The NFL’s best guards
Offensive tackle is a premium position in the NFL—just check out any free-agent binge lest you need a reminder. Center has enjoyed an increase in love of late, too, as more and more offenses look to push the tempo and more and more defenses try to counter by attacking the A-gaps.
Lost in the shuffle a bit is the guard position, despite the fact that NFL guards on the whole are only getting better as a group. Spread offenses have impacted the guard spot, just as they have everywhere else, by upping the demand for mobile blockers. There are still an ample number of “phone booth” guards—borderline immovable objects who are at their best working one-on-one within narrow spaces. But on the whole, that model is dwindling in favor of guards who can get to the edge or cover expanding space in a zone scheme. Thanks to an infusion of talent from the last several drafts, the level of guard performance across the league is about as high as it’s been in some time. Here are the best of the best:
Just missed the cut
Richie Incognito, Bills: Kind of amazing, considering Incognito’s career arc, that he is in the conversation among the NFL’s top guards right now. But there is no denying how strong he was as a 16-game starter for Buffalo last year. Should he repeat again in 2016, the now 33-year-old will have to claim a top spot. Others just shy of the list include Cleveland’s Joel Bitonio, who was a revelation in ’14 prior to an injury-plagued ’15 setback, and Indianapolis’s Jack Mewhort, who stamped himself into a guard role after moving there full-time last season.
Next big thing
La’el Collins, Cowboys: An easy choice now that Collins is the unquestioned starter at left guard. He wasted little time claiming that spot in 2015, supplanting Ronald Leary. It was not always smooth for Collins during his rookie season, but with the mess of his draft fall now well in the rearview mirror, he’s on the verge of being a special player.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 9: Kyle Long, Bears
The Bears’ defensive upgrades earned deserved praise this off-season. However, moving Long back to guard from the right tackle spot he played in 2015 could be as critical a change as anything else. That is, if presumed starting tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie hold up well enough to allow Long to stick there—at least in Leno’s case, there are ample reasons for worry. But Long was a second-team All-Pro as an interior lineman back in ’14, and that is the spot where he A) is better and B) seems more comfortable. Long did not allow a single sack during the ’14 season as a guard; he coughed up nine on the outside in ’15, per STATS. In either spot he can be counted on in the run game, due to how well he moves for a 315-pounder. Long’s size, length and athleticism all combined to make him an OT candidate when the Bears needed one. They’re also all part of why he is exceptional as a guard.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 9: David DeCastro
The 2012 first-rounder has started every game the past two seasons, and he was recognized for his work last year with first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods. The pressure on DeCastro ratcheted up when center Maurkice Pouncey fractured his leg during the preseason—Pouncey also missed 15 games in 2013, DeCastro’s first year as a full-time starter. DeCastro’s entire ’15 performance was clean, as he allowed just 1.5 sacks on the Steelers’ 590 pass attempts and was flagged a mere three times, all for false starts. The team’s third-ranked rushing attack, which happened largely without Le’Veon Bell, also owes a large thanks to DeCastro. As has become the norm for Stanford O-linemen, DeCastro is adept at getting out on the edge as a pulling blocker. Pittsburgh’s run game relied on DeCastro’s agility.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 8: Kevin Zeitler, Bengals
After missing four games in 2013 and another four in 2014 due to injuries, Zeitler took the field for 1,041 snaps last season (98.6% of Cincinnati’s total) and the offense was better for it. He may not be a dominant road-grader like others in our top 10, nor as much of a known name, but Zeitler is about as reliable as they come. He and fellow guard Clint Boling were even more instrumental in the offense’s step up last season because center Russell Bodine struggled so mightily. Zeitler was well above average protecting Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron (Pro Football Focus chalked up zero sacks to him; STATS gave him 2.0). He also was steady, yet again, in the run game, opening holes for Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Zeitler is set to hit free agency after this season and may have priced himself out of Cincinnati’s plans.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 7: Kelechi Osemele, Raiders
Oakland paid Osemele like a tackle (five years and $60 million), but he likely will slot in as a starting guard on the left side, flanked by tackle Donald Penn and consistently underrated center Rodney Hudson. The Raiders did not seem to mind overpaying a bit for Osemele as an interior lineman because another team might have swooped in on him as a tackle after he finished last season playing outside for Baltimore. He also played tackle as a rookie in 2012, but it was when the Ravens slid him inside (with Bryant McKinnie at LT and Michael Oher moving to RT) just ahead of their Super Bowl run that he and the offensive line really settled in. Osemele is a bully in the run game, hence his success lining up closer to the ball. The Raiders figure to give him every chance to take advantage of his massive size (6' 5", 333 lbs.) and power to drive opponents back along the interior.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 6: Josh Sitton, Packers
Debate amongst yourselves, Packers fans, which of your two guards belongs on the top-10 list. Maybe the answer is both. Sitton had been atop the Green Bay pecking order heading into 2015, maintaining an edge on longtime partner in crime T.J. Lang. It was Lang, though, who was the steadier player throughout last season as both he and Sitton battled lingering injuries. Sitton still managed to play all but eight of his team’s offensive snaps last year, even kicking out to offensive tackle when injuries ravaged the Packers late in the regular season. (That move, as it turned out, was an awful misstep by the coaching staff.) Still, when he is 100% healthy, Sitton is an All-Pro-level force. He reminded everyone of that in the postseason, saving his best for last in a win over Washington and an excellent outing against a very good Arizona front.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 5: Evan Mathis, Cardinals
Because he’s now on his third team in three seasons, there may be a perception that Mathis has slipped into veteran journeyman territory. Forget it. A messy contract situation pushed him out the door in Philadelphia, despite a Pro Bowl showing in 2013 and a forceful close to ‘14 after he returned from a knee injury. The Eagles’ loss was the Broncos’ gain—Mathis stepped into Gary Kubiak’s system last season and again showed why he is a top option. He excelled as a run blocker in Denver despite a nagging ankle injury that eventually required surgery, post-Super Bowl. His pass protection sagged some, with three sacks and 19 hurries credited to him, although all of Denver’s O-line numbers were hindered by the QB play in ‘15. That said, it’s more of his growing list of injuries and age (35 in November) that prevented him from being even higher on this list. Thanks to Mathis and incumbent starting guard Mike Iupati, the Cardinals should be able to control the ground game.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 4: Zack Martin, Cowboys
Pro Football Focus’s top-rated pass-blocking guard last season, Martin also just so happens to be a linchpin among a brilliant run game. Heck, Darren McFadden reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season despite Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden combining to start 12 games. Martin is another product of a 2014 draft that has rapidly emerged as a draft of historical proportions when it comes to the guard position. The Cowboys snatched him off the board at No. 14 overall, then plugged him into their starting lineup immediately. Were he not locked into a guard spot, he probably could take over as a tackle (where he played at Notre Dame) or even at center. He is that athletically versatile and, more importantly, that intelligent of a blocker. The Cowboys had no hesitation plugging him into their zone-blocking scheme, nor do they have to worry about him keeping Tony Romo & Co. clean.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 3: Gabe Jackson, Raiders
The obvious focus for Oakland’s offensive uptick fell on Derek Carr’s development and Amari Cooper’s arrival, both of which are certainly fair points. But not to be overlooked in the Raiders’ resurgence is the improvement up front, and Jackson has been central there. Jackson entered the league expected to be an imposing run blocker while carrying questions about his pass protection. He was far more effective in the latter category last season than he had been as a rookie, and he turned into an all-around force as his pile-driving presence continued to emerge. The Raiders will now pair Jackson with Kelechi Osemele to form arguably the toughest guard tandem in the NFL.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 2: Trai Turner, Panthers
The Panthers had their issues on the edges last season, right up through their Super Bowl loss to Denver, but they were sensational up the middle. (Turner’s counterpart at guard, Andrew Norwell, did not miss this list by much and Ryan Kalil landed at No. 3 on our countdown of the NFL’s best centers.) Turner’s potent run blocking is what drew Carolina to him initially, when it swiped him at No. 92 overall in the 2014 draft. After a solid rookie season, Turner was an anchor in that facet during the Panthers’ 2015 campaign, when they rushed for a combined 2,282 yards. Turner also found his footing as a pass blocker last year. He was hit with seven penalties (plus four false starts), which was a minor blemish on a breakthrough season.
The NFL’s best guards, No. 1: Marshal Yanda, Ravens
The 31-year-old is one of the best offensive linemen in football, period. Up until Brandon Brooks signed a five-year, $40 million deal with Philadelphia in March, Yanda was the league’s highest-paid right guard. He’s been named an All-Pro for two years running and a Pro Bowler five straight times, and has missed just two games since 2009. Last season, Yanda allowed one half-sack—one—in more than 740 snaps in pass protection. Refs flagged him for exactly one holding call in each of the past two seasons, and both penalties were declined. Several players on this list are proficient in both run and pass blocking, but Yanda is absolutely dominant at both.