It's right about this time each year when I start to prepare for the various fantasy football league drafts that I take part in each season. Unlike most people, the first part of those preparations for me is an examination of the offensive lines of each of the thirty-two NFL franchises.
It's common knowledge that the abilities of the men in the trenches have a huge bearing on the success of an offensive unit, and in many cases the offensive skill players that line up next to or behind them. Yet when attempting to project the success of those aforementioned skill players, very few publications even bother to include a couple of pages breaking down the makeup of the offensive lines that are so key to those individuals success or failure.
Take, for example, the Chicago Bears. In 2001, they were the only team in the NFL to field the same five starters on the offensive line for every game of the regular season. The Bears won thirteen games, Jim Miller (who was sacked just eleven times) was suddenly being labeled as a "serviceable NFL starter", Anthony Thomas won the NFL's offensive rookie of the year award, and James Allen and Marty Booker parlayed solid season into new long term contracts.
Moving ahead to 2002…James "Big Cat" Williams was lost to injury, Blake Brockermeyer was a cap casualty, rookie Marc Colombo (the man drafted to replace Brockermeyer) went down after a good start, and they also lost guard Rex Tucker for the final ten games. The result? The Bears went from thirteen wins to four, Jim Miller can't even get a backup job anywhere, and Anthony Thomas is being left for dead by a lot of the same publications that were singing his praises last season.
Here now is my take on the top offensive lines in football right now, as we get set for teams to head into training camp:
1. Kansas City Chiefs
This is a unit that has continued to improve over the past five seasons, and culminated last year, when the Chiefs scored more points than any team in football. Thanks also in large part to the running ability of Priest Holmes, the Chiefs led the league in rushing touchdowns (26) and fewest fumbles lost (2), in addition to averaging 148.6 yards rushing per game on a healthy 5.1 yards per carry. The Chiefs also broke sixteen runs of twenty yards or greater, and surrendered only twenty-six sacks on the season. The Chief line features probably the top guard in all of football in Will Shields, and a perennial Pro Bowl tackle in Willie Roaf, who was heisted from New Orleans for a mid round draft pick after an injury riddled '01 season. At the other tackle spot is John Tait, a mammoth of a man that has steadily progressed as a player since the Chiefs took him high in the 1st round of the '99 draft. Brian Waters and Casey Wiegmann are both undrafted free agents inside that have been in the Chief system for three full seasons now and provide grit and toughness in short yardage and goal line situations. And the Chiefs figure to be deeper than ever this year up front, as top reserves Donald Willis and Marcus Spears return to battle the newly drafted Brett Williams and Jordan Black for reserve spots. This is a phenomenal offensive front.
2. San Francisco 49ers
This little known group has been the most statistically solid offensive line in football over the past three to four seasons, excelling both in their pass and run protections. The Niners have allowed the 3rd, 3rd, and 4th fewest sacks in the NFL over the past three seasons, and have had one of the league's top six rushing attacks in three of the past four seasons. Last season, the team averaged 140.3 yards rushing per game at 4.6 yards per carry, and allowed just twenty-two sacks. Also, the team was eight for eleven on 4th down conversions. And more help is on the way in the form of Kwame Harris, the team's 1st round pick this season out of Stanford. He will be groomed this season by Derrick Deese, the very versatile and still able thirty-three year old that has found a niche playing at left tackle for this squad. Scott Gragg is a monster at the other tackle spot, and is one of the more underrated right tackles in the game. Inside, the Niners feature Pro Bowlers at both center and right guard in Jeremy Newberry and Ron Stone. At left guard is Eric Heitmann, a 7th round pick from a year ago that filled in admirably for the injured Dave Fiore.
3. St. Louis Rams
The Ram offensive line performed horribly last season, and was a big factor in the team's disappointing season as well as the wear and tear suffered by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. But with the off-season additions of RT Kyle Turley and C Dave Wohlabaugh, should the Rams get Orlando Pace signed by September, this could easily be the top unit in the league. Turley will replace John St. Clair, who was publicly humiliated more often than possibly any other NFL player last season. Turley and Pace, if healthy and playing together, would form the league's most talented tackle combo outside of the duo in the nation's capital and possibly Philadelphia. Wohlabaugh's arrival means Andy McCollum will move over to guard. Wohlabaugh is far from a dominating run blocker, but his finesse style should be perfect for the Rams pass and draw play heavy offensive attack. At the other guard spot is Adam Timmerman, who has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for the past three seasons without actually getting the invite to Honolulu. With Tom Nutten's departure to the Jets, the aforementioned St. Clair as well as Frank Garcia will provide the depth here.
4. Denver Broncos
For years we've heard about the Denver "blocking schemes" that turn ordinary late round draft choices into 1,500 yard rushers. The man responsible for those schemes, assistant coach Alex Gibbs, will be back this year for what is likely his last season coaching. The Broncos once again, and with yet another feature back, finished in the top five in the league in rushing yards per game, yards per rush, and rushing touchdowns. Also, the Broncos drafted tackle George Foster in the 1st round, and expect him to immediately push incumbent Ephraim Salaam for playing time. Matt Lepsis is an above average player at the other end and is expected to be moved back to right tackle on a permanent basis this season. Inside, the Broncos are rock solid with Ben Hamilton, Tom Nalen, and Dan Neil manning the middle of the line. Nalen and Neil are two of the best pulling linemen in football and along with Lepsis have been the anchors of the Bronco line for the past five seasons. Hamilton was the team's 4th round pick last season and will be pushed by Ben Claxton, Denver's 5th round pick this season.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
This is a very consistent and very nasty group in Philly. They're going on their 3rd season playing together as a group, with very few injury interruptions. Despite the absence of a true feature back, the Eagles averages 138.8 rushing yards per game at 4.5 yards per carry. Having a pair of Pro Bowl tackles never hurts matters. Thomas and Runyan both have made recent trips to Honolulu, and both are relentless, in your face intimidators that bring 110% on each snap. Jermane Mayberry is a punishing run blocker, and was a Pro Bowler last season. John Welbourn is solid at the other guard spot, and excels as a pass blocker. Hank Fraley has been solid, but unspectacular in the middle. There is not much proven depth here, but the Eagles may have landed one of the steals of the draft when tackle Jeremy Bridges dropped to them in the 6th round. Noted as one of the drafts top pass blockers and most accomplished college linemen, Bridges was set to be a 2nd or 3rd round pick before posting some disappointing numbers at the combines.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Unbeknownst to many football fans are the staggering rushing numbers put up by the Minnesota Vikings last season. The Vikes played very well down the stretch, especially offensively, and ending up leading the NFL in rushing yards per game with 156.7, yards per rush at 5.3, rushes of more than twenty yards with 18, and rushing touchdowns with 26 (actually tied with KC). And if Bryant McKinnie, who was instantly dominating in the run game, continues to develop like he did after ending his holdout last season…they could have two of the top seven or eight linemen in the game with super-center Matt Birk already in the fold. Tackle Mike Rosenthal was added from the Giants in free agency and will be the right bookend across from McKinnie. David Dixon and Chris Liwienski are solid run blockers at the guard spots, but they, as well as the rest of the line will need to work on their pass blocking before joining the elite members listed above them here. The Vikings allowed forty-nine sacks a year ago, and led the league in penalties. Also, they were just five of fifteen on 4th down conversion attempts. Veterans Everett Lindsay and Corbin Lacina also see time, as head coach and former lineman Mike Tice likes to rotate guys in to keep them fresh.
7. Washington Redskins
In the opinion of this author, the duo of Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen is the best tandem in the league. Both are huge, technically sound, durable, and incredibly athletic. However, last season they got little to no help from their mates in the middle of the line. Center Larry Moore was retained, but guards Dave Loverne and Brendan Stai were jettisoned out of town and the ‘Skins upgraded them with the free agent signings of Dave Fiore from San Francisco and Randy Thomas from the Jets…which on paper, makes this one of the top lines in football. Also, the team was able to land Derrick Dockery from Texas in the 3rd round, and he will most likely battle Alex Sulfsted and Wilbert Brown for a spot as the team's 6th lineman.
8. Miami Dolphins
This is a group that does not get the credit it should for the amazing season churned out by Ricky Williams last season. A steady group of grizzled vets, the Dolphins have supplemented that group with the selections of four legitimate linemen in the past two college drafts. Last year's Dolphins were 2nd only to the Vikings in rushing yards per game with 156.4, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. They posted 24 rushing touchdowns and surrendered just twenty-five sacks all season. If Nails can stay healthy and Seth McKinney, last year's 3rd round pick, can continue to develop, this group has a chance to be even better this season. Dixon was solid at left tackle last season, after playing guard most of his career. Perry and Wade are workmanlike steady performers over on the right side. Ruddy will be fighting McKinney off to keep his job. This past season, the Dolphins took offensive linemen with three of their first seven picks. 3rd rounder Wade Smith and 6th round steal Tim Provost will be groomed as the tackles of the future while their other 3rd round pick, guard Taylor Whitney, will be worked in as a backup at the guard and center spots.
9. Seattle Seahawks
A lot of people like the Seahawks to post some gaudy offensive numbers this season, and one of the main reasons is the big uglies they have blocking up front. Walter Jones is undoubtedly one of the top five tackles in all of football and a tremendous anchor to this front. One problem. Seattle has to get him signed. The team signed Chris Terry away from Carolina, and he should fill in admirably at right tackle. Steve Hutchinson had an excellent rookie season in '01 before breaking his leg and missing most of last season. He'll be back at left guard for the team this season. Center Robbie Tobeck is a tough guy at center, and is amongst the top eight or ten centers in the game. The question mark for Seattle right now is at right guard where behemoth Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack is tentatively penciled in. He'll be pushed by Chris Gray, who started several games at that spot for the Seahawks last year. Also, Seattle drafted tackle Wayne Hunter, an excellent pass blocker from Hawaii, in the 3rd round to add depth and provide insurance should Jones hold out.
10. Buffalo Bills
While the Bills allowed a league high fifty four sacks last season (which Bledsoe's lack of mobility contributed to), this is a young and improving offensive line that could be the best in football a year from now. It's a line anchored by Reuben Brown, one of the top guards in all of football, and Mike Williams, who is sure to start a run of consecutive Pro Bowls this season. Jonas Jennings was a 3rd round pick of Buffalo in '01, and he has settled in nicely at left tackle with some expected growing pains. Trey Teague is a savvy vet that the team successfully moved over to center, and Marques Sullivan combines with Williams to give the team 700 pounds of beef on the right side to run behind in short yardage situations. Marcus Price and 5th round pick Ben Sobieski will provide the depth.
On The Brink
The Cincinnati Bengals have a solid pair of bookend tackles in Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, and also nabbed Eric Steinbach from Iowa early in the 2nd round. If Steinbach can help improve the interior play, this could be one of the league's top groups for years to come.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost LT Wayne Gandy to free agency, and will replace him with untested FA acquisition Todd Fordham. Marvel Smith will move from RT to LT. Hartings and Faneca are anchors inside, and last year's 1st rounder Kendall Simmons should continue to improve.
The Oakland Raiders would be ranked higher were it not for the uncertainty regarding whether or not they will resign Mo Collins and whether or not the team will accept back Barrett Robbins with open arms after his Super Bowl weekend meltdown. Lincoln Kennedy is still one of the top tackles in the game and the Raiders have good depth on the line.
The Arizona Cardinals have very few strengths, but their offensive line is one of them. The team averaged 4.4 yards per rush and Leonard Davis is one of the top linemen in all of football. Tackles LJ Shelton and Anthony Clement are solid tackles as well.
The Indianapolis Colts were weak at the guard spots last season, but remained one of the stingiest lines when it comes to allowing sacks. Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows are very good at the tackle spots and Jeff Saturday is a more than serviceable center. Rookie Steve Sciullo is being moved to guard to help push Rick DeMulling and Ryan Diem.
The Green Bay Packers have a solid veteran group that was wracked by injuries as the season progressed last year, which killed their hopes of advancing further. If healthy, the quintet of Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher is one of the top ten or twelve lines in football.
The Carolina Panthers had one of the more porous lines in the NFL last season, but added Jordan Gross and Bruce Nelson in the first two rounds of the draft and signed Dave Brzezinski away from Philly. Todd Steussie is solid at LT and Jeff Mitchell is one of the better centers in the game. Improvements to their line are one of the biggest reasons the Panthers are my sleeper supreme this year in the NFL.
As always, I welcome and appreciate your feedback, which can be sent to me at email@example.com.
- Rich Swerbinsky