Ranking the NFL's top offensive lines entering the 2015 season
Ahead of the 2015 season, SI.com is ranking the NFL's best at every position. After ranking the league's top 10 wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks last week, we turn to position groups and break down the entire unit as a whole. Up first: The top 10 offensive lines in the NFL.
1. Dallas Cowboys: The rich get richer. The Cowboys had what was unquestionably the league's best run-blocking line in 2014, scoring high in all of Football Outsiders's efficiency metrics: line yards, short-yardage and second-level performance. The addition of the undrafted La'el Collins from LSU should propel this line to a new level. Collins's undrafted status had nothing to do with his on-field performance—he was named as a person of interest (not a suspect) in the murder of his ex-girlfriend the week of the draft. That's obviously a far more serious matter than anything Collins would ever do on the field, and the case remains unresolved, but if Collins is able to play on this line, he's a perfect fit as a road-grader and could play either tackle or guard.
Not that the guys on the line right now need too much help. Left tackle Tyron Smith may have the NFL's most compelling combination of pure physical skills, strength and technique. He's only 24 years old, and the 'Boys have him under contract beyond the end of the decade. Many analysts laughed when Dallas took center Travis Frederick in the first round two years ago, but Frederick has turned into an enforcer in the middle of that line. Right guard Zack Martin, the team's third first-round pick spent on a lineman in a four-year stretch, showed in his rookie campaign that he could play some of the NFL's best defensive tackles to a draw. He should continue to develop as a pass-protector in his second season.
Right now, Ronald Leary is projected as the starting left guard, and Doug Free is the team's longtime right tackle. If there are relative weaknesses, they're at these two positions, but with Collins likely to take one of them over time, it's tough to imagine an injury-free scenario in which the Cowboys don't continue to have the league's best line in 2015 and into the future.
2. Baltimore Ravens: "What I love is that we have some nasty guys who are willing to get dirty and physical on every play. Anytime you have that mentality, you know you're going to have a good offensive line."
That's what Ravens running back Justin Forsett told me last week as we reviewed five plays from his breakout 2014 season. And when you look at the line blocking for him, it's tough to argue Forsett's point. The rock star here is guard Marshal Yanda, who is the best at his position if Green Bay's Josh Sitton isn't. Yanda plays nasty with a low base and with as much technical precision as you could ever want. Per Pro Football Focus metrics, he allowed two sacks, five quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries in 1,216 snaps last season. Late in the season, when injuries forced him outside to right tackle, he didn't miss a beat. Right tackle Ricky Wagner, whose Lisfranc injury forced that move, was one of the league's most underrated linemen in 2014.
On the left side, things are a bit less defined. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has vowed to bounce back after a 2014 season in which he underperformed in part due to knee and ankle issues. Center Jeremy Zuttah is a decent player, and left guard Kelechi Osemele is a real asset who is going into the final year of his current deal. Yanda is also in the last year of his current contract, and he's going to break the bank wherever he goes.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: Wherever you put Andrew Whitworth, the guy just gets it done. The 33-year-old 10-year veteran has logged time at tackle and guard and can play both positions with equal aplomb. That's a lot tougher than it sounds, especially at Whitworth's level. In 2014, no starting left tackle in the NFL had better numbers than Whitworth's: He didn't allow a single sack in 533 passing snaps and gave up just one quarterback hit and eight quarterback hurries. Based on his tape, that type of success shouldn't happen. Whitworth's kick step is a bit sluggish, he's powerful but in short spaces and he doesn't seem to have a single dominant physical characteristic, but he gets by on knowledge of the game and an understanding of angles and leverage that is unparalleled in today's NFL.
Both Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith, who missed nearly half the season with a torn triceps muscle and whose play had not been up to its usual standard before that, are in the final years of their current contracts. The Bengals countered this reality by selecting two tackles in the first two round of the draft: Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round and Oregon's Jake Fisher in the second. The landscape of their O-line could change rather quickly in the coming years. Inside, Cincinnati has a lot of talent as well. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is a physically dominant player who could eventually become the linchpin of the unit if he can stay healthy. Center Russell Bodine and left guard Clint Boling are coming along nicely.
4. Green Bay Packers: If you were to poll a large cross-section of defensive linemen and ask them who the best guard in the NFL is, Green Bay's Josh Sitton would be the winner going away. Sitton has played both guard positions through his NFL career, and it's his remarkable consistency that sets him apart. No guard has a better and more obvious combination of in-line strength and second-level flexibility. In 2014, Sitton played next to fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley, who surprised a lot of people by grabbing that starting spot right away. Right guard T.J. Lang has overcome technical issues to round out the best interior offensive line Aaron Rodgers has ever enjoyed. With David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga guarding the edges, Green Bay's high-tech passing offense is in very good hands.
5. Cleveland Browns: If there are better left sides in the league than Cleveland's, they must be on a very short list. Despite several years of quarterback issues, running back deficiencies and round robins at the offensive coordinator position, left tackle Joe Thomas continues on what seems to be an inevitable Hall of Fame track. Thomas hasn't missed a single snap since the Browns selected him with the third overall pick in 2007. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl every year of his NFL career, and he's been a first-team All-Pro member in five of his last six seasons.
In the 2014 draft, the Browns added Nevada tackle Joel Bitonio and made him their left guard. Bitonio responded with a season that should have merited him a bit of Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Bitonio is a very powerful run-blocker, and he gave up just one sack all season—in Week 16. And then, there's center Alex Mack, one of the best in the business, though he does have the option to bail out of his current contract at the end of the 2015 season, and he's expected to do so if the Browns don't show some serious development. Whatever issues ail this franchise from year to year, that trio presents no issues. And the first-round selection of Florida State's Cameron Erving gives the Browns a long-term option should Mack decide to skip town.
The right side is more of a problem. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has failed to live up to his second-round selection in 2012, allowing seven sacks, six hits and 22 hurries last season, and frequently looking overwhelmed when tasked to open rushing lanes. John Greco was decent at right guard, but Erving could take his spot sooner than later.
6. New England Patriots: Bill Belichick expressed a clear desire to get younger and stronger along his line, selecting guards Tre Jackson (Florida State) and Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech) in the fourth round this spring. Former O-line coach and current consultant Dante Scarnecchia scouted Jackson extensively, and the 6'4", 330-pound power player seems a perfect fit for New England's hybrid blocking scheme, which has old-school power/counter/trap principles mixed with inside and outside zone. He could start at left guard right away. Center Bryan Stork, Jackson's old Florida State teammate, has the center position sewn up. Veteran Dan Connolly retired after the 2014 season, which leaves the team without a guy who could play all three inside positions. Now, it's up to Ryan Wendell to make the right guard spot his. Mason may press the issue.
Left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer have overcome early technical issues to become a formidable outside protection duo, though Solder gets a bit shaky at times when protecting the pocket through the arc against faster edge defenders. Certainly, the transition from Tom Brady to Jimmy Garoppolo for Brady's suspension will test this line in different ways. Garoppolo is far more mobile, and far less experienced.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: Lost in all the talk of the historic seasons enjoyed by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell in 2014 was the fact that Pittsburgh's line, a liability for years, became a strength. Yes, they still allowed a lot of sacks (22 were their direct responsibility, per PFF), but that's also an inevitable offshoot of Roethlisberger's playing style. More indicative of this line's improvement was the patience with which Bell could successfully run last season. It starts with right guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey, as powerful and skilled a duo as you'll find. DeCastro in particular has some pretty scary upside. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum allowed a team-high seven sacks in 2014, but none after Week 10. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert and left guard Ramon Foster have room to improve, and if they do, Pittsburgh might just have the NFL's most dangerous offense in 2015.
8. Philadelphia Eagles: Two seasons ago, all five starters along the Eagles' line played every game, and the results reflected that. It may have been the NFL's best overall line, and it merged perfectly with Chip Kelly's offensive concepts. Last year, as injuries and suspensions took their toll, the running game wasn't as dynamic, and quarterback Nick Foles regressed because he doesn't do well under pressure. Kelly released left guard Evan Mathis in June after Mathis displayed unhappiness with his contract after a down season. Right guard Todd Herremans was also cut in Kelly's drastic off-season roster purge, leaving the projected starters at guard as Allen Barbre on the left side and Matt Tobin on the right, a duo with 15 combined starts. Right tackle Lane Johnson developed pretty well after his four-game PED suspension to start the season, but this line will continue to rest on the excellence of left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce. Worth watching: Peters gave up one sack in each of the last three games of the 2014 season.
9. Arizona Cardinals: Once a sieve all along the line, the Cardinals have made serious investments to the front five in recent years, and it's paying off. Left tackle Jared Veldheer got a five-year, $35 million deal in free agency before the 2014 season and allowed just one sack in 1,089 offensive snaps, a stat made more impressive by the Cards' fairly ridiculous quarterback situation. However, right tackle Bobby Massie continues to exhibit inconsistency as a pass protector, and this must be corrected if Carson Palmer is to stay healthy. First-round pick D.J. Humphries, who is as athletic as any lineman in this draft class, may supplant Massie if he can correct a few technical flaws.
This off-season, the big investment was former 49ers left guard Mike Iupati, who will bring a very nasty demeanor to Arizona's run game. The Cardinals released center Lyle Sendlein, leaving A.Q. Shipley and Ted Larsen to fight for that job. Arizona is still hoping that the first-round investment it made in Jonathan Cooper will pay off. The North Carolina alum has been plagued by injuries through his two NFL seasons, but could be an absolute monster at right guard if he can turn it around.
10. Oakland Raiders: Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was sacked just 24 times in 599 passing attempts in 2014, and while that's due in part to Oakland's short passing game, it's also a ringing endorsement of Oakland's left side. Left tackle Donald Penn responded to a sub-par 2013 season in Tampa Bay by working like a fiend in the offseason, and dropping his sack total from 12 to four. In addition, general manager Reggie McKenzie made a great pick in the third round with Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson, who fit right in next to Penn from the start. This spring, the Raiders made another serious commitment to that line by signing former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson to a five-year, $44.5 million contract. Some might say that was an overpayment, but hey, the money's gotta go somewhere, and Hudson is a great player.
Right now, Khalif Barnes has the right guard spot and Austin Howard is penciled in at right tackle, but the Raiders would love to get some return on the investment they made in Menelik Watson—the second-round pick in 2013 has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness.
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