They don’t get all of the headlines. That’s reserved for the quarterbacks and running backs these monsters in the trenches are tasked with blocking for.
This isn’t to say offensive linemen are not important to the success of their teams. More so than any other position outside of quarterback, the ability of a team to throw out an elite offensive line has led to success throughout the NFL.
From the Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders exhausting a ton of capital on this position to other teams that have lucked out to an extent, we check in on the top-15 offensive lines heading into the 2018 NFL season.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
One of the least talked about aspects of offensive line play in today’s NFL surrounds the quarterback. Inexperienced signal callers tend to cause issues for their offensive line by holding on to the ball too long. Meanwhile, veterans know when to strike quickly and read the blitz. Philip Rivers is among the best in the game at this, and it has continued to help out Los Angeles’ offensive line.
With that said, we can’t take anything away from a group spearheaded by veteran left tackle Russell Okung and a group of youngsters, including Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp. Last season saw Rivers sacked a grand total of 18 times on 593 dropbacks. It represented the lowest sack rate in the league. Meanwhile, Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon tallied nearly 1,600 total yards out of the backfield. Now that the Chargers have added three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, this unit heads into the 2018 season as the NFL’s best.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Certainly, the Cowboys’ offensive line took a step back last season. Having to deal with injuries throughout the entire season, Tyron Smith didn’t perform like the best left tackle in the NFL. Dak Prescott struggled with holding on to the ball too long, especially when Ezekiel Elliott was sidelined to a six-game suspension. All of this led to a Cowboys offensive line that was league average.
Don’t expect this to be the case again in 2018. Smith is apparently 100 percent healthy and ready to return to his rightful place as the game’s best left tackle. Dallas just handed guard Zack Martin the largest contract for a player at his position in NFL history. Meanwhile, Travis Frederick and La’el Collins continue to act as reinforcements. Adding former Texas left tackle Connor Williams in the second round of April’s draft will also help in 2018.
3. Oakland Raiders
It’s somewhat shocking how much the Raiders have devalued Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn. He was a holdout to start camp last season because Oakland didn’t want to give the veteran a contract representing his true value. While the two sides did ultimately come to terms on a new deal, Oakland went out there in April and selected fellow tackle Kolton Miller in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Anchored by Penn, the Raiders’ offensive line has yielded an average of 18 sacks of Derek Carr over the past two seasons. It hasn’t come without a huge investment elsewhere, as guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson are among the highest paid at their position — accounting for a combined cap hit of $21 million this coming season. It’s this type of focus on the offensive line that has the Raiders heading into the 2018 season with one of the best units in the game.
4. New Orleans Saints
Flying somewhat under the radar in New Orleans due to the team’s elite offense and improved defense, one of the primary reasons for the Saints’ success has been its offensive line. Here’s a unit that allowed just 20 sacks on 556 Drew Brees’ drop backs last season. It also helped first-year player Alvin Kamara average an absurd 6.1 yards per rush en route to him earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Certainly, the retirement of veteran offensive lineman Zach Strief will hurt. But New Orleans still has the bodies along this unit to dominate in 2018. That starts with all-everything left tackle Terron Armstead and extends to the interior of the line with Andrus Peat and Larry Warford.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville seemingly entered last season with a major hole on the left side of the line following the abrupt retirement of Branden Albert. That’s where rookie second-round pick Cam Robinson showed up in a big way. He started all 15 games in which he appeared, helping this unit protect Blake Bortles to the tune of just 24 sacks on 547 drop backs.
Helping matters here is the fact that Jacksonville has one of the best centers in the game, the recently extended Brandon Linder. It also doled out what was then the largest contract in the history of the league for a guard, signing Andrew Norwell from Carolina to a five-year, $66.5 million deal. This unit is going to be a force to reckon with in 2018. That’s for sure.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
It all pretty much starts with Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who has morphed from hard-working depth option to Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside protector. Since Villanueva took over the role on a full-time basis back in 2015, Big Ben has been sacked a total of 58 times in three seasons. That’s absolutely insane given just how immobile Roethlisberger is.
Outside of Villanueva, the likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro continue to open up holes for all-everything running back Le’Veon Bell. They’re the primary reasons he’s been able to put up 3,830 total yards over the past two seasons. Realistically, he wouldn’t have come close to being this productive without the big men up front.
7. Los Angeles Rams
We previously focused on Rodger Saffold being one of the most important figures on an improved Rams team last season. That’s certainly not going to change in 2018. But the addition of veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency last March changed the outlook for this entire unit. A year after going down 26 times in just seven starts as a rookie, Jared Goff was sacked 25 times in 15 starts last season. That starts and ends with the addition of Whitworth.
More to the point. The big men up front played a huge role in Todd Gurley’s ascension from enigmatic running back to NFL Offensive Player of the Year last season. If it weren’t for this unit, there’s no way Gurley would have come close to the near 2,100 total yards and 19 scores he put up last season.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
Having two All-Pro caliber book ends in Jason Peters and Lane Johnson at tackle helps big time here. Peters himself is a future Hall of Famer, while Johnson will step into his role at left tackle when his older counterpart does indeed decide to retire. The emergence of Brandon Brooks at guard and continued excellence of Jason Kelce over center has rounded out this unit in a big way recently.
While Philadelphia’s offensive line did yield 36 sacks last season, that came with Peters missing nine games to injury. The reliance on an overmatched Halapoulivaati Vaitai didn’t help matters there. Look for an even better performance from a healthy Eagles offensive line in 2018.
9. Atlanta Falcons
We have to give general manager Thomas Dimitroff credit where it’s due. He’s done a brilliant job building up what was previously a struggling Falcons offensive line from almost scratch in recent offseasons. It started with the selection of Jake Matthews No. 6 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. All he’s done since is morph into one of the best left tackles in the game. Then, back in 2016, Atlanta signed former Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a lucrative contract.
These two figures have anchored an offensive line that’s seen the immobile Matt Ryan sacked just 30 times over the past two seasons. More importantly, this unit has continued to open up holes for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the ground. Each of those two backs are averaging well north of five yards per touch over the past two seasons.
10. Miami Dolphins
It’s quite stunning to realize that Jay Cutler was sacked a total of 20 times in 14 games as the Dolphins’ starter last season. That’s a testament to an offensive line led by former first-round pick Laremy Tunsil. But in no way does it end with Tunsil. Ja’Wuan James has been more than an solid starter at right tackle. And while Miami did release Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, it did add guard Josh Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore during the offseason.
With Ryan Tannehill now under center and Frank Gore set to take on the starting running back duties in South Beach, we fully expect this offensive line to perform even better this coming season.
11. Baltimore Ravens
With other members of the offensive line struggling through injuries last season, youngsters Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst stepped into huge roles for the Ravens. In helping protect Joe Flacco’s blindside, Stanley anchored a unit that allowed just 27 sacks in nearly 600 drop backs. Given Flacco’s individual struggles, that’s an amazing stat in and of itself.
Baltimore’s rushing attack also surprised behind this improved unit. Fresh off being waived by Seattle after just one season, young running back Alex Collins tallied nearly 1,200 total yards while averaging 4.6 yards per attempt. That’s a testament to just how good the Ravens’ offensive line performed in 2017. It only promises to get better this coming season.
12. New York Giants
Here’s a prime example of how just a couple of moves can make a world of difference. After boasting one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season, New York exhausted a then record contract on New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder back in March. It then doubled down on the offensive line with massive guard Will Hernandez in the second round of April’s draft. These two moves will catapult New York’s offensive line into top-10 territory this coming season.
Given the Giants spent the second overall pick on Saquon Barkley, it makes sense that they would invest cash and draft capital to help the young running back. It promises to help the Giants’ offense improve after a disastrous 2017 campaign.
13. San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo is a prime example of how a quarterback can change the performance of his offensive line. In the 11 games before Garoppolo took over as San Francisco’s starter last season, 49ers quarterbacks were sacked a combined 35 times. In his five starts after being acquired from New England, Garoppolo went down just eight times. This is more indicative of his quick release than anything else.
San Francisco realized this during the offseason, adding three potential new starters to the offensive line. That included handing a Pro Bowl caliber center in Weston Richburg a rich contract while signing guard Jonathan Cooper away from Dallas. San Francisco then added rookie first-round pick Mike McGlinchey to replace the recently traded Trent Brown at right tackle. Already boasting an elite left tackle in Joe Staley, this unit promises to improve leaps and bounds in 2018.
14. Indianapolis Colts
Now that Andrew Luck is seemingly on track to play Week 1 after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, Indianapolis Finally decided to invest draft capital on the offensive line. That included Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth pick in April’s draft. Nelson is considered one of the best offensive line products to enter the league in a decade. He’s joined by fellow rookie, second-round pick Braden Smith.
With incumbent starters Ryan Kelly, Jack Mewhort and Anthony Castonzo having already proved themselves to be pretty darn good, it would not be a surprise to see Indy boast one of the best offensive lines in front of Luck this coming season. That’s a job well done by GM Chris Ballard.
15. Tennessee Titans
As long as Marcus Mariota refrains from holding on to the ball too long, this Titans offense line should be just fine. It’s also reliant on starting left tackle Taylor Lewan deciding to end his hold out after the former first-round pick was absent from mandatory minicamp.
Either way, the talent is here for this unit to dominate in front of the dynamic running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. Teaming up with Lewan, right tackle Jack Conklin has helped form one of the best book end duos in the game. It should be fun to watch moving forward.