“It’s a very interesting game. They have big bears up front and little rabbits in the back. The idea is for the bears to protect the rabbits.”
– Vickor Tikhonov (Coach of the Soviet Hockey team on seeing American Football for the first time)
The Dallas Cowboys were projected to be a team capable of winning a handful of games at best before the 2014 season because of their suspect defense. Obviously, Dallas was one of the surprise teams this year, falling a few plays short of the NFC title game. The defensive turnaround was unprecedented, but the success of the offense was predicated on the success of a truly dominant offensive line. The casual football fan knows less about the offensive line than other, more “glamorous” positions and cares even less than that. But an interesting thing has started to happen with the success of Dallas; The cowboys have made offensive lines everywhere sexy again. Are they an all time great group of guys? Probably not at this point. Are they THAT much dramatically better than any other group in the league? I wouldn’t say so. But it was a perfect season at the perfect time to make people care again. The offensive line will always be an unheralded group of me who won’t get much attention, but at least most people understand the importance of a capable group of blockers to spearhead the offense in today’s NFL. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the state of offensive lines in the NFL.
- Dallas Cowboys All hail. As stated above, the Cowboys have built a superpower in the trenches and should be commended for it. Dallas was a top 10 offense all year, notably 2nd in rushing. Demarco Murray no doubt had a lot to do with this success, but it’s important to give credit where credit is due. 100-million-dollar-man Tyron Smith is one of the great ascending players in the NFL today and viewed by some as the most capable lineman in the game. Smith took on the best pass rushers could throw at him week in and week out and was rarely ever in trouble, disarming the fiercest of defenders with amazing feet and technique. His supporting cast was just as impressive, with great showings from a top 5 center in Travis Frederick in his second year and last years first round pick Zack Martin, who accomplished the almost inconceivable feat of making All Pro in his rookie campaign. Doug Free and Ronald Leary, while not elite talents, gel together wonderfully. Dallas lost probably the best swing tackles in the league in Jeremy Parnell in the offseason, but this is a corps that should be together for a long time. Oh, and not to mention they won the La’el Collins sweepstakes after the draft. Collins was a dominant tackle for LSU the past two years who could project as a guard in the NFL but could still be a great RT. The rich got richer.
- Baltimore Ravens –The Ravens treated us to one of the best playoff showdowns in recent memory against the Patriots last year but fell just short. Look for the Ravens to be title contender yet again thanks to performances by some of the best lineman in the NFL. Marshal Yanda is the best guard in the NFL and Kelechi Osemele is another fantastic player opposite him to form the best guard tandem in the NFL by far. Together they blocked out the sun and allowed Justin Forsett to revive his career in style, running though rush lanes you could drive a car through. Forsett, who was previously a journeyman RB led a run game good for 9th in the NFL with over 2000 yards accumulated thanks to the men up front. Baltimore feasted on less talented defensive lines and had strong outings against great ones too. Eugene Monroe has been one of the sneaky great signings in FA over the past few years protecting Joe Flacco’s blind side and allowing him to power an effective vertical passing game in addition to a punishing ground game. Jeremy Zuttah is a capable center capable of getting to the next level to complete an almost impenetrable interior pocket. RT is somewhat of a concern but not enough to keep Baltimore from the number two spot. Gary Kubiak brought his great zone blocking scheme to Denver with him, so it’s possible the Ravens take a step back this year but that could be speculation. With Marc Trestman at the controls, we may see the Ravens roll out a new style of offense and dominate in whole new way.
- Green Bay Packers
The Packers are an interesting film study. Aaron Rodgers, the unanimous best QB in the NFL dissected all defenses last year, but a testament to his great skill was how he was on the move when protection broke down. That’s not to say that the line isn’t that good, but it is somewhat inflated by Rodgers talent. Josh Sitton is sill one of the best guards in the league and Bulaga and Bakthiari form a pair of good book end tackles, and Corey Linsley is an absolute mauler in the middle. They never really get in the way of Rodgers too much, and watching them clear the way for Lacy is a thing of beauty. A lot of old school traditionalists of the NFL will get a kick out of watching Green Bay in the trenches. They’re a perfect group for a perfect quarterback. I fully expect Green Bay to be the number one offense next year and are my front-runner for SB champs. When looking at the depth chart, depth is a bit more of a concern than other teams here, but it’s not enough to knock them down.
- Cleveland Browns
Cleveland has quietly assembled a very capable group. Joe Tomas is the top OT in the league year in and year out and last year was no exception. The future Hall Of Famer has toiled away on some bad football teams for the Browns, but none of them were bad because the QB was getting killed from the blind side. Joel Bitonio was one of the surprise dominant rookies last year who came in and solidified a LG spot previously thought to be a question mark. Alex Mack is one of the top centers in football, who unfortunately missed much of last season. The tea leaves say Mack wants out of Cleveland, so the Browns made the curious decision to draft Cameron Erving, a center out of Florida State. Erving doesn’t offer much versatility on paper, best suited as a pure center but could see time at guard as an experiment in preseason. With Mitchel Scwartz holding it down on the right side, the Browns could be a line capable of going toe to toe with the best of them.
- Pittsburgh Steelers