Every NFL offense starts with the offensive line. Without protection, Tom Brady is not upright long enough to win five Super Bowls, Emmitt Smith does not have the all-time rushing record and Jerry Rice does not become the GOAT.
No position group requires the amount of intellect and brutality as offensive linemen. Six of the last seven Super Bowl Champions have had their offensive lines rank in the top 10 in either run blocking (Adjusted Line Yards) or Pass Protection (the lone outlier is the 2015 Denver Broncos who were statistically mediocre, ranking 17 and 13 in ALY and PP respectively).
Heading into the 2017 season, we take a look at some of the top offensive line units to keep an eye on. Among them are a mix of well-known contenders, and an up and coming group from the south. We will take a look at the key “Stud” of the unit as well as what makes the group stand out from the rest of the pack.
2016 ALY Rank- 5
Stud of the Group – Tyron Smith
I like to refer to Smith as the NFL’s version of the Bill Brasky sketch from Saturday Night Live. In the sketch, a group of salesmen recant tales of a guy named Bill Brasky whose legend grows with each story. I will believe anything that I hear about Tyron Smith. If someone told me that Smith ate 100 lbs of Texas Brisket, drank a keg of Lone Star and bench pressed Jerry Jones’s Cadillac, I would believe it.
In six years out of USC, Smith is already a 4x Pro Bowler and 2x All Pro. Smith is the only linemen that I studied that truly moves defensive linemen like they were middle schoolers
Rest of the Unit
Dallas has the most talented offensive line in the NFL. Center Travis Frederick is a 3x Pro Bowler in only 4 years, two of those seasons being named to the All-Pro Team. Guard Zack Martin has made the Pro Bowl every season of his three-year career as well as being named to the All-Pro Team twice. La’el Collins was a steal for the Cowboys, signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and looks to move to his natural position at Right Tackle this season. This group is the main reason why Running Back Ezekiel Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016.The Cowboys also ranked 3rd in DVOA last season.
2016 ALY Rank- 2
Stud of the Group – Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey has been a consistent asset at Center for Pittsburgh since he was drafted out of Florida in 2010. Since then, Pouncey has been named to five Pro Bowls as well as two All-Pro Teams. Of the Steeler’s 375 RB carries in 2016, 58% went up the middle where Pouncey was blocking. The dependability up the middle has made Pouncey one of the top Centers in the NFL.
Rest of the Unit
Pittsburgh touts arguably the best Guard tandem in Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. DeCastro has been solid for the Steelers ever since coming out of the lineman-factory at Stanford. Foster has been slept on by most, but he has played more disciplined (only one holding penalty in 2016) than the widely covered DeCastro (6 holds). Pittsburgh ranked second in 2016 with only 21 sacks.
The driving force behind Pittsburgh’s line is not even on the field, he’s on the sideline. Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and regarded by many as one of the elite OL coaches in football. A Scranton, PA native, Munchak comes to the Steelers after being with the Tennessee Titans organization from 1982-2013 as a player, assistant coach and ultimately their Head Coach. Munchak set the foundation for a future dominant line in Tennessee (which will be discussed later). Since taking over as the OL Coach, the Steelers have ranked 6th, 8th, and 2nd in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively in Run Blocking efficiency. Even without star RB Le’Veon Bell for four games in 2016, the Steelers still ranked 8th in DVOA.
2016 ALY Rank- 4
Stud of the Group – Taylor Lewan
Lewan is about as nasty of a player as you can get. Entering his fourth season out of Michigan, Lewan has earned a reputation as a hard nosed player who doesn’t play to make friends. Luckily for the Titans, their left tackle can back it up. The Titans’ talented backfield of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry ran for an ALY rate of 5.18 off of the left side of the line, good for number one in the NFL. Lewan’s three holding penalties were a minor cause for concern, but his production makes up for it.
Rest of the Group
The other bookend of the Tennessee line is occupied by rising star Jack Conklin. As a rookie, Conklin started all 16 games at right tackle for the Titans, earning All-Pro honors in the process. While running off of the right side of the line, Tennessee rushed for an ALY rate of 5.13 which was good enough for second in the NFL.
The Titans may have the most consistent offensive line in the league. Behind Lewan and Conklin, guards Josh Kline and Quinton Spain as well as center Ben Jones, the Titans were able to rush for 2,187 yards which ranked the Titans 3rd in yards in 2016. Tennessee’s line was also fairly disciplined, racking up only 19 holding penalties last season. With a dominant offensive line, two talented backs and an emerging QB in Marcus Mariota, the Titans ranked 9th in DVOA in 2016.