How did Ron Rivera manage to destroy the Commanders' offensive line?

A good unit was turned into an abomination.
Ron Rivera
Ron Rivera / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

How did former Washington Commanders' head coach Ron Rivera manage to completely destroy the offensive line during his tenure?

Want to know just how badly the Washington Commanders mangled their offensive line during the Ron Rivera years? Well, strap in stat geeks - I've got some numbers for you.

Let’s start with this. During Rivera’s four seasons in Washington, the Commanders drafted six offensive linemen. Five of them remain on the roster, but only two currently start. One of those starters, Saahdiq Charles, has been slow to progress and his future is very much in doubt. The other, Sam Cosmi, is the one success story from the Rivera era. Even that comes with an asterisk.

This lack of production via the recent drafts would be just fine if Washington had a strong group of veterans in place. This is not the case. There is not a single draft pick from the pre-Rivera years that remains on the team.

The remaining starters in 2023 were medium to low-level free agents who were allowed to walk by their previous teams. Washington did have two of its high-end draft picks starting when Rivera arrived. Both were under the age of 30.

Commanders OL regressed under Ron Rivera

Ron Rivera failed to prioritize the Commanders' offensive line.
Ron Rivera / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Left guard Brandon Scherff was so tired of playing for a dysfunctional franchise that he bolted via free agency as soon as he could, without ever seriously entertaining a contract extension. The other - Morgan Moses - was released after the 2020 campaign. This past year - the man Washington deemed not good enough for them - was the starting right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

Let’s take a look at Moses, the Ravens, and the other 13 NFL playoff teams from 2023. Compare how those teams went about building their offensive lines with how the Commanders did it under Rivera. Fourteen teams - five starting linemen. If I’m using my calculator correctly, that amounts to 70 total players for the best teams in the league.

Care to guess how many of those 70 starters entered the league as undrafted free agents? The answer is four. Again, consulting my calculator, that’s about six percent.

The Commanders started two undrafted free agents on their line in 2023. That doesn’t matter whether you use Nick Gates - the free agent signed to play center last year - or Tyler Larsen, the man who eventually replaced him. That’s 40 percent of the starting offensive line.

Granted, it’s too small a sample size to mean very much, but you get the point. The Commanders have stubbornly refused to invest in their protection for almost a decade. The effects are obvious.

Let’s check a few other numbers from the 2023 playoff teams. Of the 70 starters, 49 of them were drafted in the first three rounds. That’s 70 percent. The Commanders currently have one player drafted in those rounds starting. They have another third-round pick on the roster - 2023 draftee Ricky Stromberg. He contributed very little before getting hurt.

More than a quarter of those playoff starters were first-round picks. The Commanders have not drafted an offensive lineman in the first round since Scherff in 2015. They have none on their roster.

Only three of the 14 playoff teams do not have a single first-round pick on their offensive line. Those teams - the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Los Angeles Rams - all have three second-round selections on their starting unit.

Washington has one second-round pick. And even that success is clouded.

Sam Cosmi was the one Commanders' offensive line success story under Ron Rivera.
Sam Cosmi / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Commanders had one OL success story under Ron Rivera

Cosmi was drafted to play tackle. The team tried him there for a couple of years before moving him to right guard in 2023. He graded out very well at the new position. His switch was necessitated by a combination of three factors, all of which speak to the incompetence of the organization under Rivera's watch.

He may well have been improperly evaluated by scouts. That has happened to virtually every college tackle Washington has drafted since Moses in 2014. However, I think that is the least of the problems.

Cosmi could be a quality tackle in the NFL. He was not coached up during his first couple of seasons, a problem that has persisted for the past four years. Offensive linemen have not come to the Commanders - be it through the draft or free agency - and improved. The roster failures left Rivera with gaping holes at guard heading into 2023.

They had some journeymen tackles who could play outside, but they were in desperate need of guards. The Cosmi move grew out of that desperation.

Here's the kicker, straight from analytics. The position Cosmi is now playing - right guard - is the least important spot on the offensive line. At least it is if you go by the average draft position for those 14 playoff teams. It is the only spot where half the players were drafted on Day 3. In other words, for his new position, the former Texas star was over-drafted.

There was a time when Washington did things more traditionally. In the middle of the last decade, when Scott Campbell and Alex Santos were largely in charge of personnel decisions, they routinely spent multiple picks on the offensive line. They mixed high-round picks (Moses, Scherff, Spencer Long) with late selections.

Those picks didn’t always work out. But by increasing the numbers, Washington found Chase Roullier, who developed into a star center before an injury ended his career, as well as serviceable starters like Austin Reiter and Tom Compton. Not surprisingly, both became prolific for playoff teams.

Campbell was let go during a front office realignment a few years before Rivera arrived. Santos was sent packing for far less savory reasons. Neither was a scouting genius. They simply followed established norms and were moderately successful. Washington had decent lines as a result.

During the last four years, all that went out the window. Their steadfast refusal to invest serious capital - draft or actual - has seemed almost willful.

We can expect that to begin changing with this year’s draft. I don’t know if Adam Peters and Dan Quinn have their eye on any premium free-agent linemen this cycle. You can be certain that they will devote draft capital to remedy a long-neglected problem.

With five picks in the top 100, I expect at least two - and possibly three - offensive linemen to join the Commanders roster. They certainly need the help.