youngest offensive line in the league. Here's how all NFL teams compare in total combined O-line age, based on the ourlads.com depth charts:
|Rank||Team||Tot. Age||Rank||Team||Tot. Age||Rank||Team||Tot. Age|
Keep in mind that these are averages, and because there are only five guys counting against the total of each team, having an older veteran on the line can give a false impression if you only look at the average. Jacksonville for example, despite having old man Meester playing center, rank a respectable 11th in the table above. Substitute 36-year old Meester with a 28-year old center, and the Jaguars would suddenly have one of the youngest lines in the league, and one featuring Luke Joeckel no less.
For the Cowboys though, the 131 age total is just one possible scenario. A possible - and much discussed - alternative could see Ronald Leary (24) replace Nate Livings (31). That would shave seven years from the Cowboys total and give them a total of 124, the second lowest total in the NFL.
But in a game of O-line limbo, we can go much lower: While it's generally assumed that Frederick will be the starter at center (based on his taking all first team snaps in OTAs), I'm far from sure that he'll actually start at center in the season opener. I continue to see a scenario where Phil Costa plays center and Frederick plays the right guard spot. That could result in a starting lineup of Smith (22) - Leary (24) - Costa (25) - Frederick (22) - Free (29), for a total value of 122, just one year shy of the top spot.
You can spin the lineups in almost any number of ways and you'll always end up with one of the youngest offensive lines in the NFL - regardless of who starts. And that's quite a turnaround from just three years ago when the 2010 starting line of Free (26) - Kosier (31) - Gurode (32) - Davis (32) - Colombo (31) totaled 152 on Clayton's scale.
Clearly there's a careful balance that needs to be struck in constructing the O-line, in considering youth versus continuity, in weighing immediate impact versus future cost and in managing stability versus roster transition. Conventional NFL wisdom holds that continuity is one of the keys to success for an O-line. But there isn't as much continuity on rosters these days as there may have been in the past. And the lack of continuity is not just about the players, but also about coaches, about schemes and many other things.
The main positive here is that the Cowboys can pick the five best players for their O-line in training camp. And whoever those players may be, the Cowboys won't have to spend one second thinking about the age of their O-line.
Finally, think about this for a minute: The Cowboys have a nine-year lead over the Eagles and Redskins, and a 12-year lead over the Giants. That means that even with the currently penciled in starters, the Cowboys O-line could play two full seasons before reaching the average age of the current lines of their division rivals.