Dan’s Top 10 Offensive Lines Heading Into the 2015 Season
This week we look at the last offensive position (except fullbacks I suppose). With the line being a team in it’s truest sense we decided that the most accurate way of assessing the best in the league would be to cover it as a complete group. Now this means we might leave out some of the best offensive linemen, but it does mean we will cover the best groups of pass and run protection in the league. Once again, this is all personal opinion and we’d love to know yours, so hit us up on twitter with what you think.
Any way, join us for offensive line appreciation week.
10) New Orleans Saints
Whilst the Saints season had more ups and downs than Dwayne Johnson’s dumb bells, they did manage to achieve something they’ve been struggling with for a considerable amount of time. Establish a ground game, something that was in no small part to down to excellent offensive run blocking which is highlighted by Mark Ingram’s phenomenal season and more so by his .75 yards gained in the open field. I spoke in an earlier article about how well the Saints had done digging themselves out of a giant cap issue, but that wasn’t without the loss of Ben Grubbs, a pro bowl guard that’s now taken his talents to Kansas. However they did add Max Unger at centre and 1st round draft pick Andrus Peat, who looks set to fill in at left guard, with an eventual move to right tackle to replace Zach Strief on the cards. With these 2 additions this team could improve on last season, especially if Terron Armstead can have another season where he only gave up 3 sacks in 14 starts. My only concern is that with so many moving pieces this could all backfire. Rookie offensive linemen tend to have the poorest success rate amongst all positions and with 6 linemen drafted in the 1st round there are bound to be busts. With that in mind, I’m fully confident they can succeed regardless, something I’m not as confident about for the defence.
9) Arizona Cardinals
A lot of pressure on this line. Carson Palmer has had a patchy injury history at best, missing considerable time for all 3 teams he’s played for. But he is talented and could be the difference between the Cards being a genuine competitor and potentially the worst team in the division. Luckily for Carson the Cards are excellent in pass protection, only giving up 28 sacks last and with inexperienced quarterbacks behind them and against some of the leagues best defensive lines. The addition of D.J Humphries, as well should see them at worst add some depth and at best add a solid starter at right tackle. The run blocking however has been an issue for this team, with running backs only gaining 3.47 yards per carry, which ranks them 24th in the league. This is something that the team are aware of and have brought in experienced run stuffer Mike Iupati, to add some leadership in the run game, with potential breakout guard Jonathan Cooper looking for his 1st healthy season in the NFL, after being drafted in the 1st round a couple of years ago. The concern with the Cards is injury, which for me is a result of seeing the husk of a team they fielded in the play offs last year against the Panthers and for my money it doesn’t feel like they’ve added a great deal of depth to the line. But if they can stay healthy and Humphries can deliver (which is by no means guaranteed), we will probably see them higher on this list next year.
8) Pittsburgh Steelers
There is no doubt having a linebacker sized QB in Roethlisberger and the best running back in the league (at least in the Gents opinion anyway), make the Steelers offensive line’s job a lot easier, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve their fair share of credit. Whilst the offensive line was exceptional last year, in 2013 it was a different story, with Roethlisberger hitting the ground 43 times and Bell gaining just 3.5 yards per carry. So what changed to make them a top 10 line? In my mind the biggest addition the Steelers made was with the hiring of ex-Titans head coach, Mike Munchak to take control of the line. Munchak has improved the ability of everyone along that line and turned nearly every player into a potential pro-bowler, with Gilbert, Foster and Beachum all playing at the standard set by DeCastro and Pouncey. Whilst the line is great and has done an outstanding job, it shouldn’t be underplayed the importance of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, whose immense talent means that if the Steelers are in a jam, they can line up with 2 great blocking tight ends in Spaeth and Miller. Which makes the Steelers offence incredibly flexible.
7) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals line isn’t just one of the best because of it’s starting 5 players, although that is also pretty good, but also because it’s insanely deep. It’s not the youngest, that’s for sure, in particular exceptional left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a few years into being the wrong side of 30, but still had a dominant season, where he didn’t allow a single sack. Despite this he narrowly missed out on a pro bowl spot. In fact the whole line missed out on the pro bowl, which after a season allowing just 29 sacks and having the run stuffed just 18% of the time is frankly crazy. The depth of this line is evident when Andre Smith goes out injured in November and they barely miss a step, although his replacement Newhouse did struggle a little, which saw him replaced by veteran tackle Eric Winston. Throughout the off-season the Bengals have added an insane amount of depth, picking up linemen in rounds 1 and 2 of the draft, who all have an opportunity to learn behind a line who have consistently been one of the best. However dislodging the starting lineup of Whitworth, Zeitler, Bodine, Smith and Boling will be near impossible.
Do we have to spell out what the Bengals biggest offensive issue is? I put Jeremy Hill in my top 10 running backs. I put AJ Green in my top 10 receivers and now I have the offensive line ranked number 7 on this list. That leaves one glaring position weakness.
6) Cleveland Browns
Continuing our run of AFC North teams is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have made more than their fair share of head scratching moves over the last few years, but they somehow manage to consistently be great at bringing in offensive linemen. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack would be the obvious stars on this team, with both potentially being the best at their position, but singling out these 2 players would be doing the rest of the line a massive injustice. John Greco had been an unheralded workhorse at right guard up until he filled in for Alex Mack last year when he went out injured. Whilst the Browns 1st round picks last year, Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert were unmitigated failures, in the 2nd round they found a gem in Joel Bitonio, who was able to come in at left guard and contribute immediately. Mitchell Schwartz has been a solid right tackle, but his contract is up at the end of the season. Enter 1st round pick Cameron Erving who could fill in for the future free agent, if that’s the direction they decide to go. Erving is a versatile lineman who could be used for depth this year. Cleveland have an elite line that’s stats are marred by poor QB play, no starting calibre running back and an early injury for star center Alex Mack. If McCown can even capture a fraction of what he did with the Bears and they can keep the line reasonably healthy, we might be surprised by this Browns team.
5) Baltimore Ravens
If we’d have broken down the line into individual positions, there is a chance that my top 10 guards would have a Raven at 1 and at 2. The strength of this line starts at the center with the incredibly underrated Zuttah, then at guard it’s the pro bowl caliber guards, with Yanda taking a ton of credit, but Osemele getting seemingly forgotten about, then 2 sturdy but not exceptional tackles in Eugene Monroe on the blindside and Ricky Wagner on the left. Whilst I do like the 2 tackles they are greatly helped by the many talents of Yanda and Osemele, who can paper over any cracks on the line, creating a formidable unit across the board. Stats back up how good this line is. Flacco got sacked just 19 times and had an epic 3.7 seconds in the pocket to make a throw. In the run game they were more than partially responsible for a relative unknown back in Justin Forsett become one of the top backs in the league. With the Ravens as a whole rushing for the 2nd most yards per carry in the league. I do have some slight concerns about how good this unit is without the guidance of Kubiak, but think we’ve seen enough to believe that they are a genuinely talented line, which with the help of Marc Tressman, could see Flacco have a career year.
4) Green Bay Packers
If there is one player that bucked the trend of linemen struggling in their rookie season it’s Zack Martin. However if there is a 2nd it’s Packers center Corey Linsley, who after a shakey start in his 1st game against the Seahawks, became the center this team has been missing for a very long time. It feels like it’s taken a while for this line to come together, but slowly they have tried a number of different players before settling on what looks like the perfect offensive line. My favourite thing about the line is that they are built in such a typical Packers way. Left tackle Bahktari 4th round, left guard Josh Sitton 4th round, center Corey Linsley 5th round and right guard TJ Lang 4th round. All late round picks with just Brian Bulaga being the standalone 1st round pick, proof that the Packers make use of players from every round of the draft. The one stat that stands out is Aaron Rodgers time in the pocket which is 2nd in the league with 3.9 seconds. The Packers can go into 2015 with a cohesive unit that’s had a chance to gel, which can only be good news for Rodgers, who spent the post-season hobbled. Whilst the Rodgers, Cobb, Nelson and Lacy will draw the praise, it shouldn’t be underestimated just how good and important this unit is.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
When we interviewed Julian Vandervelde, Eagles offensive lineman he made a point of saying that this line has very little ego (well outside of Kelce’s beard), which is a huge factor in why I put them this high. The backbone of this line will be with the 2 tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, as well as pro bowl center Jason Kelce, especially now that PFF rated top guard in the league, Evan Mathis, was shown the door after what is believed to be a falling out with Chip Kelly, which has seen many players being pointed to the exit by the enigmatic head coach. Putting the Eagles line this high up on this list is a trust exercise to me. It’s me believing in what Chip is preaching. That he can take this unit and turn them into one of the top offensive lines in the league, something that many already believe. Sure LeSean McCoy’s yards per carry stats were at times incredibly poor, but their ability to keep the chains moving on 3rd and 4th down, something they were rated number 1 for has me believing in this unit. It should also be mentioned that only giving up 30 sacks for a unit that has more offensive snaps than any other unit is astonishing. This line will never statistically be the best, but I have faith that they can make some moves this year and keep DeMarco Murray in the spotlight as a relevant back.
2) New England Patriots
There were some big changes for the Patriots in 2014, with Dante Scarnecchia retiring and Logan Mankins being sent off to the Bucs for next to nothing. Dave DeGuglielmo took over a new look line that suffered an initial hangover with the team struggling to move the ball behind a line in flux and Brady getting sacked 9 times in his 1st 5 games, something truly uncharacteristic for the QB that usually had total faith in his line. It felt like it took the Patriots offensive line all year for them to finally gain some traction, which they did in time for the Superbowl. If you look at the Patriots season it’s pretty average in terms of offensive line play. If you look at the playoffs however, it’s outstanding. The Patriots had more passing plays than any other team in the post season and yet of the 140+ plays, only allowed 3 sacks. Brady will go down in history as the player that dragged the Patriots back into the Super bowl, but the line deserves credit for not allowing a single sack against one of the most dominant defences in the league, a unit that is considered to be historically good. In the Championship game, they were instrumental in setting LaGarrette Blount free, to run all over the Colts. The Patriots line will go under the radar, like the always do. But despite an overhaul of players and the 1st change at offensive line coach in 14 years, the Patriots quiet line will continue to be one of the best in the league.
1) Dallas Cowboys
It’s bad that when I started looking into this I hoped I would find some surprising stats that would mean they weren’t the best line in football, I mean it just seems too obvious. The fact is though, they are and should be for a long time. After years of overpriced contracts going to undeserving receivers and running backs the Cowboys made the sensible move of locking up exceptional left tackle Tyron Smith to a huge contract that sees him stay a Cowboy for the foreseeable future. When the Cowboys were up in the 1st round of the 2014 draft, we all thought they would make the typical Jerry Jones move and draft Manziel, in a desperate attempt to sell jerseys. Luckily his son stopped him from making the move and they picked up Zack Martin, who in my opinion was the offensive rookie of the year if not for OBJ. The Cowboys line is stacked with talent, whilst being a truly cohesive unit, with every player seemingly knowing exactly what everyone else is going to do. The addition of La’el Collins as well is a mutually beneficial deal for both the Cowboys and Collins, who gets to cut his teeth with the likes of Martin, Frederick and Smith, which should make him an attractive prospect when his contract is up in 3 years. This line is young and exceptionally talented. DeMarco Murray owes them an awful lot for keeping him healthy last year.
With the offensive line now looked at, next week we move onto defence, more specifically the corner backs. See you then!