Better offensive line in 2016: Cowboys or Raiders?
After Donald Penn’s re-signing in Oakland, PFF colleague Nathan Jahnke briefly touched on why the Raiders could have the best offensive line in the NFL next season. Last year’s group made significant strides to finish as the sixth-ranked line in our annual offensive line rankings, up from 16th in 2014 and 29th in 2013. Using our player grades from last season, Oakland is not only the lone team with all five offensive linemen owning 79.0 overall grades or better (no other team has more than three), its average starter grade of 82.7 edges out Dallas (81.9) for the highest in the league.
So which line is better? Here we break down each O-line position-by-position to find out.
Raiders’ offensive line
LT Donald Penn (84.5 overall grade in 2015)
Penn is not a name that often gets thrown around when discussing the top tackles in the league, but he’s been consistently solid throughout his career. He’s earned positive run-blocking and overall grades in every season since PFF began grading in 2007. His pass-blocking hasn’t been quite as up to par, but his two seasons in Oakland have accounted for two of his three best pass-blocking years. Last season, he ranked 11th among all offensive tackles in overall and pass-blocking grades, while allowing just eight more pressures than Joe Thomas.
LG Kelechi Osemele (79.6)
Penn’s re-signing allows Osemele to stay at guard, where he has been considerably more successful. The Raiders’ newest addition has the lowest overall grade of the five starters, though that is largely because of his average play at tackle over the final four weeks of the season for Baltimore. When looking at just his performance at guard through Week 13, Osemele’s 89.0 overall grade ranked fifth among all guards. He is a powerful run-blocker who can be outright dominant at times. His 94.3 run-blocking grade at guard ranked behind only Evan Mathis, and even ahead of now former teammate Marshal Yanda. He’s also effectively replacing J’Marcus Webb on the offensive line, whose 44.1 overall grade at guard ranked 70th at the position in 2015.
C Rodney Hudson (84.7)
Oakland spent quite a bit of money on Hudson last offseason on what seemed like a small upgrade over Stefen Wisniewski (currently an unsigned free agent). In his first year with the team, he finished as the sixth-best center in the league, indeed an upgrade over Wisniewski, who had ranked 21st the prior year. Hudson has only been slightly above-average as a run-blocker during his career, but pass protection is where he has really excelled the last couple seasons. In 2015, he allowed just eight pressures in 13 games, good for a 91.2 pass-blocking grade that easily ranked first at the position.
RG Gabe Jackson (84.4)
The Raiders drafted Jackson in the third round of the 2014 draft with expectations of him starting immediately, and he probably exceeded expectations as a rookie. He earned the fifth-highest pass-blocking grade among guards in 2014, though he was not as impressive in the ground game, finishing with a negative run-blocking grade. Jackson took a good step forward as a run-blocker in 2015, moving into the top half of PFF’s guard rankings, and he was every bit as solid in pass protection last year. Overall, his 84.4 grade ranked 13th in 2015, and he has only continued to improve.
RT Austin Howard (80.6)
Howard moved back to right tackle in 2015 after struggling at guard during his first season with Oakland; the move was a success, as he earned the second-best overall grade of his career. Allowing 22 total pressures on the season, he put forth his best year of pass protection, yet it was just his first with an above-average grade. He’s never been able to follow up his impressive 2012 season as a run-blocker, though he has maintained a near-average grade in the years since. Unfortunately, a knee injury ended his 2015 season early, and he may have to compete to keep his job.
Cowboys’ offensive line
LT Tyron Smith (93.3 overall grade in 2015)
Coming off his best season as a pro, Smith has solidified himself as one of the very best offensive linemen in the league, regardless of position, and was named runner-up for all three of our individual offensive line awards for the 2015 season. Smith was the top run-blocking tackle, and graded behind only Joe Thomas in pass protection last year.
LG La’el Collins (58.6)
After the Cowboys were able to land Collins as an undrafted free agent, Dallas eventually gave him the chance to be a full-time starter in Week 7. While Collins did make some highlight-reel run-blocks, he had some growing pains as a rookie. He was inconsistent week-to-week as a run-blocker, with an equal number of above- and below-average outings. In pass protection, Collins allowed 21 total pressures over a seven-game stretch starting in Week 9, yet in the other four starts, he gave up just one hit. Overall, he wasn’t a disappointment, but he has considerable room for improvement, and was far from producing the type of rookie season teammate Zack Martin had in 2014. Still, it is reasonable to expect him to develop and improve in 2016, and how Collins progresses in his development could be the difference on who finishes with the better overall unit.
C Travis Frederick (91.3)
For the second-consecutive season, Frederick has finished as our top-ranked center overall (first-team All Pro). He is a terrific run-blocker whose 89.7 run-blocking grade ranked behind only Minnesota’s Joe Berger among centers. Compared to his run-blocking performance, Frederick is not quite as good of a pass-blocker, but he’s still among the top centers. He graded as the fifth-best pass-protecting center last year, and his 10 total pressures allowed were second-least behind only Hudson.
RG Zack Martin (89.4)
Martin moved straight from the contenders for our Rookie of the Year award in 2014 to a second-team All Pro guard last season. His 90.7 grade in pass protection was the highest among all guards, and in two years, he has never earned a below-average grade in pass protection. Martin has allowed just 27 total pressures over his two professional seasons—a mark that 30 guards met or exceeded in 2015 alone. He’s not an elite run-blocker at this point, but he did show improvement last season and earned the 15th-best mark in that facet of play. Still, the overall balance and consistency he displays continue to make him one of the best guards in the league.
RT Doug Free (77.1)
Like Penn, Doug Free recently turned 32. However, while Penn has been improving over the past few years, Free is coming off the second-lowest season grade of his career. He’s long been one of the better maulers at right tackle in the run game, but he earned a negative run-blocking grade for the first season of his career. Even though Free allowed just one sack, he still allowed 34 total pressures, and wasn’t overly impressive in pass protection. 2016 will be an important season for Free in determining if he had just one down year, or if this is the beginning of a downward trend as he ages.
It remains to be seen how Osemele gels with the rest of the Raiders’ offensive line, but if the team’s prior free-agent additions are any indication, then he should fare just fine. Three of Oakland’s four returning starters have been added through free agency, and have come together to play well.
There’s no question that Dallas has three players at or near the top of their positions on the O-line, while the Raiders don’t quite match up in elite talent. However, the performance of the Raiders’ offensive line across the board is notably better, on average. As we know, a few successful run-blocks can be negated by one poor block at the point of attack, and many times pass protection is only as good as its weakest link.
Dallas had the top line in both pass- and run-blocking in 2015, while Oakland ranked second and 12th, respectively. The Cowboys have been the best run-blocking unit for the past two years, and it will be difficult for the Raiders (or anyone else) to exceed that level of play. As for pass protection, the upgrade from Webb to Osemele may very well take the Raiders from a solid unit to the best in the league.
As long as the line stays healthy, Oakland should challenge Dallas for the best offensive line in 2016. Regardless of who sits atop PFF’s offensive line rankings at the end of the season, both lines will likely remain among the best in the league, and credit needs to be given to the Raiders’ front office for turning around the O-line relatively quick and making Derek Carr’s protection a priority.