Though we’re a few days into Awards Week at PFF we are far from done, and this year we have listened to what you want and decided to create an all-new PFF Award.
The league’s glamour positions already get more than enough ink and the big three awards of MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year tend to be won by players already in the spotlight. All too infrequently is a player toiling deep in the trenches recognized for his performances, however dominant they may be. To go some way towards rectifying that we have created an award for the best offensive lineman in the league.
Offensive linemen are too often the forgotten soldiers of the war, finding themselves passed over when it comes to the big awards because they play less glamorous positions or because it is less easy to quantify their performance.
There are no easy, ready-made statistics for offensive linemen circulating at large the way touchdowns and yardage do for other positions, but here at PFF we’re in the trenches grading these guys on every snap in every game.
We therefore present the inaugural Bruce Matthews Award for the NFL’s best offensive lineman.
Matthews is the perfect player to lend his name to this award. He was a 14-time Pro-Bowler, a 10-time All-Pro, played his entire career for the same franchise, never missed a game due to injury (starting 229 straight) and played all line positions in his time. His career lasted so long (19 seasons) that his onetime college teammate, Jeff Fisher, became his Head Coach.
He was named to the Pro Bowl at multiple positions throughout his career, was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1990s and remains one of the most respected linemen to ever play the game.
He embodies what we want to recognize with this award – outstanding offensive line play.
3rd Runner Up
Joe Thomas, Left Tackle, Cleveland Browns
Joe Thomas is the best pass protecting tackle in football. In a league that is ever more quarterback centric, Thomas is the poster boy for blindside protection.
Though he finished the year just behind Washington’s Trent Williams in our overall tackle rankings, he was significantly higher graded when it came to pass protection. He was also far more consistent, allowing just two sacks compared to the eight allowed by Williams.
His run blocking might not be up there with the very best but in a left tackle you want excellent pass protection. For all the problems the Browns have had at quarterback, worrying about the pressure coming from their blindside has never been one of them. Thomas earns himself a creditable place on the shortlist for the inaugural Bruce Matthews award despite another poor season from the Browns overall.
2nd Runner Up
Josh Sitton, Left Guard, Green Bay Packers
It’s easy to forget that this is the first year Josh Sitton has played left guard, having been on the right side for the Packers for the rest of his time there. Many people act like the two positions are interchangeable, but it is a significant change and one that Sitton handled extremely well.
His first game at LG was a disastrous -4.5 grade against the 49ers, but since that game he recorded a +41.9 grade. Had that opening game been even an average game for him based on the rest of his season he would be nipping on the heels of Evan Mathis at the top of our guard rankings.
Sitton has also been peerless this season when it comes to pass protection, allowing just a single sack and only seven additional hurries on the year. On average he allows just one total pressure every other game, and has been the cause of his quarterback hitting the ground just once this season.
Focusing so much on his pass protection isn’t to say that his run blocking is lacking. Though it has definitely been less strong than his pass blocking, he still graded at a +9.9 in the run game, a figure that improves to +12.5 if you include his losing effort in the playoffs.
1st Runner Up
Andrew Whitworth, Left Tackle/Left Guard, Cincinnati Bengals
The might not be a player that better embodies the spirit of the Matthews award than Andrew Whitworth in 2013. For years an underrated left tackle Whitworth was again enjoying a fine season for the Bengals before injury forced a re-shuffle up front and he was asked to kick inside to left guard in the middle of a game.
While most players take a little while to transition to a new position Whitworth hit the ground running and was just as dominant at left guard as he was at left tackle. The position was certainly not entirely foreign to him, having been drafted by the Bengals originally as a guard, but the way he was able to seamlessly transition and even to morph into a different character at a new position was impressive. His play at tackle was always more focused on pass protection but he became a mauling left guard, setting the tone for the Bengals with his physical play.
Overall he allowed just 23 total pressures this season and five sacks, only one of which came as a guard. He had four games of perfect pass protection where he allowed no pressure at all and graded positively for the season in every area PFF measures.
If you add together his grades for both positions he leaps towards the top of either position list and can count himself extremely unlucky to miss out on winning the award overall.
2013 Bruce Matthews Award
Evan Mathis, Left Guard, Philadelphia Eagles
If you didn’t already know it, Evan Mathis is the best offensive guard in football, and has a real case to be the best offensive lineman in the game, period. This season he was again some distance clear atop the guard rankings and played well enough to earn a spot on the shortlist for our Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Consistency is the thing that separates Mathis from the rest of the field. While other players have down games, players they struggle with or games that you find yourself looking to ‘throw out’ when evaluating their seasons, Mathis hasn’t had a game with a negative overall grade in three years as a starter. You have to go all the way back to Week 17 of the 2010 season where the Baltimore Ravens handed him a -0.3 mark. His only game graded in the red during the PFF era came way back in 2009.
I’m not sure there is a player at any position that can match that kind of consistency. Mathis achieves this with a mixture of power, speed and picture-perfect technique throughout the game. He may not bust out highlight reel pancake blocks the way some guards occasionally do, but neither is he regularly beaten they way they are either. On almost every snap Mathis is just executing his assignment, walling off his man from the football and opening up lanes.
The Eagles were a dominant side running the ball at times this season and though LeSean McCoy and the Chip Kelly system got all of the plaudits, players like Mathis deserved a lot of the credit.
After years of getting ignored for the Pro Bowl (including this year) he finally jumped that and was named All-Pro this season to match the three consecutive PFF All-Pro votes he has received.
In a season with fine performances and some worthy contenders Evan Mathis deservedly earns the nod as the inaugural winner of the PFF Bruce Matthews award.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam