Talking about the most improved position groups in the NFL last week inspired me to look at one of those in particular and list my top ten units. For this exercise I tried to look at all these offensive lines in a vacuum – how well they execute certain run schemes, how diverse they can be or how great they are with their bread-and-butter and of course how well they protect the quarterback. While I support my case with certain statistics and advanced numbers in particular, solely going by the stats would be a huge mistake, since that would mean the Rams allowing the fewest amount of sacks qualifies them as the top pass-blocking line or the Giants almost had a top five run-blocking unit, even though Saquon Barkley routinely had to make people miss in the backfield and Daniel Jones averaging over six yards a carry certainly helped.
Instead, I’m trying to go through the starting five individually, then talk about their strengths and weaknesses and just some of the plays they run routinely. I have to project the starting lineups a little here and there will be some battles for specific spots during whatever we will have from training camp. That’s why I mention the key backups as well, which could feature guys who will be in the starting lineup week one. Under the new CBA, teams are now allowed to dress at least two more players on gamedays and another one if the active roster includes at least offensive linemen. So the strategy teams are going to choose will be interesting to me and I would expect a lot more groups carrying eight linemen on Sundays.
And just to make this clear – this is a projection of what I think will be the top ten O-lines in 2020, even though I will often reference to what they did last season and beyond.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Starting five: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith
Key backups: Le’Raven Clark, Chaz Green & Danny Pinter
Not only do the Colts have the best offensive lineman in football today in Quenton Nelson, but I believe they are the most well-rounded unit with no real weakness in the entire league. That is largely due to the investments they have made to strengthen it, since the entire left side consists of three first-rounders and their right tackle was an early second-rounder. The one spot people might not be sold on is right guard with Mark Glowinski, who entered last year as a week-one starter only for the second time in his five-year career. However, in the 25 games he has started for Indy, he has been responsible for just two sacks and was called for holding twice in each of these last two seasons. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has given up just 4.5 sacks and was called for holding once over the last two years, as one of the more underappreciated players at his position for a while now. On the opposite end, Braden Smith has been excellent in his two years in the league, as one of the most aggressive run-blockers in the league but also holding his own against some of the elite edge rushers in the AFC South, such as J.J. Watt, an emerging Harold Landry and all those guys they have/had in Jacksonville. Center Ryan Kelly has never allowed multiple sacks in his four years in the league with the ability to down-block, reach or pull in the run game. And then there’s Big Q, who I thought was a generational prospect coming out of Notre Dame two years ago. The numbers and awards just speak for themselves – one sack allowed in 32 starts, two-time First-Team All-Pro and the most highlights I have seen from an offensive lineman on the internet. But believe me – the tape is equally as good.
These guys can gain yards on basically any run play, with the ability to create lateral movement and open up cutback lanes for their running backs on zone plays, but even more so, they can run all these different gap-schemes, with linemen pulling and kicking out edge defenders. When they go power behind Big Q pulling up the hole, it’s pretty much an automatic four yards unless the back stumbles along the way. Not only did the Colts finish just 5.8 yards short of outdoing Tennessee with the league’s leading rusher in terms of yards per game, but they also ended up being second in first downs gain via the run and first down percentage on those plays, behind only the Ravens, who blew everybody out of the water in a historic season. Marlon Mack had another 1000-yard season, despite missing a couple of games, but Indy had another four players with at least 200 yards rushing on the season. In half of the games they played they crossed 130 yards on the ground and they had three weeks with 200+ yards. With a true banger and homerun hitter in Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor added in the second round of the draft, this rushing attack is about to go to the next level, plus they still have scat back Nyheim Hines, who they can get involved on jet sweeps and motion across the formation, while then acting as a decoy off those to open up more room inside. Even though the Colts were “only” tied for ninth in sacks allowed last season, there was only quarterback in the league with more time to throw than Jacoby Brissett. The backup situation may not be the best in the league with Chaz Green being picked on early in his career with Dallas and fifth-round pick Danny Pinter, who I honestly didn’t watch a lot of, but will certainly have a transition period from Ball State to the NFL. Their sixth man so to speak however is Le’Raven Clark, who I always liked since I evaluated him at Texas Tech and has filled in pretty well when called upon, with 4.5 sacks allowed in 35 career games, including 12 starts.
2. New Orleans Saints
Starting five: LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Erik McCoy, RG Cesar Ruiz, RT Ryan Ramczyk
Key backups: Nick Easton, James Hurst & Will Clapp
No matter which metrics you use or if you just go based on the tape, I don’t think you can come to any conclusion other than the Saints have two top ten offensive tackles in the league today. Ryan Ramczyk has a good case for being the best one in the entire league and with Armstead the only question is his ability to stay healthy. In his seven years in the pros, he has never played a full 16 games and over these last four seasons, he has missed 22 combined starts. When both have been on the field, the results speak for themselves however. Ramczyk didn’t allow a single sack last season and he was named Pro Football Focus’ Run Blocker of the Year, which only strengthens his case for the best at his position altogether. Armstead hasn’t given up a sack over the 25 games since 2017 and he has been responsible for just 1.4 pressures per game over that stretch. Center Erik McCoy stepped right in as a rookie and actually was an upgrade over the retired Max Unger, allowing only 14 total pressures and earning PFF’s highest grade among rookie offensive linemen. The Saints also just paid left guard Andrus Peat 57.5 million dollars over five years and they spent another first-round pick on Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz. I’m not sure why they let Larry Warford go, just because they drafted Cesar Ruiz, because as high as I was on him coming out of Michigan (my top-rated interior lineman), this is at best a parallel move for this upcoming season, when they are really in win-now mode as Drew Brees probably enters his final year as a pro. Still, that starting five with three first-rounders, another top-50 pick in McCoy and Armstead maybe being the most talented of the bunch as a third-round pick, is highly impressive.
As high as I speak of this group, the Saints averaged only 4.3 yards per rush attempt last season. However, a lot of that had to do with a banged-up Alvin Kamara and a combination of fullback dives in short yardage situations and their starting QBs averaging 0.7 yards per carry pushing that number down lower than it should have been. The two years before that they finished in the top six in total rushing offense respectively. And in terms of sacks allowed, they finished third in the league with 25, with six of them coming in that one Falcons game, where this entire Saints squad seemed to be asleep at the wheel. What stands about this group and the Saints in general is that they can move the ball on their terms, meaning if they need to run the ball, they can, and if they need to drive the ball late, their quarterback usually stays clean. That tends to put them a step ahead of the opposition and thanks to Sean Payton’s ability to design plays, they are one of the two or three best screen teams in the entire league, with everybody on that unit being able to get out in front. They run those plays on first-and-then as well as third-and-long – with success pretty much every time. Why do I not have them ahead of the Colts? The advanced stats might actually be the best in the league, but they will have a rookie in the starting lineup – as high as I was and am Ruiz – and their numbers look better thanks to that quick-rhythm passing attack with a limited amount of those deep shots due to having Drew Brees under center. When I look at the guys they have on the bench, I see a veteran in Nick Easton who is a solid guard/center option that was originally brought in to start for them last year, another former starter in James Hurst, who has played all along the front and had some pretty good stretches in Baltimore and then former seventh-round pick Will Clapp, who was an All-SEC selection at both guard and center, while not just getting run over when asked to step in.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Starting five: LT Ronnie Stanley, LG Bradley Bozeman, C Matt Skura, RG Ben Powers, RT Orlando Brown
Key backups: D.J. Fluker, Ben Bredeson & Tyre Phillips
If you just go by the numbers, the Ravens have a great case for being number one on this list. This group led the way for the all-time record in rushing yards – basically 1000 yards more anybody else – and averaged half a yard more than the next-closest squad. They also allowed just 25 sacks on the season (tied for third-fewest), protecting the reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. However, a lot of that was accomplished thanks to Lamar heroics, tough inside runners and a creative system under offensive coordinator Greg Roman to keep defenses guessing. More importantly, they did lose a Hall of Fame guard in Marshal Yanda to retirement and really both their starting guard spots to me are still somewhat in the air, with competition still going on in whatever we will have in terms of a training camp. With that being, let’s focus on the pieces they still have. Ronnie Stanley has emerged as the best left tackle in the game today. For Baltimore it all starts with the run game, where the 6’6”, 320-pound tackle controls reps once he gets those hands inside the chest of defenders and basically never misses his assignments. Even more impressive, he was PFF’s Pass Blocker of the Year, with no sacks surrendered and nine games without a single pressures even. Orlando Brown on the opposite side of the line fell in last year’s draft due to a horrendous combine performance, but after the first six weeks of the 2018 season, he hasn’t given up the starting right tackle gig, mauling people at 6’8” and probably quite a few pounds above the 345 he is listed at, plus he has been responsible for only two sacks and three flags so far. Matt Skura returns at center, who played very well (one sack, two flags allowed) until he was placed on IR after week 11 last season.
Like I mentioned, the two guard spots are still up for grabs, but I really like the competition they have for them – Bradley Bozeman was above average for them last year, I had a mid-day two grade on Ben Powers in the 2019 draft, D.J. Fluker might have never lived up to his draft status but has been a very solid player wherever he has been and then this year the Ravens selected Tyre Phillips (Mississippi State) late in the third round and Ben Bredeson (Michigan) in the fourth, who I liked a lot in particular and expect to crack the starting lineup down the road. The Ravens use so much heavy personnel and run all these different option plays, where communication and assignment-proof blocking is crucial. This group up front sets it all up and when the team really needs to have it, they usually come through and drive the defense off the ball to gain those two or three yards, while also keeping the MVP clean. The team as a whole averaged a half yard more than the next-closest (5.5) and 57 more first down than any other team. Not only do the averages in classical statistics look good, but according to Football Outsiders, they also were tied for the lowest percentage of run plays stuffed (13%) and they were tied for fifth in sacks allowed with 28 of them, despite running so much deep play-action and having a quarterback who wants to extend plays. Lamar shaking somebody in the backfield doesn’t hurt either in that department of course. Having that sixth man at least to account for in the box is tough for defenses and with that staple of running backs – especially now that they added one of the premiere backs in the draft in Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins – gives them brute downhill force as the dive action and then Lamar is of course a major threat to pull the ball and get outside or have another player going with him on triple-option plays. Even with a full offseason to study it, Greg Roman’s offense will once again be very tough to defend, especially if the MVP can make even more strides as a pocket passer.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
Starting five: LT Kolton Miller, LG Richie Incognito, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Trent Brown
Key backups: Brandon Parker & John Simpson
A team whose offensive line I feel like isn’t talked about enough is the Raiders. This is one of the more impressive groups in the entire league and the team heavily relies on them. The one spot I think doesn’t have above-average play is left tackle with Kolton Miller, who I heavily disagreed on as a mid-first round pick a couple of years ago, but he has at least shown some improvement in year two and not been a liability I would say, while obviously having the athletic skill-set to keep growing. The rest of this unit is outstanding. People may not like Richie Incognito too much as a person, but in terms of his play on the field, there are only a few people I would refer to as an ass-kicker more than him. He was one of the elite run-blockers last season, routinely driving guys off the ball, and allowed just one sack in 12 starts. Rodney Hudson to me has established himself as the second-best center in the league behind only Jason Kelce from the Eagles and statistically by far the best altogether in pass-protection, having allowed just one combined sack in his five years in Oakland and finishing with PFF’s highest pass-blocking grade for five consecutive seasons now. Gabe Jackson has been another very underrated guard for a while now, who had a sub-par 2019 season in protection compared to his standards, but is still one of the best run-blockers out there. And then Trent Brown at right tackle is probably the most massive player in the entire league eat 6’8”, 380 pounds. He is a people-mover on gap schemes and has more than held his own in protection, giving up just six sacks over the last three seasons with three different teams.
This group can really set the tone up front. They can run inside/outside zone and put their big frames in front of defenders, but when those guys really get going on Power O or counter plays, that’s when they truly take it to the defense. Hudson is also very effective on those little skip pulls, leading up to the play-side backer. Total rushing yards and averages last season may not look super impressive for this team, but they were forced to re-shuffle constantly, with their starting five out there for just six games and missing a combined 21 starts, which doesn’t include the games they got banged up in originally. When I look at their advanced stats, they still finished sixth in adjusted rushing yards for the O-line, stuffed run percentage and sacks allowed respectively, according to Football Outsiders. If I had to tell them one thing, it would be to run off-tackle more towards the right side with big Trent Brown, where they averaged 1.2 yards more per attempt than off the left side. I feel like with Incognito and rookie Josh Jacobs coming in from Alabama last offseason, that rushing attack really took a step forward, but they have been excellent protecting David Carr for years now. Outside of 2018, when their tackles alone were responsible for 27.5 sacks, with Kolton Miller leading the league in QB-takedowns allowed, this is where they have finished in terms of sacks allowed since 2016 – second, third and then sixth last season, with none of them even reaching the 30-mark. When I look at the backup situation, I’m not sure they have the best two guys off the bench right now, but they obviously saw enough in those guys to spend some valuable mid-round picks on them. Brandon Parker was a very talented tackle prospect coming out of North Carolina A&T as the 65th overall pick in 2018, but he had a rough going when he was thrown out there on the field. This year in the fourth round they grabbed John Simpson from Clemson, who brings some thump at initial contact in the run game and has a strong punch in pass-pro, but has some issues with his balance and overall consistency.
5. Dallas Cowboys
Starting five: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Connor McGovern, RG Zack Martin, RT La’el Collins
Key backups: Joe Looney, Cam Erving & Tyler Biadasz
While this group isn’t like what we called “The Great Wall of Dallas 2.0” a few years ago, when they led the way for three of the league’s leading rushers in five years since 2014, this group still has a lot to like. Some of the positional changes they have made were replacing Ronald Leary with La’el Collins at left guard initially, before moving him over to right tackle for the retired Doug Free. After that left guard spot became an issue in 2017 between Jonathan Cooper and Chaz Green, they drafted Connor Williams out of Texas. He had a pretty rough rookie campaign, but I thought he took a big step forward in year two, allowing just one sack and picking up D-line games quicker. Now the ‘Boys face another challenge, replacing a perennial All-Pro in Travis Frederick at center, which is probably where they are looking for last year’s third-round pick Connor McGovern out of Penn State to step in, after Joe Looney was solid for them when Frederick dealt with blood clot issues in 2018. What they still have is the best duo of offensive tackles in the league outside of New Orleans and the only real challenger for the title of top guard in the league to Indy’s Quenton Nelson, now that Brandon Brooks has been ruled out for the year, in Zack Martin, who has an unbelievable base to control pass-rushers and can create a ton of vertical or horizontal push in the run game. Tyron Smith hasn’t really been able to stay completely healthy these last couple of years, missing three games in each of the last four seasons and being banged up even when he was on the field, after I considered him to be one of the two truly elite left tackles in the game together with Trent Williams in Washington, who sat out all of last season. So he is not that type of guy held in such high regard anymore with some other young players coming up, but Collins has emerged during that time, allowing just three sacks last season, while being flagged just twice, and gaining the recognition of being a bully when he gets on the move and can put hands on people in space.
As far as McGovern goes, I really liked the aggressiveness as a run-blocker coming out of college and the ability to anchor down versus bull-rush attempts, but he had a tendency to overset his man in protection and was late to pick up stunts and twists at times, similar to Williams as a rookie. Putting him between the two and running a lot of half-line slides should help him out though. Dallas runs a heavy amount of inside zone and some of those stretch plays from the gun with an RPO read on the backside included, but they can also pull people out in front on tosses and sweeps. For as much as they run East and West, the fact they finished tied with Baltimore for the lowest percentage of stuffed run plays (13%) is very impressive. In the pass game, they only thing they have issues with is picking up delayed stunts and blitzes at times, but they give Dak a lot of time to work through his progressions and still finished tied for second-lowest in the league with 23 sacks allowed last season. In terms of their backup situation, having Looney with starting experience at both guard spots and a full season at center is a huge plus. Drafting Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz early on day three could result in a huge pay-off as a multiple-time All-American, who only dropped because he hasn’t been fully healthy for over a year now. And then they also signed Cam Erving, formerly of the Chiefs, who has starting experience at every position along the front and at least is a versatile piece to carry on gamedays. So all in all, their top eight guys – depending on if they almost want to “redshirt” Biadasz, could be as good as anybody in the league.
6. Green Bay Packers
Starting five: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Elgton Jenkins, C Corey Linsley, RG Billy Turner, RT Rick Wagner
Key backups: Lane Taylor, Cole Madison & Jon Runyan Jr.
The Packers are bringing back four of five starters on the O-line from a year ago, but the one loss they did have is a big one. Bryan Bulaga is still one of the top right tackles in the league, dealing with some really good edge rushers and allowing Aaron Rodgers to extend plays, as well as the Packers having the most success running off right tackle last season. Had they known Bulaga would ultimately sign with the Chargers for 10 million a year, they would have probably brought him back. Still, outside of that, there is a lot of continuity with this group and the one switch they made could be a rather smooth one if things work out properly. After seeing Bulaga walk this offseason, they decided to bring in Rick Wagner, who has been somewhat of a forgotten man ever since the Lions made him the highest-paid tackle in the league back in 2017. He used to be one of the most promising young players at the position in Baltimore, but he has shown some issues transferring his weight and dealing with the more well-schooled pass-rushers who can convert speed to power. The one plus with him is that he has only missed ten total games in his seven-year career, while Bulaga has only played 16 games twice since his rookie campaign. On the opposite end, you could say David Bakhtiari was the best left tackle in the game for two years until the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley joined the conversation and slightly moved ahead of him in my opinion. Still, he is an elite pass-protector, allowing the fewest pressures among tackles from 2016 to ’18 and then last season being responsible only 14 pressures and no sacks from week ten all the way through the NFC title game. A couple of years ago the Packers were forced to make a decision between their current center Corey Linsley and now Browns starter J.C. Tretter. The latter has since been a tiny notch better, but either way, both those guys have played very well. Since 2017 Linsley has held opponents to 6.5 sacks against him and he has been flagged only four times. Two weeks into last season then-rookie Elgton Jenkins took over at left guard and he had an excellent debut campaign. He was my 43rd overall prospect in the draft and immediately repaid the Pack, not giving up a single sack. The other guard Billy Turner was a free agency addition for them last season, who ended up starting all 16 games and being a solid contributor, with only one flag thrown against him.
For Green Bay, it all starts with protecting Aaron Rodgers. The all-time talent specializes at extending plays and creating big ones, which puts a lot of pressure on the guys in front of him to stay with their opponents. Taking out 2017, when he only played seven games, Rodgers has finished in the top six in terms of time holding onto the ball every season and he was one of only nine QBs to throw the ball slightly beyond the sticks last year. While they were “only” tied for tenth with 36 sacks allowed, their average time to allow a pressure at 2.62 seconds was the highest number in the whole league. The biggest difference for this group last season was their effectiveness in the run game. Aaron Jones became the Packers’ first 1000-yard rusher since Eddie Lacy in 2014 and he was tied at the top of the list last season with Derrick Henry at 16 rushing touchdowns. According to Football Outsiders, they finished tied for fifth with the Raiders in adjusted line yards and curiously also tied for sixth with that same team in stuffed run percentage (17%). With Matt LaFleur’s focus on the zone run game, the horizontal movement these guys can create up front and either get their backs to the edge or open up cutback opportunities all the way to the backside is excellent. They will probably shift even more that way after drafting another bruising running back at 250 pounds in A.J. Dillon (Boston College) and a guy from Cincinnati that projects to give them a versatile H-back/fullback in Josiah Deguara. When I look at their backup situation on the O-line, Lane Taylor originally won the battle for LG last season, but then suffered a season-ending bicep injury and now re-structured his contract to compete again. Green Bay spent a fifth-rounder on Cole Madison in 2018, as an intriguing guard prospect coming from a heavy pass system at Washington State and this year they selected three O-linemen in the sixth round, with Michigan’s Jon Runyan Jr. most likely to make the roster because of the position flexibility and pedigree he presents.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starting five: LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Steven Wisniewski, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Matt Feiler
Key backups: Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson & Zach Banner
Similar to the Packers, Pittsburgh is bringing back all but one of their starters from last season. For them the challenge will be replacing left guard Ramon Foster, who had been a stalwart for pretty much a decade now until retiring this offseason. First in line for that job should be Steven Wisniewski – kind of a journeyman in the NFL, who started his career in Oakland and then played very well for the Eagles when called upon a few years, but they declined his 2019 option, which left him on the market for a while. Kansas City brought him in at the start of October when Martinas Rankin got hurt and he ended up being a major contributor once he was inserted into the starting lineup from week 16 all the way through the Super Bowl in place of Andrew Wylie at LG, playing at a starter-level. The rest of that interior with Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro has been stable since the latter was drafted in 2012. Pouncey to me is actually pretty overrated and the analytics community would agree, as he finished 34th in PFF’s grading system, with only 32 teams in the league. However, he gives them a certain toughness and doesn’t just miss assignments very often. DeCastro was in that elite guard conversation for a few years now, although like everybody else, he took a little step backwards in 2019, but he is still one of the better zone-blocking guards and hasn’t allowed more than two sacks since his rookie campaign. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is another one of those guys who had one great season, but now he’s regressed back to the norm and is more of an average tackle to me, with some problems against power rushers, where his height gives him a disadvantage in terms of pad-level. For right tackle Matt Feiler it took a while to establish himself in the league as a former undrafted free agent, but he has worked his way up to a respectable starter. He is a little heavy-footed and therefore vulnerable to inside counters, but the total package is solid. Myles Garrett has been kicking their asses these last two years until he of course took that hitting part to a point that nobody wanted to see.
The Steelers still run quite a bit on inside zone like they were famous for with Le’Veon Bell dancing behind the line of scrimmage, but with more downhill backs like James Conner and Benny Snell, they use a lot more power plays and get their guard on the move on kickout- and lead-blocks, plus last season they ran more fly sweeps and two-back sets. They finished with the fourth-fewest rushing yards and the tied for third-fewest touchdowns (7) and average yards per attempt (3.7) respectively, but that backfield was a mess, because Conner was banged up for most of the year and they were rotating guys in and out, and defenses could often put that +1 in the box with little threat of a passer. To show you how bad the quarterback was last year for Pittsburgh – both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges finished around the league-average in terms of time to throw and still tied for a league-low 4.5 average air yards per completion and that led to the Jets being the only team to average less yards per play (4.7). Still, the O-line did their job for the most part, finishing in the top ten with 32 sacks allowed and earning the third-highest graded pass-blocking grade as a unit by Pro Football Focus. Pittsburgh primarily uses half-line slides in protection and they have been outstanding transitioning twists and stunts. That will be an adjustment without Foster for the first time in such a long time, but Wisniewski is a very smart, heady player with starting experience along the interior. So I expect this to continue. These guys are also awesome on draw plays, where they do a good job of selling the pass, opening up a lane and then working up to the second level.
8. Tennessee Titans
Starting five: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Rodger Saffold, C Ben Jones, RG Nate Davis, RT Isaiah Wilson
Key backups: Dennis Kelly, Jamil Douglas & David Quessenberry
For these Titans, it all starts with their play up front and that 250-pound monster in Derrick Henry running behind those big guys. That, combined with some big plays by Ryan Tannehill sprinkled in, is the formula that allowed them to make a run down the stretch that led them all the way to an AFC Championship game appearance. Before we get to anything else – the reason this group isn’t even a couple of spots higher is due to the fact they lost right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency, who has been one of the most consistent players at the position since his rookie campaign in 2016, when he was immediately named a first-team All-Pro. However, Tennessee did make sure to continue the trend of having two former first-rounders at both tackle spots with Isaiah Wilson out of Georgia. I had the 6’7”, 350-pound behemoth a lot lower on my draft board, because I thought he played pretty top-heavy and I saw some agility issues on tape, but in my mock draft I actually had him going to Seattle a spot before that, because I mentioned how he would fit best in a system, where they are built on the run and play-action off that to avoid to many pure dropback pass sets, which is exactly what the Titans want to do. On the opposite end of the line is Taylor Lewan who has been on the fringe of making that jump into the elite conversation for a few years now and has allowed just 2.5 sacks in the 27 starts over these last two seasons, while consistently widening the edge with his drive in the run game. Rodger Saffold was a huge addition for them last offseason and we saw the impact his loss with the Rams had. Together with division-rival Brandon Linder from the Jaguars, Ben Jones and him are probably the two most underrated centers in the game, both doing a lot to make the ground game work. And then at right guard is where Nate Davis jumped in week four of his rookie campaign. He had some definite growing pains as a rookie, especially in protection and with false starts (five commited), but I loved his ability to create movement on angle blocks with low pad-level and the balance he displayed in the lower body.
The Titans run a ton of zone, not only because it fits what their linemen are good at but more importantly it fits with Derrick Henry’s running style, who needs to build up momentum and the few times opponents can actually get him to the ground is when he has to stop his feet in the backfield. For a 250-pound monster, his speed to the edge is unbelievable and when the linebackers flow too hard, it creates huge cutback lanes. Quick toss plays create similar issues, where Henry can bend those runs and take advantage of inside lanes opening up. The Titans do a lot of different stuff with their tight-ends, putting them in the backfield, motioning them around and securing the back-side edges with them on sift or hinge blocks. Off those run-fakes, they use heavy play-action, with Ryan Tannehill turning his head around and firing deep posts or over routes on simple high-low on the deep middle safety, while those big guys keep their paws glued to the chest of their defenders. When you look at the amount of sacks allowed for Tennessee, it’s not good. They finished with the third-most at 56 and that number should not be overlooked, but 29 of those came through the first six weeks of the season, when Marcus Mariota was still under center, who is still a one-read quarterback with little pocket awareness, which leads to unnecessary scrambling and getting caught in the process, plus with the amount of deep shots and long-developing plays the Titans use, indicated by the third-highest numbers of air yards and average yards beyond the sticks for Tannehill. So that is just saying that sacks don’t tell the whole story, since the Rams actually allowed the least amount of them and you would probably say they were a bottom-five unit last season. At the same time, finishing first in yards after contact definitely helps the rushing output. For the Titans, Dennis Kelly was brought in as a quality swing-tackle, but interior O-line depth is what I mentioned previously as their biggest remaining need.
9. Philadelphia Eagles
Starting five: LT Andre Dillard, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Jason Kelce, RG Matt Pryor, RT Lane Johnson
Key backups: Jordan Mailata, Jack Driscoll & Prince Tega Wanogho
First and foremost, losing one of the elite guards in football in Brandon Brooks really sucks and I originally had these guys all the way up in the top three. Basically going from an All-Pro to an unproven backup makes a huge difference of course. Still, there is enough on this front to get excited about. The two studs remaining are center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson. Kelce has been the best player at his position for at least the last three years and with the way he opens up the rushing attack thanks to his mobility and agility to go with how sync he seems to be with his guards in terms of passing on assignments in protection, he is an extremely valuable player for Philly. Johnson has been fighting a few nicks and bruises these last three years, missing six games over that stretch and not quite playing up his standards at times because of those, but even when he was working through injuries last season, he still only gave up one sack in 12 games and was graded the top run-blocking tackle by Pro Football Focus. At left tackle there will also be a change from long-time stalwart and nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters to a guy they traded up for in the first round of last year’s draft in Andre Dillard from Washington State. He had major issues when he was thrown out there last season, as he gave up six sacks on just 336 total snaps. However, his natural tackle feet and ability to mirror really stood out with him as a prospect and I hope he hit the weight room to create more momentum at initial contact in the run-game. At left guard they extended Isaac Seumalo last offseason and he repaid them with a pretty good season, starting all 16 games and being responsible for three sacks and holding calls respectively. However, that second guard spot is really where questions arise. I slated in Matt Pryor for now, since he is the only player on this remaining roster with any regular season experience to speak (79 snaps in 2019), but he is far from a proven commodity.
The Eagles also still have Jordan Mailata, a former rugby league standout who hadn’t even played football until 2018, but has looked good so far in preseason, even though he has never been in there for a single snap of regular season action. After them I went with two rookies from this draft over Nate Herbig, who was an UDFA addition for them last year and only played three snaps all season. Howie Roseman selected the two Auburn tackles Jack Driscoll and Prince Tega Wanogho in the fourth and sixth round respectively. Driscoll was a highly consistent player in his two years in the SEC after transferring from UMass, allowing just one sack and two hits over that stretch, but he is undersized and not very long, which I thought could be issues for him at the next level and there have already been some whispers about him moving inside. And then Prince I had a third-round grade on, since he isn’t very flashy with tremendous footwork or pure power, but I really like the way he rolls his hips through contact to go with the length and ability to anchor he presents as a pass-protector. Whoever earns that starting gig will have the luxury of playing between two All-Pro level players. What Kelce does in terms of scooping up D-tackle on combo-blocks to allow his guard to climb to the second level or give them simple down-blocks, since he is used heavily as a puller, is special. They will run a lot of duo, where Miles Sanders’ patience to set things up should put his linemen in good position, and then they hit you with outside zone or quick toss plays to the edge to show off his burst. These guys have a lot to prove with two new starters, but they could still be very good.
10. Cleveland Browns
Starting five: LT Jedrick Wills Jr., LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Wyatt Teller, RT Jack Conklin
Key backups: Chris Hubbard & Nick Harris
It’s kind of crazy to have this group up here after they were looked at as a major problem for Cleveland last season, but with the additions they have made this offseason, I believe they will be a big strength for them in 2020. Let’s just get right into it – they added two book-ends in former Titan Jack Conklin, who they actually signed to very reasonable deal, and then my number-one rated tackle in Jedrick Wills Jr. from Alabama with that 10th overall draft pick. Those are huge upgrades over Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard, who gave up almost double-digit sacks and were called for holding nine times combined. The Browns were also forced to play both Eric Kush and Justin McCray over 30 percent of the snaps and they were pretty atrocious when put out on the field. Conklin is s one of the most consistent players at the position, allowing three sacks last season and driving defenders off the ball routinely in the run game. Wills was a top-five prospect for me in this year’s draft, because while he may not be quite as freakishly athletic as two other guys who went behind him, he is so smooth and technically sound with his footwork and reading rushers, while having a mean-streak to get after people. You’re adding those two guys to what I believe is already a really good interior group. Joel Bitonio might not quite an elite guard, but he is right in that next tier for me, having allowed only 2.5 sacks over these last two years and being a second-team All-Pro in both of them. While J.C. Tretter I thought took a slight step backwards last season, he is still an above-average center, who avoids pressures and flags at a high rate. Those two guys create a lot lateral movement on combo-blocks and force the MIKE backer to overrun the play, leading to several occasions where Nick Chubb takes that inside lane up the backside A-gap. And I was a big fan of Wyatt Teller coming out of Virginia Tech a few years ago, because of the aggressiveness he displayed in the run game. His hand-placement and ability to stay in front of rushers one-on-one certainly needs some work, but there is upside.
With Kevin Stefanski coming in as the new head man and after signing former Falcon Austin Hooper to a big deal, the Browns will run a lot more 12 personnel – which is where they had the most success out of last season already – and that offensive system will revolved around the wide zone run game. Off that they want to call bootlegs and probably have Odell on a post from the backside as a big-play option if the defense overcommits. Baker Mayfield is at his best on the move and taking shots off play-action. The Browns already were tied for the fourth-highest average yards per rush at 4.8, but they finished 22nd in rushing attempts, simply because they found themselves trailing too much, in large part due to 28 total giveaways (seventh-most in the league). When Cleveland got the ground game going early and could keep their foot on the pedal, they were a tough out (wins over Baltimore and Buffalo for example). They actually finished with over 100 rushing yards in 11 of 16 games and they only won one of the games where they didn’t. Of course a lot of their rushing success comes thanks to a group of RBs that finished second behind only the Ravens in rushing yards responsible for, but the O-line should be so much better in 2020. With Wills and Conklin as book-ends, Chubb and Hunt should be able to get around the corner at a higher rate, finishing dead-last and sixth-lowest in yards on outside runs to either side respectively last season. I mean the two guys they had out there allowed some edge defenders they were asked to seal to give them a little head-fake and just go underneath the block at times. Like I mentioned, the Browns tackles collapsed on several occasions in 2019, but the sack and pressure numbers were a lot higher than they should have been, as Baker decided to roll to the side instead operating from within the pocket. So they basically demote a starting tackle in Chris Hubbard to a backup role, which is where he should be. And then I’m a huge fan of their fifth-round pick Nick Harris from Washington, as a super-agile and mobile center, who fits perfectly in the Browns’ outside zone-based system and just needs to add some core strength through an NFL workout program, before he is ready to contribute and potentially replace Tretter at the pivot, if they want to get out of that contract down the road.
San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots & Tampa Bay Buccaneers