Ranking top 10 offensive lines in the NFL
The performance of an offensive line, more than any other position group in football, is not solely the sum of its parts. So when coming up with these rankings, it wasn’t as simple as adding together the past grades of the starters. Experience and continuity were both factors in deciding on this order, as well as positional importance. For example, a weak pass protector on the edge will yield considerably more pressures than a weak pass protector at center. Only after weighing all those nuances up did I arrive at the list below.
Here is my ranking of the top 10 offensive lines in the NFL:
(As per previously articles, we assumed full health for all players unless already out for the season.)
1. Dallas Cowboys
The rich get richer. The Cowboys return PFF’s sixth-ranked left tackle from last year (Tyron Smith), our second-ranked center (Travis Frederick), our third-ranked right guard (Zack Martin), and our sixth-ranked right tackle (Doug Free). Now they’ve added an undrafted free agent in La’el Collins to play guard who, by the way, we had as worthy of a top-10 selection (based on our college data) at left tackle in our mock draft. This one is a no-brainer.
2. Baltimore Ravens
With all the talk about the Cowboys’ running game last season, the Ravens had, for my money, the best run-blocking line in the NFL. In the outside zone-heavy scheme that Baltimore ran, the running back essentially picks the best block to run behind. And with the Ravens guard-center-guard combo of Kelechi Osemele, Jeremy Zuttah, and Marshal Yanda absolutely dominating defensive lines and out-grading any other interior trio in the league, Justin Forsett routinely had an open cutback lane right up the gut. 108 of Forsett’s 234 carries went through the A gaps and he averaged 5.5 yards per carry on those runs. The Ravens return all five starters from a year ago and could be even better if left tackle Eugene Monroe bounces back from a down 2014 season.
3. Cleveland Browns
When Alex Mack went down for the season, the Browns were a completely different team. Nick McDonald’s poor blocking killed run after run, and he managed to be our third-lowest-graded center in only half a season. Now with Mack, a perennial top-10 center, healthy, this line is once again elite. The left half of it is hands down the best in the league. Joe Thomas has finished in the top six of our left tackle rankings every single year of his career, and now Joel Bitonio is following in his footsteps by finishing third in our left guard rankings last season as a rookie. If they can get the same production from the right side of their line as they got last season (+14.7 combined grade), this will be a dominant unit.
4. Green Bay Packers
This is the last team that I think has a realistic shot to challenge for the No. 1 spot by season’s end. The Packers were easily our highest-graded line in pass protection by season’s end, despite Aaron Rodgers having the sixth-longest time-to-throw average of all starting quarterbacks. Their +56.9 combined pass-blocking grade was the third-highest we’ve ever given to a team. Their run blocking is the only thing holding them back at the moment, as they graded out slightly below average in that area. As good as left tackle David Bakhtiari has been in pass protection, he’s always been a liability in the run game, and Josh Sitton wasn’t effective in the area, either, after a toe injury last October.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
The line was the strength of the offense last season and they vowed to keep it that way after drafting tackle Cedric Ogbuehi from Texas A&M in the first round followed by tackle Jake Fisher out of Oregon in the second. The crazy thing is, the line is so good that even after Ogbuehi returns from his ACL injury, neither rookie looks like he’ll start in Year 1. Andrew Whitworth is consistently one of the top-five tackles in the NFL, while Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler are an underrated guard tandem. As a unit they had the third-best pass-blocking efficiency of any team at 85.0, despite rookie Russell Bodine being the sixth-lowest-graded center in that area a year ago. If he can make the second-year jump, and right tackle Andre Smith can bounce back after an injury-plagued 2014, this will easily be a top-five offensive line.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
When you lose both your guards in one offseason, your line is expected to take a step backwards. As such, the Eagles drop four spots from our 2014 end-of-year rankings. At tackle and center, though, there isn’t a more loaded team in the league. Jason Peters and Lane Johnson were named the starters at tackle on PFF’s All-Pro team a year ago, and Jason Kelce was our first-team All-Pro center back in 2013. The question marks begin and end at guard ,though. Losing Evan Mathis, our three-time highest-graded guard, is a big blow, and he’ll be replaced at left guard by Allen Barbre. Barbre is a former tackle who has played just 127 snaps in the NFL since 2009. The right guard position figures to be the weak spot on the line, and is still up for grabs between Andrew Gardner, John Moffitt, and Matt Tobin.
7. Houston Texans
The Texans are another team that takes a slight dip from their end-of-2014 ranking (fifth) after the loss of center Chris Myers and all the uncertainty that brings to the line. That being said, they have a very high ceiling in 2015 if last year’s second-round pick Xavier Sua-Filo lives up to his draft position at left guard, and Ben Jones makes improvements after switching back to his college position of center. Their ranking wouldn’t have looked so hot a year ago, but right tackle Derek Newton rewarded the Texans’ patience with a complete turnaround season that saw him as our highest-graded run-blocking right tackle. The Texans’ eight sacks allowed last year were the fewest of any team.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
The line might not be intact the whole year, with center Maurkice Pouncey expected to miss considerable time with an ankle injury, but at full strength this line has developed into one of the league’s best. They finished as our second-highest-graded pass-protection unit a year ago — much of that due to Kelvin Beachum’s quiet emergence as a top-tier left tackle. It’s unfortunate that Pouncey is out for the start of the season, as the Steelers were set to return all five starters from a year ago.
9. Detroit Lions
This one is a bit of a wild card, as it’s difficult to project rookie Laken Tomlinson’s performance in Year 1, but I believe that even with Manny Ramirez in the starting lineup the Lions will outperform their 14th overall ranking from last season. Larry Warford is coming off of a sophomore slump, but we know what he is capable of after allowing 16 total pressures and winning our Rookie of the Year award in 2013. If center Travis Swanson can outperform Dominic Raiola, our fifth-lowest-graded center a year ago, then this will be a very solid O-line. That is a big “if”, though, as Swanson himself only managed a -10.7 overall grade in 379 snaps split between center and right guard a year ago.
10. New Orleans Saints
The Saints offensive line took a noticeable step back in 2014 from its usual excellent form. General manager Mickey Loomis saw the downward trend and addressed it in a big way, trading for Seahawks center Max Unger and drafting Stanford tackle Andrus Peat in the first round. The big question here is at left guard, where they dealt away Ben Grubbs to the Chiefs for a fifth-round pick. Tim Lelito, a third-year player out of Grand Valley State, is set to replace Grubbs. In Lelito’s first career game in 2013 he posted a -7.4 overall grade and allowed three sacks, but showed more competency last season with a -.5 grade in 294 snaps.