Evan Silva


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2012 Offensive Line Rankings

Monday, May 7, 2012

Casual NFL observers don't do intense offensive line watching. They see the quarterback drop back from center, then hand the ball off to a back or throw it to a receiver. The O-Line is criticized if no running lane opens or the passer is sacked. It sometimes gets credit if the offense sustains a long stretch of undisrupted plays.

I watch 9-12 games each week during the regular season, and for these rankings fell back on my 2011 notes while using the great research of Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus as guidelines. I think it's also important to understand the impact of blocking schemes, rookie expectations, and free agency additions, so I tried to touch on all of that. Please keep in mind that we are attempting to project here, not making grades based strictly on yesteryear performance.

* = returning starter

1. Green Bay Packers

LT: Marshall Newhouse*
LG: T.J. Lang*
C: Jeff Saturday
RG: Josh Sitton*
RT: Bryan Bulaga*

Top reserves: OT Derek Sherrod, G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith, OT Chris Campbell, G/T Herbert Taylor, OT Andrew Datko.

Overview: Gone are longtime starters Scott Wells and Chad Clifton, but there should be little to no performance drop-off among Green Bay's elite front five. Newhouse made 13 starts last season, and natural improvement is expected from a second-year starter who's yet to turn 24. Lang has developed into a rock-solid left guard, while Sitton and Bulaga form an All Pro-caliber right side. Saturday is 37 now, but centers tend to age well and he has. He's also an ideal scheme fit for Green Bay's zone-blocking system. The Packers don't lack depth, either. Sherrod was a 2011 first-round pick. Dietrich-Smith is versatile and benefited from three spot starts last season. Campbell is an athletic swing man. Rookie Datko may have been a top-32 pick if not for injuries.

2. New England Patriots

LT: Nate Solder*
LG: Logan Mankins*
C: Dan Connolly*
RG: Brian Waters*
RT: Sebastian Vollmer

Top reserves: C Dan Koppen, OG Robert Gallery, T/G Marcus Cannon, G/C Ryan Wendell, C/G Nick McDonald, G/T Donald Thomas.

Overview: In 2012, the Patriots will combat transition and adversity with sheer talent. Longtime left tackle Matt Light has retired, and Waters may do the same. Mankins tore his ACL in the playoffs, though he's tentatively due back for Week 1. New blindside starter Solder played over 1,000 snaps as a first-round rookie, holding up well. Vollmer, a top-60 pick in the 2009 draft, has flashed Pro Bowl ability when healthy. Cannon is a wildcard with terrific feet for a mammoth, 360-pound man. While New England's line boasts little continuity with plenty of question marks, this remains a top-five group in terms of skill level, and the bench is crawling with capable starters.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

LT: Andrew Whitworth*
LG: Travelle Wharton
C: Kyle Cook*
RG: Kevin Zeitler
RT: Andre Smith*

Top reserves: OT Anthony Collins, G/T Clint Boling, OT Dennis Roland, OG Jacob Bell, OG Otis Hudson.

Overview: Parting with longtime guards Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings, the Bengals have stayed true to form by replacing them with interior road graders Wharton and Zeitler. This is a power-zone unit with impressive depth. Collins, Boling, Roland, and Bell have combined for 149 career starts, and only Bell (31) is over the age of 30. While this was already a top-five group in pass protection, the run blocking should improve in the post-Livings era. Offensive line play is a strength in Cincinnati, and if a starter goes down, the Bengals can replace him with a tested vet.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

LT: Branden Albert*
LG: Ryan Lilja*
C: Rodney Hudson
RG: Jon Asamoah*
RT: Eric Winston

Top reserves: G/T Jeff Allen, OG Darryl Harris, OT Donald Stephenson, C Rob Bruggeman, OT David Mims.

Overview: The Chiefs are gearing up to run one of the NFL's most smash-mouth attacks, and they have the trench talent to execute. Tackle play is an immediate strength with Albert emerging as perhaps the league's most underrated blindside blocker, and Winston joining the mix on the strong side. Asamoah is a nasty right guard whose run blocking will only improve as a second-year starter. Groomed behind Casey Wiegmann last season, Hudson is ready for prime time at center. Lilja and rookie Allen will duke it out at left guard. Depth is a concern beyond the top six linemen here, but this unit oozes potential and will likely prove to be a top-five grouping in '12.

5. Carolina Panthers

LT: Jordan Gross*
LG: Amini Silatolu
C: Ryan Kalil*
RG: Geoff Hangartner*
RT: Jeff Otah

Top reserves: T/G Byron Bell*, OT Lee Ziemba, G/C Mike Pollak, T/G Garry Williams, T/G Bruce Campbell.

Overview: Cam Newton's record-shattering rookie year might lead to you think otherwise, but Carolina's 2011 line strength was run blocking. The Panthers' 5.41 yards-per-rushing attempt average not only led the league, but was the second highest clip posted by any team in the last five years and third highest since 1997. Newton's running ability helped, but DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both averaged well over five yards per tote. Carolina's front five got nastier with Silatolu's addition, and he could eventually flip positions with Hangartner to give the Panthers the meanest strong side of the line in the league. Carolina can take another step forward as a pass-blocking team if the light flips on in Otah's contract year. A dominant talent, Otah has appeared in just four games over the past two seasons. He says he's 100 percent healthy now.

6. Tennessee Titans

LT: Michael Roos*
LG: Steve Hutchinson
C: Eugene Amano*
RG: Leroy Harris*
RT: David Stewart*

Top reserves: G/C Fernando Velasco, OT Mike Otto, T/G Troy Kropog, T/G Byron Stingily, C/G Kevin Matthews.

Overview: While Tennessee's tackle play has been consistently outstanding and at times dominant, the interior line went sour over the past couple of seasons. The Titans shored up left guard with Hutchinson, who proved to have plenty left in the tank during a strong 2011 campaign in Minnesota. Harris has turned the corner on the other side, grading out last season as a top-15 NFL guard, according to Pro Football Focus. Amano will have to hold off Velasco in training camp. This line is elite in pass protection, and could emerge as the league's most well-rounded front five by taking a step forward in run blocking. Part of that will be up to running back Chris Johnson.

7. Philadelphia Eagles

LT: Demetress Bell
LG: Evan Mathis*
C: Jason Kelce*
RG: Danny Watkins*
RT: Todd Herremans*

Top reserves: OT King Dunlap, C/G Steve Vallos, G/C Julian Vandervelde, G/C Mike Gibson, G/T Brandon Washington, OT Dennis Kelly.

Overview: The Eagles might have pushed for this list's top five pre-Jason Peters injury, but they'll have to settle for top-seven billing. Replacement Bell is a terrific scheme fit for OL coach Howard Mudd, who emphasizes athleticism up front. Mathis, Watkins, and Kelce form one of the league's most promising interiors, and each is entering his first full offseason in Mudd's system. Mathis is already a premier NFL guard. Herremans, who protects southpaw Michael Vick's blind side, allowed just four sacks last season while playing all but seven snaps. In Dunlap, Vallos, and Gibson, the Eagles have 23 career starts on the bench, and in Washington they have a potential left guard of the future. If Philly flounders again this year, it shouldn't be due to the offensive line.

8. Houston Texans

LT: Duane Brown*
LG: Wade Smith*
C: Chris Myers*
RG: Antoine Caldwell
RT: Rashad Butler

Top reserves: OT Derek Newton, G/T Andrew Gardner, OG Brandon Brooks, C Ben Jones, OG Shelley Smith.

Overview: The Texans very arguably fielded the NFL's best offensive line in 2011, but it is undergoing significant transition. With right-side starters Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston moving on, Houston is banking on Butler (four career starts) and Caldwell (13) as in-house replacements. Myers and Smith are on the wrong side of 30, and Brown is entering a contract year. Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison's tried-and-true scheme keeps Houston ranked relatively high on this list, but the zone-blocking system requires continuity, and there is reason to believe the Texans' front-five talent has fallen off. Starved for depth, Houston's reserves have combined for zero career starts.

9. Baltimore Ravens

LT: Bryant McKinnie*
LG: Kelechi Osemele
C: Matt Birk*
RG: Marshal Yanda*
RT: Michael Oher*

Top reserves: T/G Jah Reid, OT Ramon Harewood, G/C Justin Boren, C/G Gino Gradkowski, OG Howard Barbieri.

Overview: Baltimore's top reserves have zero combined NFL starts, but the starting five is among the most talented in football. There is also some feeling amongst league evaluators that outgoing LG Ben Grubbs was overrated and ultimately overpaid by New Orleans. At nearly 6-foot-6, 327 with 36-inch arms and 43 starts at Iowa State, Osemele could prove an upgrade on Grubbs sooner rather than later. The wildcards here are McKinnie and Oher. Both played capably enough last year to keep Joe Flacco protected consistently, but possess talent to perform with far more dominance. McKinnie should feel some urgency this season. Going on age 33, he's entering the last year of his deal and playing for what could potentially be his final NFL contract.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

LT: Donald Penn*
LG: Carl Nicks
C: Jeremy Zuttah*
RG: Davin Joseph*
RT: Jeremy Trueblood*

Top reserves: G/C Ted Larsen, OT Demar Dotson, G/T Derek Hardman, OT Jamon Meredith, G/T Desmond Wynn.

Overview: Meet the NFL's most expensive O-Line. Over the past three years, the Bucs have devoted an unprecedented $168 million in combined contracts to their five starters, including this offseason's Nicks ($47.5M) and Zuttah ($16.3M) deals. So far, the group has been overpaid. Nicks is the lone truly elite lineman, and he's yet to play a down for Tampa. There are reasons to believe this unit is destined for a big leap, though. New coach Greg Schiano is installing a run-heavy attack, and that philosophy plays to the strengths of this power-blocking group. Nicks' presence allows Zuttah to kick from left guard to center, turning last year's biggest negative into a positive. The addition of a running back with power and wiggle in first-round pick Doug Martin will naturally make the blocking look better. Though not quite as good as its price tag suggests, Tampa's offensive line was still a top 15 or 18 unit in 2011. It should be top ten in 2012.

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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva

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