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Aging Linemen Face Mounting Aches, Pains

Ben Jones, Rodger Saffold and Taylor Lewan are all in their 30s and have had a hard time staying healthy in 2021.

Ten seasons into his NFL career, Ben Jones still experiences a certain magic on Sunday morning.

“It’s always a privilege to get to go out there and play on Sunday,” he said. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity. You never take playing on Sunday for granted.

“It definitely brings a little juice and you do feel better on Sundays.”

Unfortunately for the 32-year-old center and the other elder statesmen on the Tennessee Titans’ offensive line, that is about as good as it gets these days. Through the first four games of the 2021 season Jones, left guard Rodger Saffold (33 years old) and left tackle Taylor Lewan (30 years old) have all shown the wear and tear that a lengthy professional football career produces.

None have broken down completely, but each has required some roadside maintenance in recent weeks. Jones, Saffold and Lewan all required medical attention and sat out at least several plays during Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss to the New York Jets. Jones and Lewan each got back on the field eventually. Saffold did not.

The respective status of each for this Sunday’s game at Jacksonville will be determined later in the week.

“I am not worried,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “I know they got banged up (Sunday) and I appreciate their toughness. The next guy has got to go in and this will be a big week for us to see how we can recover physically and recover mentally.”

It is worth noting that the current state of affairs is in stark contrast to 2019, when the Titans got on a roll that led Derrick Henry’s first rushing title and eventually reached the AFC Championship game. Jones, Saffold and Lewan played every snap in at least seven of the final 10 games that year, and Jones was the only one who missed a game during that stretch (just one).

“That’s what football is – you’ve got to go out there and execute,” Jones said. “You’re never going to feel 100 percent. The only day you feel good is the last day before camp starts. It’s just a mindset [that] you’ve got to go in there and do it day in and day out.

“The other team don’t feel good either.”

From 2015, his last year with Houston, through 2018, Jones played every offensive snap for the Texans and Titans. The game he missed in 2019 is the only time he was unable to answer the bell. Yet in 2020, he played start to finish in only nine of 16 contests.

Saffold has played just 69 percent of the snaps on offense thus far. Last year, he was on the field for 81 percent, and that was his lowest percentage of playing time in five years, dating back to his days with the Rams.

Lewan missed one full game this fall after he experienced pain in his knee during pregame warmups in Week 2 at Seattle. Of the three he has played, he needed attention from the trainers and spent time on the sideline in two. In all, he has been on the field for just two-thirds of the offense’s snaps.

“We’re doing whatever it takes to play on Sunday,” Jones said. “At this point in your career, you’re going to have bumps. You’re going to have bruises. It’s just, ‘How good can I feel on Sunday and how do I take care of my body to make sure I can play on Sunday?’”

Of course, now they also have to ask whether or not they will be able to play the entire way.