What else have we learned so far at the quarter mark of the season? Shaquill Barrett is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner. Gardner Minshew is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. Jay Gruden is still the coach most likely to be fired first, while a few surprises have emerged in the Coach of the Year race.
Every quarter of the NFL season, I’ll be doing an offensive rankings of sort. I don’t like to rank 1-32, because there are always many units that are close in the rankings. So I’ll use the tier system. Heading into the season, we had the Eagles, Cowboys, Saints, Patriots, and Steelers in the upper tier, followed closely by the Packers, Bears, Colts, and Chiefs.
Let’s see where the offensive lines stand now.
The upper tier after four weeks of the regular season has three of the five from the preseason rankings: the Eagles, Cowboys and Saints. The Patriots’ injuries have slid them down, while the Steelers just haven’t been the same — possibly because of the quarterback situation, but more because they lost their offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, to the Broncos.
It’s also worth mentioning, as longtime NFL reporter John Clayton told me last season, the rule of 150. If your starting offensive line has a combined age of 150 or over, it declines fast due to older players’ diminishing skills and injuries. I hadn’t heard about it, but it applied last year to the Atlanta Falcons, whose OL got worse as the season went along. With a younger right tackle, the Steelers are right at 150, so according to Clayton’s theory, their OL is supposed to decline, which is showing just a bit.
But enough about which ones have fallen. Let’s get to the best of the best right now. These are no order, FYI.
The top offensive line tier
There are just three in this group, at least so far this season.
It’s no surprise the Eagles are in this upper tier. They are monsters in the trenches, even with some injuries hampering them. What makes the Eagles’ offensive line so unique is they have big bodies. Brandon Brooks at right guard and Jason Kelce at center are playing at their usual high levels. Both tackles, Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, are ranked in the top 10, according to Pro Football Focus.
As a unit, the Eagles are 12th in adjusted line yards, second in power rank (needing 2 yards or less on third or fourth down), and eighth in stuff rate, all of those according to Football Outsiders. These rushing numbers are all without having an elite-level running back.
In pass protection, they are a physical group, highlighted by Johnson. Their tackles are almost always on an island and give Carson Wentz plenty of time for work.
Here are some highlights of their offensive line, brought to you by Brandon Thorn. If you want weekly offensive line breakdowns and videos, he’s the man to follow.
Brandon Brooks is one of the biggest guards in the NFL, but is also one of the most skilled. Through the first 3 weeks he's shown some impressive variance in his sets & hands.— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 26, 2019
- Snatch & trap
- 'Flash' technique
- Jump set
This after tearing his Achilles 8 months ago pic.twitter.com/J0qppO23Yy
The Cowboys might be the “best” offensive line through the first four weeks. I know, the Saints ate them up in Week 4, but one game shouldn’t change my opinion, or yours, for that manner.
I said before the season that Cowboys center Travis Frederick was the single most important addition for a contender. Having him back has solidified the offensive line and added some protection at left guard, where Connor Williams struggles at times. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith have been their usual excellent selves, and La’el Collins, fresh off a new contract at right tackle, is currently the highest-ranked tackle by Pro Football Focus.
The film backs up how Collins is playing:
Such a great rep by La'el Collins here to get the snatch in vs. Jordan 1v1 & put him on the turf pic.twitter.com/yVLz16Akc2— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 2, 2019
The Cowboys are fifth in adjusted line yards, first in power rank, and seventh in second-level rank, which measures the yards earned between 5-10 on a given run. That shows me the Cowboys are opening up massive holes for the running backs. They are also playing smart football, which is something needed when running some of these RPO-style plays, as evidenced by Smith here:
Y’all ... freaking clinic footwork and execution by the @dallascowboys LT Tyron Smith on Dak Prescott’s long run. The Redskins run a gap exchange to force Dak to pull the ball and Tyron’s footwork and prep allow him to make a tougher block than it looks. Great work pic.twitter.com/V9IJFn3eSU— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 17, 2019
New Orleans Saints
The Saints had an outstanding offensive line last season and returned four starters — all but center Max Unger, who retired. His replacement came in the form of Erik McCoy, a rookie from Texas A&M. He’s had his ups and downs, but luckily for the Saints, his ups have been higher than his downs.
Look at this finish by McCoy against the Cowboys:
Erik McCoy having a strong night. pic.twitter.com/bSbS7w3XAZ— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 30, 2019
What I love most about the Saints’ offensive line is their versatility. They run a wide variety of run schemes and they excel in their ability to execute those blocks. Here’s an example from Week 1:
This might be the best blocked run play of week 1! All of the @Saints lineman get a plus on this toss play, including rookie center Erik McCoy. Huge hole for Kamara to sprint through. Notice the finish by everyone!— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 12, 2019
up!! @CoachPaintCH pic.twitter.com/5FG1uT11Ag
While they are big road graders, they also have nimble feet in pass protection, and their right tackle is one of the best in the game.
The second offensive line tier
A few units are knocking on the door of the first tier, but aren’t quite there yet.
Their offensive line has been great rushing the football. I was wrong on my prediction about Orlando Brown Jr., as I saw him more like Ereck Flowers. The big man has been powerful in the run game, leading this unit to the second-best adjusted line yards rate, while also being third in second-level yards. Also, Brown understands the pass pro isn’t passive.
There's some serious power behind Orlando Brown Jr.'s strikes pic.twitter.com/JtMG6NyNbR— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 25, 2019
Lastly, left tackle Ronnie Stanley has come into his own and is having a Pro Bowl-caliber start to his season.
The fighting Quenton Nelsons! This dude is amazing at his job, as you’ve seen with the hundreds of videos I’ve posted in the last three seasons (including his last year at Notre Dame). The Colts are ninth in running back yards and seventh in adjusted sack yards.
They weren’t in the upper tier entering the season because of their right side, which is still the side of the line that’s holding them back. Don’t worry, though. They are still an above-average unit.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers continue to have a terrific tackle pass protection unit, led by left tackle David Bakhtiari. Their issue is at right guard, where Billy Turner hasn’t played well, and it’s messing up their pass protection at times. It’s hard to protect at tackle when the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket. The right guard is vital to the pass protection success.