It’s a question to which you’ll get a variety of answers depending on who you ask. Some will say Nick Mangold. Others will look at blindside protectors like Jake Long and Joe Thomas. There will even be guys like Brian Balldinger who pick 2009’s dominant offensive guard, Jahri Evans.
All worthy choices when you’re looking at who is the best offensive linemen in the NFL, and for many different reasons. While I wouldn’t argue against any of those, I think one guy needs his name added to that list after three seasons of top-notch play that has seen continual improvement.
Fresh off a superb season, Nicks made the Pro Bowl squad (though not as a starter) and was criminally overlooked on the All-Pro team. He also was the highest positioned offensive linemen on my top 101 players of the year list, and I’m going to tell you why I think he’s better than anyone appears prepared to give him credit for.
Living In The Shadows
Back in 2009 there was a guard that really stood out above all others. He was a punishing run blocker who made the kind of blocks that get connoisseurs of offensive line play salivating. His performance so good that his PFF run blocking grade was a full +9.4 points above the next best guard in the league. So good that he earned end of season awards. So good that he earned the largest contract ever handed out to an interior offensive lineman.
I am of course talking about Jahri Evans. The Saints’ right guard built on a very good 2008 to establish himself as the league’s premier guard a year later.
The only problem is he wasn’t quite as good in 2010. He still demonstrated the ability we’ve come to know, but there were more lapses. Six more penalties and more lost match-ups, with guys like Brandon Mebane and Derek Landri getting the better of him. It wasn’t a terrible season, but it wasn’t what we had come to know, didn’t live up to the contract, and didn’t warrant the Pro Bowl and All Pro honors that came his way.
But there, just a few feet to his left on the Saints line, was a guy who was deserving. But, with the focus on Evans (as much as anyone really focuses on linemen as opposed to regurgitating something they’ve heard), people just didn’t get how good of a player Nicks had become.
Better and Better
Nicks’ performance wasn’t a bolt from the blue. It wasn’t like the shock emergence of Brandon Lloyd because Nicks has always produced. In 2008, he had finished with our 14th highest grade of all guards, and in 2009 had jumped up to fourth with a noticeable improvement in run blocking. Sure, he had been upstaged by Evans as the Saints won their Super Bowl, but his season was still among the elite.
He carried this elite play into 2010, kicking the season off in fine fashion. While his teammates (including Evans) were having troubles with Kevin Williams, Nicks was getting the better of the normally stout Pat Williams for most of the game.
It was an indicator of things to come as he finished the season with just two negatively graded games in run blocking, finishing comfortably at the top of 2010 offensive guard rankings. A full +26.0 points ahead of Jahri Evans (using the same grading system that had Evans the top guard in 2009).
What was incredible about Nicks is just how many key blocks he made. Reviewing the grades on every play, Nicks finished just behind Logan Mankins (who played fewer snaps) with an incredible 17.66% of his run blocking plays resulting in a positive mark. The table below shows our top five ranked run blocking offensive guards plus Jahri Evans.
Top Run-blocking Offensive Linemen, Percent of Run Plays Positively Graded
Positively graded run plays
Positive play %
Perhaps as impressive though is how few negative run blocking plays we graded Nicks with. This (along with a massively superior penalty count) is what separated him from his Saints teammate and the rest of the competition – the kind of consistency that helped New Orleans get yardage running the ball even when suffering a number of injuries at the running back position. The same six players by negatively graded plays:
Top Run-blocking Offensive Linemen, Percent of Run Plays Negatively Graded
Negatively Graded Run Plays
Negative Play %
Of course, there were times Nicks struggled. He had a surprising amount of problems with Stephen Bowen who was able to beat him for a hit and three pressures in a single game. Nicks’ pass blocking, in general, was inferior to his run blocking. But this is really only a weakness in comparison to how dominant his run blocking was throughout 2010 and Nicks still graded positively in this regard in an offense that was pass heavy at times.
Time on his side
Now this isn’t to say Nicks is the best offensive linemen there is, but rather that he’s one of the best. More so, he’s coming off as strong a year as any offensive lineman in the league, despite what the All-Pro team tells you. There’s also every possibility that he could suffer from the same drop in form that plagued Jahri Evans in 2010, and he certainly hasn’t put together the body of work that dominant center Nick Mangold has.
But, perhaps soon and with thoughtful review, there’ll be more voices echoing our opinion that Carl Nicks is already one of the best offensive linemen in the league.
Follow Khaled on twitter: @PFF_Khaled