Grading offensive lines in this era of the NFL is sort of like judging a chili contest without knowing how to differentiate between a jalapeno, a habanero and a Scotch bonnet pepper.
Without really understanding, they're all just hot.
Offensive line play is much the same. Unless you understand how a team plays and the impact other players can have on a line, it's hard to figure out exactly how to grade a group of five. That's particularly true in the current state of the NFL where great offensive linemen are few, depth on a roster is rare and even decent offensive linemen get spread around the league in a hurry because of free agency.
"Everybody is looking for help," said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose line is currently the best and perhaps deepest in the league. Because depth is so important, the Saints have resisted trading tackle Jammal Brown(notes) even though the former first-round NFL draft pick is not currently listed as a starter and is expected to leave via free agency at the end of next season.
New Orleans survived a season-ending injury to Brown last season because backup Jermon Bushrod(notes) played effectively. Still, despite Bushrod's play and Brown's return, the Saints still felt compelled to draft tackle Charles Brown(notes) in the second round in April. Bottom line, you can't have enough linemen.
Said veteran Dallas offensive line coach Hudson Houck: "It's always been true; it all works together. If the running back, the quarterback or the wide receivers don't do the right things, the offensive line is going to look bad."
Subsequently, teams spend more resources trying to make sure they get the line right more than any other unit. From Philadelphia's numerous moves to Miami picking Jake Long(notes) over Matt Ryan(notes) in the 2008 draft, putting together a good line is a huge priority.
With that, here's a look at the lines from 1 to 32 with a great deal of help from the folks at FootballOutsiders.com:
1. New Orleans Saints: There were only two teams that ranked in the top 10 of both run and pass-blocking efficiency last year according to Football Outsiders. It should be no surprise that those teams rank in the top two spots. Then again, it's a delicate situation. The Saints were clearly the best unit in the league last year, led by guard Jahri Evans(notes), who many people believe has surpassed Minnesota's Steve Hutchinson(notes) as the best interior offensive linemen in the NFL. But the real key is that this group works very well together and is consistent at creating space for Drew Brees to step up or keeping defensive linemen from getting in his face quickly (Brees is susceptible to batted passes because he's only 6-feet tall). The running game is still something of a mirage, but this group makes it work.
2. New England Patriots: Critics will immediately say the Patriots are over-ranked at this spot. There's no debating that the group's high ranking is partially a reflection of the rest of the league being downright mediocre. The Pats have problems right now at left tackle, where Matt Light(notes) is close to the end. If they don't re-sign guard Logan Mankins(notes), the best of the group but who is so unhappy that he has demanded a trade, this unit is going into serious freefall. That said, few groups in the NFL work together as well as the Patriots. Obviously quarterback Tom Brady(notes), the fourth-most hit passer in the league, helps a lot. But it's still a good unit.
3. Baltimore Ravens: At a time when pass protection is so critical, the Ravens were below average last season with an adjusted ranking of 19 overall. That said, between having a young quarterback (Joe Flacco(notes) was in his second season), a couple of big changes on the line (guard Jason Brown(notes) left and rookie right tackle Michael Oher(notes) came in) and a lack of great weapons at the receiver spot (Anquan Boldin(notes) and Donte Stallworth were brought in this offseason), there is reason to believe improvement will be made. Oher is switching to left tackle, where he may quickly surpass Denver's Ryan Clady(notes) and Miami's Jake Long as the best at that spot.
4. Atlanta Falcons: Falcons linemen like to joke about their lack of talent. Really, it's a rallying cry for them to work together. While it's true that this group doesn't have overwhelming talent, it works together in much the same way that New England's unit thrives. If left tackle Sam Baker(notes) and third-round guard Mike Johnson(notes) progress, the Falcons will solidify this spot.
5. Miami Dolphins: This is the best run-blocking unit in the league, hands down, showing the emphasis head coach (and former offensive line coach) Tony Sparano puts on line play. This group is the embodiment of what Bill Parcells loves in a line: a bunch of big, intimidating maulers. Some people might question having so many big guys in a place where the weather takes its toll, but the Dolphins are making it work, starting with the outstanding play of left tackle Jake Long. The interior line is still problematic, but if Jake Grove(notes) can stay healthy, that should solidify the center spot. If Richie Incognito(notes) can keep his head straight, this unit could take a step forward.
6. Houston Texans: Despite putting Baltimore and Miami in the top five (mostly because of personnel and not necessarily execution), I can't harp on this enough: The most important objective in the NFL today is to keep the quarterback clean. Houston ranked eighth in the league last season despite the fact that the running game was mediocre and quarterback Matt Schaub's(notes) mobility was limited because of an ankle injury. There's not a household name in the bunch and offensive tackles Duane Brown(notes) and Eric Winston(notes) are both limited physically. Still, they don't let people touch Schaub and the running game could really improve with better running back play.
7. New York Jets: I can already hear the good folks of Gang Green ripping me for putting this unit only one spot ahead of the Giants after the Jets led the league in rushing last season. That would be a reasonable thing to say if the pass protection hadn't been so bad last year (the Jets ranked No. 23 according to Football Outsiders). A lot of that goes to the youth of quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes), but facts are facts. All of that said, no line in the league has a better chance of moving up significantly this season than the Jets, even after the release of veteran Alan Faneca(notes).
8. New York Giants: Going into last season, the Giants might have been ranked No. 1 overall, certainly in the court of public opinion. The most important things this unit had going were health and consistency. They also had a running game that set the tone for everything else on the offense. However, injuries along the line to right tackle Kareem McKenzie(notes) and guard Rich Seubert(notes) – compounded by nagging injuries to running back Brandon Jacobs(notes) – sapped the Giants of their upfront power. There were times when this unit had no cohesion. The question now is whether the Giants will get some of that back. Led by talented guard Chris Snee(notes), it's possible.
9. Indianapolis Colts: If the Colts were at least some kind of threat on short-yardage situations, then they'd be ranked much higher. As it is, I'm giving the line a lot of credit for being the best pass-blocking unit in the league last season. Realistically though, quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) should get a lot of credit for that. No quarterback does a better job of getting rid of the ball on time than Manning. But it's telling that the Colts often line up in shotgun formation on third-and-1 or third-and-2. That's about as big a slap in the face as you can give to your offensive line.
10. Dallas Cowboys: When things are going good with the Cowboys, the running game is clicking and quarterback Tony Romo(notes) is able to operate behind this mauling unit of behemoths (side note: guard Leonard Davis(notes) might be the most imposing figure in the human race). However, when this team is behind on the scoreboard, the offensive line can look like a band of turnstiles, as it did in the NFC playoffs at Minnesota. That turned Romo into the second-coming of Chuck Wepner. This is the ultimate feast-or-famine line in the league. Left tackle Flozell "Kick Save" Adams is gone, which will be an issue. Adams is far from irreplaceable, but finding a new one is no easy task.
11. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings were ranked surprisingly low last season in both running efficiency (No. 20) and pass blocking (No. 14). The biggest problem is that left tackle Bryant McKinnie(notes) has gone through a terrible regression. The fact that he made the Pro Bowl last year is almost a joke, to say nothing of how disgraceful he acted when he got to Miami for the game and eventually got kicked off the team. Guard Steve Hutchinson is still something special with his ability to pull and hold up the point of attack. He may be the best guard since John Hannah, and that's saying a lot.
12. Denver Broncos: Between left tackle Ryan Clady and right tackle Ryan Harris(notes), the Broncos have the best pair of young offensive tackles in the game. The loss of Harris to injury last season destroyed the running game that was so effective and helped the Broncos start 6-0 last season. Now, Clady is out with a patellar tendon injury that could sideline him through the start of the season. The interior line is still in transition from the days of Mike Shanahan's cut-blocking scheme. But the fact is this unit was so good for most of the season that it actually helped make quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) look much better than really is the case.
13. Arizona Cardinals: This is probably the one area of the Cardinals that you can say has truly improved over the past year. Every other position has regressed, primarily because of the loss of players. But the Cardinals are hoping they'll make a transition to being more of a running team now that quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) is gone. With Levi Brown and Deuce Lutui(notes), there are a couple of strong starters and the work of offensive line coach Russ Grimm is outstanding. However, if quarterback Matt Leinart(notes) doesn't learn to get rid of the ball, there could be problems.
14. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers were terrible in the running game last season, but a lot of people in the personnel staff think that was because running back LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) regressed so badly the past two years and the Chargers had no suitable backup. We'll see if rookie Ryan Mathews(notes) makes a difference, but it's fair to say that the Chargers were a very good group three years ago and many of the key players are the same. If left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) can get his contract situation resolved, the Chargers could be fine. The pass blocking is still very good, particularly with quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) getting rid of the ball so quickly.
15. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals ranked No. 24 in run efficiency last season, but that's a bit of an illusion. Their stats were brought down by the fact that they ran so often to cover for the lack of a great passing game. That made Cincinnati far more one-dimensional than they should be. If the addition of wide receiver Antonio Bryant(notes) and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes) help the passing game, the offensive line will show statistical improvement. In addition, if the Bengals can get second-year left tackle Andre Smith(notes) on the field and get him motivated, they have a chance to make significant strides with this unit.
16. Cleveland Browns: Statistically, the Browns were in the bottom half of the league in run-blocking (No. 22) and were middle of the pack in pass protection (No. 15). That would seem to indicate a lower ranking. But this group, led by left tackle Joe Thomas(notes), is actually much better than that and really suffered from having bad skill position players all around it (the quarterbacks and wide receivers were horrible and the running backs were just awful). Give this unit a little help and it's easily a middle-of-the-pack group in this league. Maybe better.
17. Tennessee Titans: Despite having running back Chris Johnson, the Titans ranked only No. 21 in run-blocking efficiency. But before you question how the rankings are done, realize that the Titans ranked No. 3 in pass protection, a clear indication of how the run game essentially protected the non-explosive passing game. If that continues, quarterback Vince Young(notes) has a serious chance to be effective this season.
18. Philadelphia Eagles: No team has made more high-profile moves in recent years to upgrade its line with such little in the way of results than Philly. From Jason Peters(notes) to the Andrews Brothers (Shawn and Stacy), the Eagles have searched and searched for some working group after the demise of the line led for years by tackles Tra Thomas(notes) and Jon Runyan(notes). For all the effort, the Eagles ranked No. 20 in pass protection last season. Some people may blame that on Donovan McNabb(notes). Don't be fooled. The real culprit is a combination of a bad line and a running game that no one in the NFL respects, even if the stats show that the Eagles were good at run blocking. Those stats are more a reflection of how little opponents worry about the Eagles running.
19. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers were the definition of mediocrity last season on the line, ranking No. 17 in both run and pass blocking. The group is probably a little better than that, given how good the running game was last season despite the collapse of quarterback Jake Delhomme(notes). The good news is that the talent is there for significant improvement with the likes of left tackle Jordan Gross(notes), left guard Travelle Wharton(notes), center Ryan Khalil and right guard Jeff Otah(notes). It's easy to see that this group could jump six or seven spots.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs were awful when it came to running the ball (No. 31 overall in run efficiency), but really did a pretty good job of keeping the quarterback clean (No. 11 in pass blocking). They did that despite the carousel of quarterbacks that started with Byron Leftwich(notes) and ended with rookie Josh Freeman(notes). There's still a long way to go, but the group is steady and anchored by center Jeff Faine(notes) and guard Davin Joseph(notes).
21. Chicago Bears: Their ranking is another testimony to how mediocre the NFL is in terms of offensive line play these days. There are plenty of Bears fans who will tell you than their team's line was just awful last season. Certainly, the fact that quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) constantly looked afraid as he fired passes from his back foot was a bad sign. Center Olin Kreutz(notes) just isn't enough anymore to solidify the middle and the tackles are problematic. Obviously, the lack of great weapons at wide receiver and running back is a problem.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars: The combo of left tackle Eugene Monroe(notes) and right tackle Eben Britton(notes) gives the Jags a lot of hope for the future. Now, if center Brad Meester(notes) weren't so close to the end and guard Vince Manuwai(notes) could just get his weight under control, there would be more than hope. In 2007, this was a terrific unit. In the past two years, there has been huge regression.
23. Green Bay Packers: When it came to keeping the quarterback clean, no playoff team was worse last year than the Packers, who ranked No. 30 in adjusted sacks per pass attempt. Only Oakland and Buffalo were worse. Of course, a lot of that falls on quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes), who has a tendency to hold the ball too long in an effort to make a play. But the fact is that tackles Chad Clifton(notes) and Mark Tauscher(notes) were near the end last year, yet the Packers were so desperate that they re-signed Clifton to a long-term deal this offseason. At least this group showed that it can run the ball OK, ranking No. 8.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) wasn't so effective at throwing while on the move, this line would be considered a tragedy. The Steelers won the Super Bowl in the 2008 season with the worst offensive line in the history of the title game. Hopefully the addition of rookie interior lineman Maurkice Pouncey(notes) will help, but the rest of the group is still flawed. In fact, when agent Joe Linta (who is a truly good guy) said earlier this offseason that he felt Willie Colon(notes) was the best right tackle in the game, numerous personnel men couldn't stop laughing.
25. San Francisco 49ers: A lot of this is obviously projection because the 49ers had the worst cumulative run-pass ranking in the league last season: last in run efficiency and 26th in pass blocking. The 49ers are obviously hoping that first-round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati(notes) are a significant upgrade and that tackle Joe Staley(notes) can improve. That's probably not too much to ask.
26. Detroit Lions: Despite having a rookie quarterback all season, the Lions did a better job last season in pass protection than they had done in years. Sure, the run game was still awful, but a lot of that had to do with personnel. With all the weapons the Lions have put around Matt Stafford, the line play should automatically get better even if the talent is largely the same.
27. Seattle Seahawks: It wasn't long ago that the Seahawks had one of the top three lines in the league, anchored by left tackle Walter Jones(notes) and left guard Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson left in one of the worst free agent moves and Jones got old. It happens. Of what's left, including the likes of Max Unger(notes) and Chris Spencer(notes), there's not a single player you could remotely call a star.
28. St. Louis Rams: The good news for the Rams is that left tackle Jason Smith(notes), the team's top pick in 2009, figures to be healthy in time for training camp after suffering a toe injury. If Smith is ready to go, the Rams have a building block along the line. If not, they could easily be one of the bottom five in the league again.
29. Washington Redskins: Much like St. Louis, the Redskins are hoping first-round pick Trent Williams(notes) will make a big difference at left tackle. He's replacing retired Chris Samuels(notes). The rest of the group is a collections of JAGs (Just A Guy). Then again, the organized, demanding coaching of Mike Shanahan should help immensely.
30. Buffalo Bills: The Bills finished dead last in the league last season in pass blocking, which should explain a lot of the struggles for anybody who went under center last season. At least they were above average in run blocking and the addition of offensive-minded head coach Chan Gailey will keep the Bills from doing stupid things that accentuate their lack of talent up front. Still, there's only so much you can do.
31. Kansas City Chiefs: Branden Albert(notes) has been OK at left tackle and the Chiefs still have Brian Waters(notes) around. However, the rest of the line is, at best, a bunch of castoffs. They ranked No. 30 in the league in run blocking and No. 25 in pass blocking. Not good, but there's least a chance for improvement.
32. Oakland Raiders: Wow, this is bad. Mario Henderson(notes) and Cornell Green(notes) shouldn't be the answers to: "Name the Raiders starting offensive tackles from 2009." Yikes. It doesn't get much better in the middle and the sad part is that the Raiders didn't do much to upgrade the personnel this offseason. Say a prayer for Jason Campbell(notes). He's going to need it.