I'm sorry, NFL fans. We've now entered the dead stage of the offseason and literally almost nothing will happen for the next four weeks. So, I'll just keep ranking stuff.
With 90-man rosters taking shape, we can begin to piece together where teams are strongest, deepest, most talented, and conversely where they're thin or threatened. Thus far in this series, I've looked at some of the NFL's best defensive lines, best linebacker corps and best defensive secondaries, then looked to offense, breaking down my best running back groups, tight ends units and wide receiver corps. Today, I focus on offensive lines.
I included 16 NFL clubs on my list today (plus some honorable mentions), all teams a realistic shot at being among the NFL's best at the position in 2014. The offensive line is one of the more difficult positions to evaluate using statistics because of the multitude of variables that go into what makes an offensive line effective. Influencing factors include how quickly the quarterback can get the ball out, the quality of the running backs involved, the scheme and the team's philosophy. Furthermore, just watching tape isn't necessarily the end-all be-all of evaluation either. Did that play actually go as planned? Did that guard/tackle/center actually execute his given assignment?
Bottom line: it's tough, but I'll give it a shot. I'm sure I overrated, underrated, or forgot about a couple teams with talent and depth on the offensive line within my list.
(italics indicates a rookie; * indicates 2013 All-Pro)
In no particular order ...
LT Jason Peters*, LG Evan Mathis*, C Jason Kelce, RG Todd Herremans, RT Lane Johnson, T Dennis Kelly, G Karim Barton, C Julian Vandervelde, G Allen Barbre, T Matt Tobin, T Andrew Gardner, G Josh Andrews, G Donald Hawkins, T Kevin Graf, T Michael Bamiro
Philly has one of the best left tackle/left guard combinations in the NFL in All-Pros Jason Peters and Evan Mathis, a duo who helped paved the way for NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy in 2013. Of course, center Jason Kelce had an outstanding year as well, Todd Herremans was serviceable at right guard, and Lane Johnson showed promise while taking his rookie lumps after being Chip Kelly's first pick at No. 4.
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Incredibly, the five combined to play 5,426 of the Eagles' 5,520 offensive snaps in 2013, continuity enjoyed by few teams. This experience together in the line of fire is invaluable -- checks, communication, chemistry and comfort -- particularly for an offensive line unit that runs one of the highest-tempo and innovative offenses in the NFL. Going into 2014, assuming they can stay healthy, the Eagles figure to have one of the best lines in the league, and may be only getting better with the development of Johnson on the right side. With Herremans the main question mark starter-wise, guys like Allen Barbre, Dennis Kelly, Julian Vandervelde and Karim Barton will vie for playing time. Overall, Chip Kelly has an athletic group well suited for his exciting offense.
LT Joe Staley*, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis, G/T Jonathan Martin, G Joe Looney, G/C Marcus Martin, G Adam Snyder, T Fou Fonoti, G Ryan Seymour, G/T Brandon Thomas, T Carter Bykowski
Joe Staley is an All-Pro left tackle, highly athletic and effective as both a pass protector and run blocker (and receiver, apparently). He's flanked by the punishing Iupati, a two-time Pro Bowler and 2012 All-Pro guard, and, like Philly, the combination of the two gives San Francisco one of the best left sides in football. Bookending Staley at right tackle is the physically imposing former first-rounder Anthony Davis, who is paired with Alex Boone to make the Niners' right side pretty damn impressive as well. With Jonathan Goodwin moving on in free agency over the offseason, Daniel Kilgore moves in to take over at center, which is really the only question mark on that starting offensive line.
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San Francisco's depth is very strong as well, and former USC Trojan Marcus Martin, a favorite of mine in the run-up to the draft, will look to give Kilgore a run for his money at the starting center position. Also providing quality depth are veterans Joe Looney and Adam Snyder, and Ryan Seymour provides some value as a guy who can play all three interior positions. Overall, it's an extremely strong group that should continue to dominate the trenches in 2014.
LT Ryan Clady, LG Orlando Franklin, C Manny Ramirez, RG Louis Vasquez*, RT Chris Clark, T Winston Justice, G Ben Garland, C Will Montgomery, G Ryan Miller, T Michael Schofield, C Matt Paradis, T Vinston Painter, T Paul Cornick, T Aslam Sterling
Denver's starting five is up in the air somewhat heading into 2014 but the talent is certainly there. The left tackle position will be held down once again by three-time All-Pro Ryan Clady, and 2013 right tackle Orlando Franklin -- who had a quality season at that position -- will make the move to left guard after the departure of Zane Beadles. Franklin's power in short areas means he projects well to the position, assuming he can make the adjustment to the left side.
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Manny Ramirez emerged from a group of centers and had his best season as a pro in 2013, and of course, Louis Vasquez is a young All-Pro right guard. LT to RG, Denver has a highly impressive group, leaving only the right tackle position as a major question mark, and the competition should feature Chris Clark against 43-career-game starter Winston Justice, sophomore Vinston Painter and rookie Michael Schofield. Will Montgomery is an experienced backup at center and guard, and Ben Garland, who took a circuitous route to the pros via the military, will be one to watch.
LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins*, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Sebastian Vollmer, T Marcus Cannon, G Josh Kline, C Bryan Stork, G Jon Halapio, T Cameron Fleming, C Braxston Cave, T Jordan Devey
The Patriots have one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL when both Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are healthy and on the field, and having All-Pro Logan Mankins at the left guard spot doesn't hurt things. The center and right guard spots are less set in stone going forward, held down by veteran incumbents Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, who both should have to hold off the impressive Marcus Cannon (if a position switch from right tackle to right guard is in order with the return of Vollmer), or even see competition from rookies Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio and Cameron Fleming.
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It's a deep, versatile group -- one that was hurt by injuries in 2013 but should be among the league's best in 2014.
LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Trevor Robinson, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Andre Smith, T Tanner Hawkinson, G T.J. Johnson, C Russell Bodine, G Mike Pollak, T Marshall Newhouse, G Trey Hopkins, T Chandler Burden, G Dan France, T Will Svitek, T Curtis Feigt
Andrew Whitworth was one of the best left tackles in the game in 2013, and was maybe even better as a left guard to finish off the last month of the season or so when Clint Boling went down. While Boling rehabs his injury with his eye on a return by the start of the season, the Bengals have tinkered with the idea of starting Whitworth at left guard again going forward. Regardless, whether he's playing on the edge or in a phone booth, he's a very, very good player, and for this article I've penciled him in at the blind side, next to Boling. That would probably be the ideal for the Bengals.
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On the right side of Cincy's line, 2012 first-rounder Kevin Zeitler flanks one of the better right tackles in the game in Andre Smith. Cincinnati is well positioned to have one of the best lines in the game. The left guard position is still up in the air with Boling's ACL injury, and Trevor Robinson, Mike Pollak and rookie Russell Bodine will vie for the job snapping the football.
THE DAMN GOOD
LT Tyron Smith*, LG Ronald Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free, T Darrion Weems, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, C Ronald Patrick, G Tyronne Green, T Jermey Parnell, G Brian Clarke, G Andre Cureton, T Josh Aladenoye, G Darius Morris
Tyron Smith is one of the best young tackles in the game -- a devastating run blocker with consistency in pass protection -- and has entrenched himself on the left side after playing on the right early in his career. He's bookended by the venerable Doug Free, who is still playing at a high level at right tackle for the Cowboys and doesn't leave much room for improvement in pass protection as well.
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Center Travis Frederick will look to build on a promising rookie season after becoming the Cowboys' surprising first-round pick in 2013, and Dallas will throw rookie Zack Martin, one of my favorite linemen in this year's draft, in at right guard to start. Martin's a plug-and-play lineman at a number of spots, but should have no issue acclimating to the right interior spot after playing at left tackle his senior season at Notre Dame. A solid four out of five clear-cut starters on an offensive line ain't bad, and Ronald Leary will battle Mackenzy Bernadeau for the honors at left guard.
LT Riley Reiff, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Larry Warford, RT LaAdrian Waddle, C Travis Swanson, G DJ Morrell, G Rodney Austin, T Corey Hilliard, T Cornelius Lucas, G Alex Bullard, G AJ Dalton, T Bryce Quigley, C Darren Keyton
The Lions had the All-Rookie Right Side last year with Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle both exceeding expectations, and with Riley Reiff emerging as a good young left tackle, the sky is the limit for the Lions in 2014. Warford in particular was impressive, and the exceedingly rotund, stout, yet technically sound right guard was equally effective in the run game as he was protecting Matt Stafford in the pass game. Waddle came on during the season as an undrafted rookie and impressed.
Veteran Rob Sims holds down the left guard position while the ageless Dominic Raiola will look to fend off rookie Travis Swanson for the starting center position.
LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Jahri Evans*, RT Zach Strief, T Ty Nsekhe, G Manase Foketi, C Tim Lelito, C Matt Armstrong, T Marcel Jones, T Bryce Harris, T Tavon Rooks, T Jason Weaver, T Thomas Welch
Terron Armstead emerged in his rookie season as what looks to be a potential long-term starter at the left tackle position -- great news for a Saints offense that already has one of the best guard tandems in the NFL in Ben Grubbs and All-Pro Jahri Evans. The Saints rely on a solid interior presence to mitigate Drew Brees' slight height disadvantage, and they're set up to do that again in 2014.
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The big question though is at center, where 35-year-old former 49er Jonathan Goodwin comes in as a likely starter. He'll see competition from sophomore Tim Lelito and rookie Matt Armstrong, however, and that will be an extremely important position to watch for New Orleans.
LT Michael Roos, LG Andy Levitre, C Brian Schwenke, RG Chance Warmack, RT Taylor Lewan, T Michael Oher, T Jeff Adams, G Chris Spencer, C Tyler Horn, G Eric Olsen, T Byron Stingily, C Gabe Ikard, G Justin McCray, T Viondy Merisma, T William Poehls
Michael Roos has been an amazingly consistent and excellent left tackle over the past decade (he's missed one start his whole frickin' career), has won All-Pro honors three times and will reprise his role as the lockdown blindside protector in 2014. He'll be joined by solid left guard Andy Levitre and up-and-coming center Brian Schwenke to form a formidable left side. Throwing Chance Warmack in at right guard and (pending a competition) Taylor Lewan at right tackle, and this Titans group has potential to be one of the best, if not underrated, in the NFL. Michael Oher will vie for the right tackle spot as well, and Tennessee has some nice veteran depth with guard/center Chris Spencer in the mix.
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A technically sound left side combined with a mauling physical right, and the Titans have set themselves up well to keep Jake Locker upright this season while creating holes for Bishop Sankey to run through.
LT Joe Thomas*, LG Joel Bitonio, C Alex Mack*, RG John Greco, RT Mitchell Schwartz, T Martin Wallace, T Reid Fragel, T/G Paul McQuistan, C Alex Parsons, G Jason Pinkston, T Keavon Milton, G Jeremiah Warren, T Chris Faulk, G Garrett Gilkey, T Randall Harris
Joe Thomas is a stalwart at left tackle -- one of the best in the game -- as is center Alex Mack, and the two were recognized as such as All-Pros in 2013. Mitchell Schwartz, who was solid at the right tackle position for the Browns last year, will continue to bookend Cleveland's line with Thomas, and veteran John Greco is the likely favorite at right guard. Rookie Joel Bitonio rounds out the projected starting five and his nasty demeanor and high level of athleticism makes him a nice match for Kyle Shanahan's installation of his zone blocking scheme.
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The Browns will have one of the most interesting offensive lines to watch in 2014, and not just because they'll be tasked with protecting Johnny Manziel (maybe), but because everywhere it goes, the Shanahan ZBS seems to produce very effective run games. He certainly has the horses up front to continue that tradition in Cleveland.
LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt, T Kevin Murphy, G Vladimir Ducasse, C Zac Kerin, G Jeff Baca, T Mike Remmers, T Tiny Richardson, G David Yankey, T Matt Hall, T Austin Wentworth, T Pierce Burton, G Joe Berger
The Vikings are another club with an excellent set of bookend tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt (Loadholt could probably challenge Andre Smith and Sebastian Vollmer, among others, as the NFL's best right tackles), and right guard Brandon Fusco and center John Sullivan both had very strong 2013 campaigns as well. With four out of five starting spots more or less locked down, that battle at the left guard position should be an interesting one, particularly with some of the depth the Vikings have on their line.
With veterans like Vlad Ducasse, sophomore Jeff Baca and rookie David Yankey all vying for the spot, the Vikes will have a shot at solidifying one of the best lines in the game. Adrian Peterson is so good that he could probably run effectively behind any line in the NFL, but lucky for Minnesota fans, the Vikings have a very good one.
THE WILD CARDS
The Wild Cards section is a section unto its own. It's neither "below" the other categories nor necessarily "above" some of the teams that haven't been listed. Instead, it's set aside by itself. While these teams may end up being exceedingly average to downright bad once the 2014 season chugs along, they could also vault themselves into the elite category, with much of it depending on the play of a few select young contributors or rookie draft picks.
LT Duane Brown, LG Ben Jones, C Chris Myers, RG Brandon Brooks, RT Derek Newton, T Brennan Williams, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, T Bryan Witzmann, T Anthony Dima, C James Ferentz, G Cody White, T Matt Feiler, G Conor Boffelli, G Alex Kupper
The Texans have used a zone blocking scheme for as long as I can remember, it seems like, but with a new coaching regime in place, some new schemes are likely to appear, making Houston one of my must-watch teams this year. The Texans certainly still have some talent on the offensive line in two-time All-Pro Duane Brown, two-time Pro Bowler Chris Myers and the solid Brandon Brooks. Right tackle Derek Newton had a down 2013 (but thus far projects as the starting right tackle), and the left guard competition should be an interesting one to monitor.
The reason I list the Texans in the Wild Cards category is that I'm very intrigued to see how quickly UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo can break into the starting lineup, and he seems like a great fit to plug right into the left guard spot between Brown and Myers.
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Similarly, I was a big fan of Brennan Williams when he came out last year, and if he can get back from a couple of bad knee injuries (a big "if"), he might challenge for the starting right tackle job. If Su'a-Filo can lock down the left guard spot, though, this is a very strong Texans group that could really surprise some people again in 2014.
LT Branden Albert, LG Dallas Thomas, C Mike Pouncey, RG Shelley Smith, RT Ja'Wuan James, G Billy Turner, C Sam Brenner, G David Arkin, T Jason Fox, T Nate Garner, T Sam Longo, G Michael Philipp, C Tyler Larsen, G Davonte Wallace, T Evan Finkenberg
The Dolphins went out and got their franchise left tackle in Branden Albert while adding right guard Shelley Smith, and when those two are put on a line with center Mike Pouncey, Miami has a solid nucleus to build around. I'm listing the Dolphins in the Wild Cards category because of the potential they have with a few young players -- particularly sophomore Dallas Thomas and rookies Ja'Wuan James and Billy Turner.
With Thomas slated to start at left guard and James at right tackle, the Dolphins could be the most revamped offensive line in the league. There's talent there, for sure, but whether that will translate to the field will be interesting to see.
LT Donald Penn, LG Gabe Jackson, C Stefen Wisniewski, RG Austin Howard, RT Menelik Watson, G/C Kevin Boothe, G Tony Bergstrom, G Lucas Nix, G/T Khalif Barnes, T Jack Cornell, G Jarrod Shaw, G Lamar Mady, T Matt McCants, T Danny Kistler Jr.
The Raiders might see a similarly revamped offensive line in 2014, depending on how camp battles shake out. The most interesting group, in my mind, would be as listed above: free agent Donald Penn, a former Pro Bowler who regressed badly in 2013, at left tackle; rookie Gabe Jackson at left guard; Stefen Wisniewski at center; Austin Howard at right guard; and second-year player Menelik Watson, the team's second-rounder in 2013, at right tackle.
A nearly complete shuffling, the two biggest wild cards would probably be Jackson and Watson, but the upside there in those two players is enormous. With a new quarterback in Matt Schaub and a new running back in Maurice Jones-Drew, the Raiders will be an intriguing team to watch this year.
LT Jared Veldheer, LG Jonathan Cooper, C Lyle Sendlein, G Earl Watford, T Bobby Massie, RT Bradley Sowell, RG Paul Fanaika, T Nate Potter, G Anthony Steen, C Philip Blake, T Kevin Palmer, T Cory Brandon, C Tommie Draheim
The Cardinals' offensive line wasn't their strong suit in 2013 (ok, they were bad) and may not be in 2014, but I think there is a distinct potential there for a huge jump in effectiveness. Therefore, because I figured I'd throw one really weird one in, they're in my Wild Cards group.
Arizona went out and successfully signed one of the top left tackles on the market in Jared Veldheer, and will place him outside the team's first-round pick from 2013, LG Jonathan Cooper. Cooper's broken leg his rookie year may have people forgetting about him, but the left-side combination of Veldheer and Cooper has immense potential and could set the tone for the Cardinals this season.
On the right side of the line, projected starters right now are incumbents Paul Fanaika and Bradley Sowell, but it will be very interesting to see if 2013 fourth-rounder Earl Watford and the intriguing Bobbie Massie emerge as starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively, after camp. It's a projection, for sure (hence: Wild Cards), but Arizona could really surprise some people with a Veldheer - Cooper - Sendlein - Watford - Massie starting offensive line.
LT Jake Long, LG Greg Robinson, C Scott Wells, RG Rodger Saffold, RT Joe Barksdale, T Mike Person, G Brandon Washington, C Tim Barnes, G Davin Joseph, T Mitchell Van Dyk, T Sean Hooey, G Travis Bond, C Barrett Jones, C Demetrius Rhaney, T Abasi Salimu
Jake Long has the potential to be a top-10 left tackle in the game, and he's now going to be paired with Greg Robinson, the consensus top offensive lineman in the draft this year. The Rams also have solid veteran Scott Wells at center, the surprisingly effective guard Rodger Saffold on his right and Joe Barksdale, coming off of a strong 2013 campaign, at the right tackle spot. Davin Joseph is a no-risk, high-reward type of signing that could pan out as a very strong depth addition, and there are some depth pieces in there that could really round out this Rams offensive line.
Green Bay Packers (Contenders)
Atlanta Falcons (Contenders)
San Diego Chargers (Contenders)
New York Jets (Contenders)
Baltimore Ravens (Contenders)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Wild Cards)
Chicago Bears (Wild Cards)
Kansas City Chiefs (Wild Cards)
I'm not going to pretend I got all these into the correct groupings, and I'm sure I left a few candidates off the list, so in the comments below, let me know where you differ in opinion or let me know where I missed the mark.