Now a rite of passage each season as we head into camp, my annual offensive line ratings are always the first nuts and bolts piece I put together each season. When beginning to examine the season that lies ahead, I feel it important to start by taking a look at the core of each team … their offensive line.
While the proliferation of the internet and fan access to so much more information has put more of an overall emphasis on the trenches, this unit still tends to get overlooked by the casual fan in most cities. Here in Cleveland, our obvious impotence up front these past six seasons has ensured that the offensive line remained a front burner topic. In the same breath, most fans are very happy (finally) about the changes made in this area this off-season by new GM Phil Savage and new head coach Romeo Crennel.
Onto the ratings …
Once again the Chiefs top my rankings of the leagues best offensive lines, which shouldn't surprise anyone. This group made Derrick Blaylock and Larry Johnson look like superstars last season when Priest Holmes went down, and we all know what the Priest has done behind these guys when healthy. Roaf continues to defy logic and play at an incredibly high level at age 35 well after his career appeared dead to rights after being dealt to KC from New Orleans. Will Shields and Brian Waters are two of the top five guards in the league, and both went to the Pro Bowl last season. Wiegmann clearly benefits from having such great talent nest to him, but is a top ten center in his own right. This is a dominant group, perhaps the best line I've seen since the Cowboys line in the mid-nineties, and they should have at least one more year of dominance left in them.
Jones and Hutchinson may be the leagues best at their respective spots, and
line up next to each other, giving the Seahawks a devastating left side. Jones
signed a long term contract this off-season, and will actually be in camp for
the first time in four years, leading one to believe he may even be better this
season, especially early in the year, which is scary considering he did not
allow a sack all last season. Seattle pulled off a mild surprise selecting C
Chris Spencer from Ole Miss in the 1st round this year, and they expect him to
push Tobeck and Gray for playing time immediately, though project him at center
long term. Womack impressed down the stretch last year, and will battle
youngster Sean Locklear for time at RT.
The Eagle offensive line has been very good for some time now, and that shouldn't change in 2005. As a matter of fact, the line could be even better this year despite losing Jermane Mayberry in free agency due to the insertion of Shawn Andrews at RG, who was dominant before going down to an injury early last season. Thomas and Runyan have been one of the league's finest pair of tackles for some time now. Thomas is a physical specimen, capable of domination, but also guilty of mental mistakes. Runyan is one of the toughest SOB's in the league, and never an easy matchup. Fraley is smallish, but smart and gritty, and a very capable center. Hicks takes over at LG after being this line's 6th man, and Steve Sciullo was added to provide depth.
Glenn and Saturday are both Pro Bowl talents, and led this unit, which allowed just 14 sacks a year ago. Glenn is an elite left tackle in all respects, and Saturday does an amazing job as the leader of a line that audibilizes more than any other in the league. The unit also paved the way for Colt runners to garner an average of 4.4 yards per carry on the ground. Diem is a great run blocker, and continues to improve at RT after being moved there from RG. Scott and Lilja are both largely unproven at the guard spots, but played well enough in relief last year to justify starting roles this season, which became available when Rick DeMulling and Sciullo weren't resigned this off-season.
The Steelers line simply punished opponents last season. Pittsburgh ran the ball far more than any other team in football, and in most games this unit had sufficiently worn down opposing defenses by the 4th quarter, helping lead the team to a 15-1 regular season mark. The left side is superb, as Smith had a breakout season last year and Faneca is mentioned is the same breath with Shields, Hutchinson, and Allen as one of the league's elite guards. Hartings continues to excel in the middle despite playing on two surgically repaired knees. The right side lost starters Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent to free agency, and the Steelers will look to Kendall Simmons and Max Starks to replace them. Simmons is a former #1 pick out of Auburn that missed last year due to a torn ACL. Starks is a 3rd round pick from last season out of Florida.
Despite several injuries to this unit, the Vikings once again were one of the
league's top running teams, averaging 4.7 yards per rush, and thriving in short
yardage situations. Injuries to Birk and Rosenthal did affect their pass
protection, as the Vikings yielded an uncharacteristic 46 sacks as a result.
Birk is a premier center in this league, and McKinnie continues to evolve into
one of the games top left tackles, and came on strong late last year after
starting slow. Liwienski and Rosenthal are very technically solid on the right
side … and Goldberg is the favorite to emerge as the starter at left guard over
youngsters Nat Dorsey and Marcus Johnson, who are expected to provide the depth.
With Jon Jansen returning at RT, this has the makings of being a very good unit for Gibbs this season. He and Samuels are imposing bookends, amongst the best pairs in the league when healthy. Thomas is one of the best run blocking guards in all of football, and has Pro Bowl type talent. Rabach was signed away from the Ravens to man the middle, providing an upgrade over last year's starter Cory Raymer. Dockery is an enigma, capable of dominating at times, and looking lost at others. Veteran Ray Brown will act as the 6th man, and he is still solid when used in spots.
The Saints may still be unable to stop anyone this year, but their offense will be potentially dynamic, led by what should be a deep and talented offensive line. Bentley is a top tier center, and Mayberry was signed away from the Eagles to play next to him. Holland will battle Kendall Jacox for time at LG. Gandy has been inconsistent since coming over from Pittsburgh, but is still very able at LT. The Saints traded up in the 1st round to grab Jamaal Brown, who they hope will be starting at RT for many years for them. Spencer Folau, Jon Stinchcomb, and Jamar Nesbit are all veterans with considerable experience that will be battling for the final spots on this unit.
Ogden is the leagues premier lineman in my view when healthy, and makes everyone on this line better when healthy and at his best. Mulitallo, Flynn, and Vincent are all above average players that all are much stronger as run blockers than pass blockers. Orlando Brown is nearing the end, but was still very productive last season. He will be pushed very hard by rookie Adam Terry from Syracuse.
10. Denver Broncos
The best goes on in Denver as the Broncos were 8th in the league in yards per rush, and had the 3rd lowest sack percentage in the NFL a season ago. Nalen continues to excel in the middle, quarterbacking this unit from the center position. Experiments at both tackle positions worked last year, as Lepsis played well at left tackle, and Foster began to show the promise that made him a 1st round pick out of Georgia a couple seasons ago. Hamilton and Carlisle are nothing special at the guard spots, but play well within the Denver scheme and are ably backed up by Anthony Clement.
11. Dallas Cowboys
If this unit can play up to expectations, this could be a dangerous Cowboy
team this season. Rivera was signed as a free agent in the off-season, and
he, Adams, and Allen were all NFC Pro Bowlers last year. Al Johnson finally
turned it on late last year after being hand picked by Parcells in round two a
couple seasons back out of Wisconsin. Vollers will battle '05 draftee Jacob Rogers for the starting job at RT. Veterans Andre Gurode, Torrin Tucker,
Stephen Peterman, and Tyson Walter will provide the depth for this talented,
and potentially dynamic unit.
The Patriots aren't overloaded with talent up front, but this is an
incredibly smart and well coached group. Light has turned into a helluva LT,
and Koppen has justified letting Damien Woody go in free agency with his solid
play in the middle last year. Hochstein will get back his starting role to
replace the departed Joe Andruzzi, and Neal came on strong late last year to
emerge as the starter at RG. Ashworth will battle Brandon Gorin for duties at
RT, and the team used their 1st round pick on guard Logan Mankins.
13. St. Louis Rams
Pace was inked to a long term deal, and will be in camp for the first time in
some time this season. He is still a dominant player, and an elite left
tackle. Alex Barron was drafted in the 1st round to act as the other bookend,
and solve the Rams enduring issues at RT, where they have been very weak since
their Super Bowl runs. Tucker was signed in free agency to play left guard,
Tucker is very good when healthy, but has been unable to stay on the field the
last couple years. Timmerman and McCollum are both very solid performers at C
and RG respectively.
14. Oakland Raiders
No line has greater upside potential than the Raiders unit, who were one of
the NFL's top short yardage teams a year ago, and also had the 5th lowest sack
percentage in the league. Barry Sims had a great year at LT, and continues to
hold off Gallery at that spot. Gallery will start at RT, where he had an up and
down rookie season last year. Grove and Stone are great guards. Stone, a savvy
veteran, and Grove, a rookie who played very well last year after moving over
from center where he played in college. Treu is steady but unspectacular at
center, and Langston Walker and Brad Badger provide more than adequate depth.
This unit was a joke for several years, the came together in a big way last season to help lead the Chargers to a 12-4 mark. Hardwick and Olivea shone as rookie last season, and should only be better in 2005 with a year of seasoning under their belts. Fonoti is a dominant run blocker, and Oben and Goff have continued to play at a very high level late into their careers.
The Packers allowed just 14 sacks all season in 2004, and were an eye-popping
27-34 in 3rd and 4th down situations of two yards or less. However, they lost
starting guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle in free agency, and Ruegamer, Klemm,
and Matt O'Dwyer are clear downgrades as options to replace them. Clifton and
Tauscher are a phenomenal pair of tackles, with Clifton excelling as a pass
blocker and Tauscher dominating in the running game. Flanagan was lost early on
due to injury, and is solid as a rock in the middle when healthy.
17. NY Jets
The Jets were the leagues top short yardage team a season ago, going 32-40 in
3rd and 4th and short situations. Kendall had a great season after being picked
up off waivers before the season, and Mawae is often mentioned as the top center
in the game. Fabini is a serviceable scrapper at LT, but the right side of the
line will be a big question for the Jets this year, who let RT Kareem McKenzie
leave in free agency.
Solid at the tackle spots, the Bengals will need to get better play inside
for this to become an elite unit capable of carrying the team into the
playoffs. Jones and Anderson are strong at the bookends, and Anderson has gone
to two straight Pro Bowls. Steinbach regressed slightly after a strong rookie
campaign, but still has great upside at LG. Braham and Williams were the weak
links a year ago, and Alex Sulfsted and 4th round pick Eric Ghiaciuc will push
them for starting roles.
19. Carolina Panthers
The strong suit of the team during their Super Bowl run, the Panthers
offensive line was very inconsistent and banged up a season ago. They went out
and signed Packer LG Mike Wahle in free agency, who was one of the better guards
in football these last two seasons. Gross is very good at RT, and the team will
try Wharton at LT after he played very well there down the stretch last season.
Mitchell and Reyes are no longer anything special at this point in their careers
and will be pushed by Bruce Nelson and 3rd round pick Evan Mathis.
20. New York Giants
The Giant line came a long way last season, and yielded 4.7 yards per rush to
rank as one of the top run blocking lines in football last year, despite
struggling mightily against the pass rush. McKenzie was signed away from the
Jets to start at RT, and to keep Petitgout at LT. McKenzie started 48 straight
games for the Jets, committing just three penalties over that span. Snee showed
plenty of promise last season, and Diehl was a late round flier a couple years
back that has panned out pretty well. O'Hara is not physically imposing, but is
a heady player that makes few mental mistakes.
Pearson's injury last season really hurt this group, which has very good
upside potential if they can keep him healthy, Meester and Williams are as
solid as they come at C and RT, though the team will need a higher level of play
from the youngster Manuwai and veteran Naeole in 2005. Rookie Khalif Barnes was
also drafted on day one, and could factor in the mix if Pearson struggles with
injuries or inconsistency.
22. Cleveland Browns
Few units have been as maligned as this group, which has been beset by
terrible guard play the last several seasons. New GM Phil Savage immediately
addressed that need by striking quick in free agency with the signings of
Andruzzi and Coleman, two very well respected and solid guards. Shelton was
then added to replace Ross Verba, and Tucker is a capable hold over at RT.
Faine has struggled with his strength, consistency, and the players next to him
the last two seasons, and will have to fight off Melvin Fowler for the starting
center job in training camp. This unit should be improved, but depth is still a
23. Chicago Bears
This line has struggled mightily the last couple years, but have the
potential to be pretty good this year if they can stay healthy. Kruetz is a
rock at center, and has been to four straight Pro Bowls despite little to no
talent surrounding him. Tait is probably more suited for RT, but is an above
average LT. Brown is long in the tooth, but is an eight time Pro Bowler that
played well before getting hurt last season. Garza and Miller were added in
free agency after being cast aside by their old teams.
24. Buffalo Bills
Left tackle is a big question mark here, as Gandy is a guy probably better
suited for guard. It's possible that Teague, the teams' best lineman, could be
moved back out there, where he has played in the past. Villarial and Anderson,
who was signed away from Baltimore, are both big, physical threats in the run
game, and Mike Williams is a monster at RT. This is a make or break year for
Williams, who has Pro Bowl potential, but has struggled with
25. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons led the league in yards per rush and total rushing last year, but that had more to do with Michael Vick than this group, which also allowed 50 sacks. Forney and McClure are the best players on this line, and the Falcons will need better play from Shaffer and Weiner if they are intent on a Super Bowl run this season.
26. Detroit Lions
Signing DeMulling away from Indy fills a huge hole at LG, and he and Woody
are amongst the leagues best guard duos. Woody came on strong late, and
dominated down the stretch. Raiola also played fairly well last year, and had
his contract extended at years end. Backus is steady, but limited and the Lions
have a host of guys that will fight for the RT spot.
27. Tennessee Titans
The Titan line is a microcosm of the team as a whole, and aging unit that
still has some talent that is trying to hang on. Hopkins has been very good at
LT for some time now, but is getting long in the tooth. Roos, the teams 2nd
round pick, is being expected to start immediately at RT, as Jacob Bell did very
well for the team as a rookie last season. Olson and Piller are both more than
able at the guard spots when healthy, but have rarely been of late.
The Cardinal line can be good if they get good guard play. Davis evolved at
LT last season after replacing L.J. Shelton, and Ross was signed away from
Pittsburgh to play RT. Stepanovich was a very pleasant surprise in the middle
as a late round rookie. Wells and Bridges will be pushed by 4th round selection
Elton Brown from Virginia.
29. Houston Texans
The Texans still give up too many sacks, and has struggled to improve since
the Texans entered the league. McKinney is a very good center, and Wade and
Wiegert played well in spots on the right side. Riley was signed to play LT
this off-season, but has flopped with the Chiefs and Saints already.
30. Miami Dolphins
OL guru Hudson Houck was brought on to help out this beleaguered unit, which finished near the bottom of the league in all OL related categories. Vernon Carey, last year's 1st round pick disappointed, and will battle McIntosh for time at LT. McDougle was brought over from Detroit to play RT. Big things were expected from James when he came over from Carolina last year and he failed to menace.
The Niners overpaid Jennings this off-season, who will take over at LT for
what was a terrible line last season, and allow Harris to move back to his
natural RT spot. Smiley was lost in pass protection last year, but the team is
optimistic about him this season. Newberry is solid when healthy, but he missed
all of last year and his health is a question mark again this year.
The Bucs line was a mess last season, and I see more of the same in the cards for this year. Their best lineman (Deese) is 35, and the rest of the unit has had huge problems with consistency.