Dylan’s top 10 offensive lines heading into 2015/16

We’ve broken down all the ‘skill’ positions on the offensive side of the ball, so now it’s time to turn our attention to the big unsung heroes who make all the exciting plays possible. Whether it’s in protecting the quarterback or creating open lanes for running backs to exploit, offensive lines often go overlooked, so here’s a chance to take a few moments to draw attention to, and revel in, the top 10 units in the NFL heading into the new season.

10) Arizona Cardinals

This might be a surprise pick to many, seeing as the offensive line in Arizona was unable to create much space for any kind of running game to develop in 2014, but to their credit, they protected their quarterbacks very well for the most part, with Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas only being sacked a combined 28 times. They make my list based more on the fact I think they are the most improved line in the league heading into 2015 after Mike Iupati, one of the best run blocking guards in the NFL, was signed from division rivals San Francisco and a first round draft pick was invested in DJ Humphries, who should slot strait in at right tackle. Paul Fanaika is gone after a poor year, and with former first round pick Jonathan Cooper fully fit I certainly see and improvement in the line as a whole.

9) New Orleans Saints

Losing Ben Grubbs is a big blow, no doubt about it. The guard was the Saints best offensive lineman in 2014 but issues with cap space have meant that he will now ply his trade in Kansas City. It’s not all doom and gloom however, with arguably the best center in football making his way to the Superdome. Max Unger joins from Seattle as part of the biggest trade of the off-season, with Jimmy Graham moving in the opposite direction. Unger was fantastic last year and should be a stabilising rock on which to build the foundations of a powerful running game. First round draft pick Andrus Peat will find an immediate place on the line, most likely at guard, but perhaps even at right tackle, with veteran Zach Strief coming off a decent season but entering the twilight of his career. Terron Armstead returns at left tackle after an impressive 2014. Much can be expected of this line, which has a nice mix of youth and experience and will be crucial to any success in Louisiana this year.

8) Pittsburgh Steelers

We all know how good the Steelers offense is. The very fact that a Pittsburgh player landed at the number one spot on two of my previous top ten lists (receiver and running back in case you were wondering) and that they can boast one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL is a testament to that. In order for those skill positions to flourish however, a decent offensive line is obviously key. Pittsburgh have just that, not the best by a long way, but a very decent unit none the less. Behind center Maurkice Pouncey, guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster, and tackles Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, in 2014 Ben Roethlisberger produced a career-best 4,952 passing yards and suffered just 33 sacks, the fifth lowest amount of his 11 year career. The line was also excellent in terms of the ground attack, helping Le’Veon Bell on his way to the second most rushing yards in the league. If they can grow as a group and stay healthy through 2015 they should improve to become a firmly established top 10 offensive line.

7) Houston Texans

The Texans offensive line is built to block for the run. Arian Foster enjoyed an excellent season in 2014, rushing for 1,246 yards at an average of 4.8 per carry, from only 13 games. Duane Brown is the lynch-pin of the line at left tackle, a reliable and solid blind-side guardian who has been selected for the last three pro-bowls. The right tackle spot is occupied by Derek Newton, who inked a new five year contract extension this offseason after not missing a single game the last two years. Brandon Brooks was one of the best run blocking guards in the NFL last season and Xavier Su’a Filo enters his 2015 after showing potential in his rookie season. Ben Jones was above average as a guard in 2014, but he will take up the role of center this year, the success of which obviously remains to be seen. There are weaknesses, especially regarding pass protection, but overall the Texans are a solid top ten unit.

6) Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati’s rushing attack, one of the top six in the NFL last season, is capable of being just as dominant again in 2015. Jeremy Hill enjoyed an outstanding rookie season, rushing for 1,124 yards at an average of 5.1 per carry, due in part to an excellent offensive line. Andy Dalton was also protected very well, being sacked just 21 times. First and second round draft picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher will add even more depth to a unit that already boasts two strong guards in Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, and outstanding left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Andre Smith was good until injury ended his season prematurely and I can only see this consistent line featuring among the best again in 2015.

5) Cleveland Browns

Last season the Browns averaged 146 yards per game on the ground through week five, before 2009 first round draft pick Alex Mack was lost to a broken leg. His absence at center proved crucial, with the run game stuttering and quarterback Brian Hoyer left far more exposed. Elsewhere on the line, Joe Thomas is one of the best left tackles in football, outstanding in both pass and rush situations, and Joel Bitonio had a fantastic rookie season at guard. At right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz is an above average pass blocker. The experienced John Greco was also impressive in 2014, and they will all now be joined by rookie Cameron Erving, the Browns first round selection in 2015, a selection that adds even more depth to an already excellent line.

4) Green Bay Packers

Built around ever-present rock solid center Corey Linsley, who, after enjoying a superb rookie season should be even better in 2015, the Packers’ offensive line is just another reason why they can be considered among the favourites for Super Bowl glory this season. Josh Sitton is coming off a pro-bowl calibre 2014 and fellow guard TJ Lang also had an outstanding campaign. Aaron Rodgers’ blind side is protected by third year tackle David Bakhtiari, who performed very well in 2014, only allowing 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 18 quarterback hurries and only 9 penalties over the course of 16 games. The line is completed by right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who signed a five year contract extension this spring despite a history of injury, and his experience and talent remains key to the Packers success as long as he can stay healthy enough to contribute.

3) Baltimore Ravens

It seems the Ravens have always had a great offensive line, and I expect 2015 to be no different with the entire line set to return from last season. Led by the superb Marshal Yanda, I don’t see much change from a unit that helped Justin Forsett rush for 1,270 yards and eight touchdowns and protected Joe Flacco so well he was sacked a career low 19 times. Center Jeremy Zuttah is solid and reliable, and both guards; Kelechi Osemeli and the aforementioned Yanda, are among the best in the league. In right tackle Ricky Wagner they have one of the top pass blocking tackles in the NFL and though Eugene Monroe didn’t have the best of seasons at left tackle, it was punctuated by injury and therefore I could certainly foresee and improvement this year.

2) Philadelphia Eagles

In an offence that has been reshaped perhaps more than any other heading into 2015, Philadelphia can at least be sure that their offensive line will be stronger than most. A new starting quarterback and two new running backs will sit behind them, but the unit consisting of left tackle Jason Peters, right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce is about as solid a base as you could ask for. There is a change at the guard position, where two time pro bowler Evan Mathis has been released, but I’m not sure this will be as drastic a change as many seem to think. Allen Barbre made just one appearance in 2014, filling in at left tackle against Green Bay in week 10 due to an injury to Jason Peters. He performed very well, and has been pencilled in to start the season as the new left guard. At right guard, there are a few options, with Matt Tobin, Andrew Gardner and Dennis Kelly all good enough options to help solidify an excellent line.

1) Dallas Cowboys

The best offensive line without question is in Dallas, where the Cowboys boast a unit consisting of three first-round picks in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, along with two excellent run blockers in the shape of Ronald Leary and Doug Free. Add to this group the hugely talented La’el Collins, who Dallas managed to acquire as a free agent after a police investigation caused the sure-fire first rounder to go undrafted, and this line should be on top of the NFL for years to come. In 2014, DeMarco Murray rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns, the most yards of any running back in the NFL, and without taking too much away from him personally, I believe the standard of the offensive line was a huge factor in his success. The most impressive thing about this line is that not one member has more than four years’ experience in the NFL, they will all (barring injury) get better, and that’s a terrifying thought for everyone who doesn’t follow the ‘boys in silver and blue.
Agree? Disagree? As always feel free to comment, like, share and review at all the usual places, and find me on Twitter @Dylanbaker1986