Several days before the COVID-19 pandemic began, a gigantic trade sent shockwaves throughout the NFL. Pro Bowl offensive linemen Trai Turner and Russell Okung were being exchanged for one another, with the Chargers acquiring Turner and Okung heading to the Panthers.
Turner, who was coming off of five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons with Carolina, seemed like an instant upgrade for Los Angeles’ offensive line. However, as the 2020 season panned out, Turner was not the same—largely due to several injuries, namely one to his groin.
In fact, the Chargers were so discontent with Turner that they released him this March after being unable to find a trade partner.
Around three and a half months later, Turner finally found a suitor: the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were in desperate need of a starting right guard after cutting two-time All-Pro David DeCastro in an unexpected maneuver.
As headlines have begun to swirl subsequent to the Steelers’ latest acquisition, much attention has been directed towards how dismal Turner’s play was a year ago, and rightly so. In fact, Turner ranked as the second worst guard in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Trai Turner dealt with a groin injury last year, but according to Pro Football Focus, Turner finished 79th out of a possible 80 guards in 2020. He's also regressed in his PFF grade every year since 2017, falling from 73.8 to 67.9 to 63.9 to 34.8. #Steelers— Blitzburgh✨ (@RenegadeBlitz) June 25, 2021
However, was Turner as horrible as most think? Using both film and metrics, let’s dive more deeply into his 2020 campaign.
Throughout the first six seasons of his illustrious career, Turner had been touted among the league’s best pass-blocking guards. That didn’t change at all last season.
To start, the numbers indicate Turner certainly maintained, if not proliferated, his outstanding pass protection. Per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), Turner had just six blown blocks while protecting Justin Herbert (and Tyrod Taylor for a game) in 319 passing snaps played, good for a 1.9 blown passing blocks percentage. For context, while suiting up for 592 throws with Carolina in 2019, Turner posted a 2.4 blown passing blocks percentage.
Heading over to NFL Game Pass largely elucidates the same idea: that Turner was an incredibly stout guard during passing plays.
In Week 2, his first game of the season, Turner faced the arduous task of challenging Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones. On this particular rep, Turner gets Jones off balance by faking a blow to Jones’ left shoulder, then initiating contact by keeping his hands high. Ultimately, Jones is completely negated on the play.
After the Chargers’ heartbreaking loss at the hands of the eventual AFC Champions, Turner missed six consecutive games via injury. However, he didn’t seem to miss a beat in terms of his pass protecting prowess post-groin aggravation.
On this down against the Jets in Week 11, Turner puts on an absolute clinic by patiently treading water and remaining completely unfazed by two incoming defenders, effectively blocking both.
In Los Angeles’ final game of the year, Turner played just 17 snaps. With Cole Toner filling in for the seemingly ailing Turner, there was a noticeable difference in right guard play. Look no further than this throw by Herbert, which is rushed—and eventually incomplete—via a futile attempt to block Tanoh Kpassagnon.
In summation, Turner was, yet again, a phenomenal pass blocker. Wounded or not, his excellent skills shown through in 2020—in fact, I could hardly find a play where Turner even allowed Herbert to be grazed.
For as well as Turner played in pass pro, he struggled fairly mightily when helping clear lanes for Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley and current Steeler Kalen Ballage.
Utilizing data once more, it’s exceedingly apparent that Turner was simply not the same player in terms of run blocking.
In only 193 rushing plays, Turner missed eight blocks, per SIS. Despite being involved in nearly 25% fewer rushes, Turner still set a career high in blown rushing blocks. In fact, his 4.1% blown rushing block rate ranked 9th worst among offensive linemen with over 100 rushing snaps played.
Switching on the tape also indicates the inconsistency with which Turner helped generate push in the run game.
At times, Turner certainly demonstrated shades of his Pro Bowl stature, such as this rush against the Miami Dolphins in which he allows his defender to get nowhere near Ballage.
Yet for as solid as Turner occasionally appeared, he undoubtedly had many more instances of failing to secure blocks and, truthfully, hurt the Chargers on many rushing downs—case in point, this dive attempt by Turner in which the aforementioned Jones completely manhandles him, blowing up the play.
Finally, on this run against the Jets, Turner does a nice job engaging with his defensive foe; at the same time, his inability to truly shove his defender aside constricts the rushing lane of Ballage, resulting in fewer yards attained than possible. In red is how Turner should have been positioned; accordingly, the light blue lines are how much wider Ballage’s space could have been.
Career-wise, Turner had been a plus guard during runs. Whether due to injuries or a failure to execute, he simply wasn’t as dominant ground game-wise in 2020.
Although Turner vacillated in terms of his performance in run blocking, his “nasty” tendencies certainly were prominent in scouting his campaign a year ago.
Throughout me watching him, Turner demonstrated an aptitude for finding additional players to block; he generally seems to enjoy continued contact with defenders until the final whistle.
In particular, watch Turner drift over and completely pancake Emmanuel Ogbah.
That same mentality of aggression extended to parts of run blocking as well. On this snap, Turner decimates his man, shoving him as if his 300 pounds of muscle consist of feathers. Even though the Chargers were obliterated 45-0 in this contest, Turner definitely was not.
The Steelers were devoid of physical, gritty, indefatigable offensive line play in 2020. Turner slotting in at RG should certainly provide a spark in that department.
As detailed earlier, most assessments of Trai Turner gave him a failing grade as the Chargers’ starting right guard, in PFF’s case, it was essentially the second worst in the class.
Did Turner struggle in areas in which he had previously flourished? Absolutely.
But combining Turner’s consistently marvelous pass blocking with his wishy-washy run blocking doesn’t translate to being one of the worst linemen in the NFL.
It’s especially pertinent that Turner wasn’t healthy last year, as he called it a “rough season” especially with COVID-19. I commend Turner for playing 75% or more of the Chargers’ snaps in seven of his nine starts given his circumstances—the fact that he still had the drive to suit up and push opponents with Mack truck-like force should be a good harbinger of play this year.
Without a doubt, Turner’s every twist, hand movement and kick back will be scrutinized relative to DeCastro. Even though DeCastro was injured for most of 2020, he still started 13 games and excelled, as both his missed pass block and missed rush block rates were under 1.3%.
If Turner is fully healthy—as he claims—then it would surprise few if he became the linchpin of Pittsburgh’s offensive line, possibly reclaiming the Pro Bowl stage once more. It’s not overly unrealistic for Turner to match DeCastro’s astounding level of play during his storied career in black and gold. What will be awfully tough is outperforming prime DeCastro, a feat few can ever rival.
In order to regain his mojo and mitigate DeCastro’s departure, Turner has no choice but to overcome a regressive 2020 and the nagging injury bug.