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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Best Offensive Lines in Football

Just what makes a great offensive line? We've all heard about guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady making their offensive lines better simply by making the right decisions and getting the ball out quickly. We know that
players like Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy can get yards by themselves if need be, but which unit stands out as the very best in football? And which others will give them a run for their money?

If you've not guessed already, we here at The Pulling Linemen love linemen. We're perfectly happy to sit down on a sunday night and ignore the "skill" guys in favour of a good battle in the trenches. So just who do we rank as the top offensive line in football? And who are their biggest challengers in 2013? Find out after the jump

The Reigning Champs - San Francisco 49ers

Out west in the Bay is where we find our current champs. The defeated NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers boast an offensive line that is un-rivalled at the moment.

Not only does it have the draft-day pedigree of 3 first rounders on it, but it's features a pair of All-Pro's on the left side who are arguably the best at their position. Joe Staley (2 2nd Team All-Pro's) and Mike Iupati (1 1st Team All-Pro) are easily the best Tackle/Guard combination in the league. Staley's all round game, which includes some sly receiving skills, often goes unrecognised but to us he's the best left tackle in the game bar none and Iupati, while he won't be mistaken for a great pass blocker, is an absolute monster in the run game who can dominate anyone.

Along side Iupati and with the ball in hand is the smart and savvy Jonathan Goodwin who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2009. The hard-nosed veteran might never be mistaken for the likes of Nick Mangold or John Sullivan, but he's great in his own right.

The right side of the line is largely unheralded compared to their left side counterparts. But since winning the starting job in 2012 Alex Boone has played at an All-Pro level, only his lack of "name power" kept him off of the awards lists. And book ending the line? Another first round pick Anthony Davis. Davis had a rough start to his NFL career, but in his 3rd year it all came together for him. His pass protection improved to the point where you didn't really notice him, which is often the biggest compliment one can give an offensive lineman, and he continued to be punishing in the run game.

All of their talents have been bought to the fore brilliantly by Jim Harbaugh. Since he took over in San Francisco he's installed a varied run game, with traps and powers, counter treys and now that Colin Kaepernick is the starter a wide variety of read options and zone reads. Rare is the line that can excel in straight power blocking and then switch unerringly to a zone, but these 5 do it brilliantly and absolutely kill any defense that isn't strictly disciplined (Green Bay in the playoffs) or over-aggressive (Detroit).

So if these are our belt holders, who are the challengers in 2013?

The Challengers

 - Philadelphia Eagles

My favourite of them all. The Eagles line had a torrid time in 2012 with injuries, but they're all back now and have added some serious talent.

Jason Peters, a 1st team All-Pro in 2011 and my top offensive lineman that season, missed all of 2012 with multiple achilles tears but is now back at left tackle. In 2011 Peters was a monster, with the fast feet to handle outside speed and the power to stop a bull-rush dead. Because of the achilles tears he might not be his old self, but even 80% of Jason Peters is better than most tackles out there. At left guard is the underrated journeyman Evan Mathis, who since coming across as a reject from the Bengals has been outstanding at left guard. In the middle is the very capable Jason Kelce, and thanks to drafting tackle Lane Johnson 4th overall the Eagles can move Todd Herremanns back into his more natural right guard position.

They might not have the straight-ahead power of the 49ers line, but what they do have is a high level of mobility and athleticism, which means Chip Kelly's zone runs and up-tempo offense should operate effectively. They can also work well out in space on screens, something Andy Reid loved to run and I expect Kelly to exploit their ability to get outside the numbers and down field as well. Their tackles should be able to keep the edges safe and inside there's enough skill to provide a nice pocket for Vick or Foles (or even Matt Barkley), and if Jason Peters really can't be the guy he used to be then Lane Johnson, a former high school QB, should be able to move across to the left without an issue.

This years Eagles team will, at least on offense, be very fun to watch and the biggest reason for that is the offensive line.

 - Tennessee Titans

Spending $47 million AND a top 10 pick on a pair of guards will tend to get you some attention, and that's exactly what the Tennessee Titans did. First it was the big money free agent deal to Andy Levitre. Now I like Levitre a lot, but it does need mentioning that he had arthroscopic knee surgery in January. How that will effect his mobility and drive we'll have to wait and see, but he's looked ok in pre-season.

Then came the selection of Chance Warmack, an absolute monster out of Alabama. Warmack is a massive mauler in the run game who should be able to open up running lanes against anyone even if he may get exposed in pass protection occasionally (and particularly twice a year against JJ Watt).

With a pair of talented guards the Titans completed the re-make of their interior O-Line by signing Rob Turner, who started all 16 games for St. Louis between centre and guard during a good 2012 campaign after riding pine with the Jets for a long time. He's looked good in pre-season and now won the starting job from the recently-cut Fernando Velasco.

Bookending the newbies in the middle are the pair of old stalwarts Michael Roos and David Stewart, who were there in 2009 during Chris Johnson's 2,000 yard season and continue to be one of the better tackle pairings in the NFL. If Johnson is ever going to re-capture that kind of form he's never going to have a better chance, this group should be among the very best in run blocking and that kind of platform should help Jake Locker out as well.

There will be hairy moments to be sure. Continuity and trust along an offensive line is a huge factor in how well they perform as a unit, and early on there could easily be moments of miss-communication and misunderstanding, but as the season goes on I expect this line to get better and better.

 - Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Peterson was phenomenal last year, but he can't have done it all himself. He had help from some truly outstanding blocks from a line that got little respect or recognition during the season.

For the Vikings it all starts up front with All-Pro centre John Sullivan, a 6th round pick in 2008 who has worked his butt off to become one of the best centres in football. Either side of Sullivan are a pair of guards you've probably never heard of: Charlie Johnson (LG) was a 6th round pick for the Colts in 2006 who came over to play LT for the Vikings last year before being bumped inside and Brandon Fusco (RG) another 6 round pick, this time by the Vikings themselves in 2011, who took over the starting job in 2012.

The fact that Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,000 yards behind a trio of 6th round picks tells us just how ridiculous he is, and also what an insane job offensive line coach Jeff Davidson has done since arriving in January 2011.

On the outside the Vikings boast a bit more draft-day pedigree. At right tackle is the Phil Loadholt, who at 6 foot 8 & 343lbs lives up to his name. A 2nd round pick in 2009 Loadholt is a monster in the ground game, able simply to overwhelm opposing defenders not just with his size but good technique as well. He does lack in pass protection as he simply can't get out quickly enough to handle the best pass rushers. Fortunately the Vikings are able to slide their protection to him and help him out, because at left tackle is one of the most natural pass protectors in the game today.

The 2012 draft class will be remembered for many things before it's all said and done. At the moment it's all about the Quarterbacks, but in 15 years time we could easily be saying that it was really all about Matt Kalil.

The 4th overall pick out of USC, and brother of Panthers centre Ryan, makes pass protection look easy. And I'm not just talking about when he's having to block average players, he gave up just 2 sacks all year while facing guys like Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers twice. His movements are so fluid and his feet so unerringly fast that pass-rushers simply can't get the edge on him, and when they do come inside they find a powerful push and strong anchor waiting. Sure, Kalil isn't as good as some of the elite left tackles in the run game yet, part of that comes with being on the lighter side (303lbs) but it should develop with time. As things stand the Vikings are more than happy to let him be a lights-out pass blocker while the other 4 maul the opposition on the ground.

So there you have it. 3 teams who have a chance at overhauling the 49ers. It will take something truly masterful to do it though, as none of them are as complete left-to-right as the 49ers are, nor do they have as much continuity and unspoken understanding which are key aspects when it comes to 5 linemen working as a slick unit.

Those of you with a keen eye will notice that I've made no mention of the 3 teams who sat atop our end-of-year Offensive Line Rating; the Giants, Seahawks and Patriots. This is not because I think there's something wrong with Phil's stat, or that these units have become any worse over the off-season, I just think the ceiling on these other lines is higher. The Giants and Patriots are very much known quantities, the only wild-card being the Giants 1st round pick Justin Pugh, while the Seahawks are limited by the right side of their line which is relatively poor.

Disagree? Think I've over-blown the talents of a line or missed a team who's big uglies deserve more credit? Feel free to leave a comment or drop us a tweet and we'll be happy to listen!

- Toby Durant (@TDOnSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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