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2013 Offensive Line Previews

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by Lance Zierlein, NFL Analyst

Published, 7/19/13

 

Note: FantasyGuru.com Staff contributed to this article

 

About Lance Zierlein: Lance grew up in a football family and his father, Larry Zierlein, is an offensive line coach, who has coached college and pro football for 33 years. Larry Zierlein has coached the offensive lines for three different NFL teams (including the Super Bowl winning Steelers in 2008-2009) and recently came out of retirement to join the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant offensive line coach. He’s a 2013 addition to the FantasyGuru.com staff and will contribute a weekly OL report each week of the upcoming season.

 

Zierlein's offensive line evaluations contain proprietary "STATS Ice" data provided by John Pollard who is the general manager of the Sports Solutions Group from STATS.  The STATS Ice program is used by a variety of NFL teams for custom analytics, tendency reports and NFL draft and free agency evaluations.

 

You can find Lance’s football website at TheSidelineView.com and follow him on Twitter @LanceZierlein

 

Zierlein’s 2013 OL Rankings

 

Before you read my offensive line rankings and grades, it is important that you understand the criteria and the process that I use to judge these offensive lines. Obviously, line play is broken down into pass protection and run blocking, but how a group functions as a unit is all I really care about.

 

Sacks allowed aren't always the greatest indicators of how talented a unit is in pass protection. I would argue that Peyton Manning has played behind some fairly average lines at times during his career, but he understands the importance of getting rid of the ball and not taking a sack. Manning is also a savant when it comes to recognizing blitzes and changing protections at the line of scrimmage to put the offensive line in the best scenario to succeed. Similarly, QBs who look to extend plays will hold onto the ball longer and take some unnecessary sacks.

 

In run blocking, offensive lines have to work together as a consistent unit. The best offensive lines are usually the ones that have played together for more than a season or two because they have a feel for the guy next to them. Those offensive lines already understand adjustments to make based on late shifting by defenders or based on defensive fronts they've seen in the past.

 

Unit Grades and Talent Grades

 

My "Unit Grades" represent my overall grade for the offensive lines. I combined my own All-22 study with formulas I've created using data that measures quality rush %, clean rushing yards, consistency of rushing attack, pass protection success, and more. While I think the Viking offensive line did an admirable job last season, I've found a way to at least partially separate what they've done as a unit from what Adrian Peterson did as a machine.

 

My Unit Grade does not take talent into account. It considers only how these offensive lines have played together and how I expect them to play together this season. Typically, teams that rely more heavily on the zone scheme can get away with lesser talent at interior line positions and still have success, as long as they play well together and play with technique. The Redskins are a great example of this.

 

My "Talent Grade" is much more subjective. Talent can mean different things for different players. For one guard, "talent" might be the ability to beat his man consistently to the spot and get his defender turned in the running game, while another guard's talent is getting his man moved off the spot to create a running crease. For tackles, I need to see good hand placement and core strength in pass protection and proper technique in the running game.

 

Talent will often win out on the offensive line, but it is no guarantee. It takes only one player to blow assignments consistently or get beat and that "talented" offensive line turns into an "underachieving" offensive line. I looked at each potential starter on each line and gave him a grade and added those scores up to create my "Talent Grade."

 

Team

Unit Grade

Talent Grade (1-20)

San Francisco 49ers

A

18

Washington Redskins

A-

15.5

New York Giants

A-

16.5

Minnesota Vikings

B

16

Houston Texans

B

16.5

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

B

17

Miami Dolphins

B-

15.5

Buffalo Bills

B-

16

Carolina Panthers

B-

16.5

Seattle Seahawks

B+

16

New England Patriots

B+

17

Baltimore Ravens

B+

17

Kansas City Chiefs

B+

17.5

Tennessee Titans

B+

18

Detroit Lions

C

15

Chicago Bears

C

15.5

New Orleans Saints

C

16

New York Jets

C

16

Denver Broncos

C

16.5

Pittsburgh Steelers

C

16.5

Indianapolis Colts

C-

15

Green Bay Packers

C-

15.5

St. Louis Rams

C-

15.5

Jacksonville Jaguars

C-

15.5

Cincinnati Bengals

C+

16

Philadelphia Eagles

C+

16.5

Cleveland Browns

C+

16.5

Arizona Cardinals

D

14

Oakland Raiders

D

14.5

San Diego Chargers

D

15

Atlanta Falcons

D+

15

Dallas Cowboys

D+

15

 

Quick Observations

 

  • The Baltimore Ravens are an inside/out unit right now (meaning guards better than tackles), but end up having a great season if they get consistency from Bryant McKinnie. Michael Oher is fading quickly, but good tackle play from even one spot should put them in a great position.

 

  • The amount of talent the Tennessee Titans have up front after this off-season is frightening. Are the tackles as good as they once were?  No, but they are good enough. Guard Andy Levitre gives them a well-school veteran with talent, while Chance Warmack will play opposite Levitre and brings a mauling presence we haven't seen from the Titans in a long time.

 

  • The difference between the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line from last year and this year will be night and day. Chip Kelly's tempo is going to make a huge difference in helping the running game play at a high level this year. Lane Johnson and Jason Peters have a chance to be elite as a pass blocking duo at tackle, and Kelly's offensive will be friendly in terms of getting rid of the ball quickly.

 

  • The more I watched of the Green Bay Packers on tape, the more I realized that their tackle play wasn't the only problem last season. The Packers addressed some of their O-line issues through the draft, but there are still holes this year that I'm sure the Packers are hoping RBs like Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin can cover up.

 

  • The Minnesota Vikings are a terrific example of how a unit can be successful, despite having very average guards (and a RT I'm not in love with). The Vikings are well-coached, play with smarts and discipline, and they give Adrian Peterson a chance, despite facing a variety of 8-man fronts. Does Peterson help them out as well and make yards on his own? Of course he does, but that's just part of the game. It does not diminish was a nice job the Vikings are doing as a unit.

 

2013 OL Writeups

1. San Francisco 49ers

 

Projected Starters:

TacklesJoe Staley (29), Anthony Davis (23)

GuardsMike Iupati (26), Alex Boone (26)

CenterJonathan Goodwin (34)/Daniel Kilgore (25)

 

Outlook:

Stability along the offensive line is often the mark of a Super Bowl team, and the 49ers certainly have that. A dominant run-blocking line (a 3rd-most 5.1 YPC and a 4th-most 155.7 YPG), the Niners surrendered a high 41 sacks in 2012, although Alex Smith was sacked more often than the mobile Colin Kaepernick. With Kaepernick in there full time this year, the numbers could look even better in 2013. Think about the chemistry up here: LT Joe Staley, the anchor of the line, has been a starter for more than half a decade and is under contract for five more seasons. The Niners just spent big money to extend the still-improving RT Anthony Davis, and he’s under contract for seven more seasons. Shortly after switching to RG from tackle, Alex Boone made a name for himself and was honored as a Pro Bowl alternate. Boone is under contract for three more seasons. While LG Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl, he’s the only player of these four not signed past 2014. That said, the 49ers have already engaged Iupati in contract talks and are clearly interested in retaining him long term. Yes, there are some questions here. C Jonathan Goodwin is getting older, and he needed to take a pay cut to ensure his roster spot for 2013. But he is still the favorite to open the 2013 as the starter over Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney. Additionally, Staley is coming off a knee scope and Iupati is recovering from shoulder surgery, but both players are expected to be ready for training camp. In the event they miss time, however, veteran swingman Adam Snyder is back with the 49ers. In Snyder, Looney, and Kilgore, the 49ers have valuable depth behind one of the NFL’s most stable lines.

 

Zierlein Says:

Welcome to the best pure running game in football. The Redskins may have ended the season with more rushing yards, but nobody was more efficient than the 49ers, thanks to this talented, highly-drafted offensive line. Jim Harbaugh understands that the running game is about setting a tone of dominance, and he isn’t going to get away from that which is why there will always be value with multiple 49ers RBs. Colin Kaepernick will keep utilizing the zone read, but look for more teams to focus on containing him from getting outside, which means there is greater potential for explosive plays for RBs on the hand-off. San Francisco’s ground game is about pounding defenses up the middle and then hitting them outside. And 23.6% of their rushing yards came up the middle, while 42.9% came from runs around the left and right end. The 49ers will have their best success against teams with average or below-average LBs or slower LB corps. While I love their ground game, I’m very down on their protection. The guards are slow to react to stunts and twists, and their tackles stunk at times. Anthony Davis is overrated and overpaid, and his 10 sacks allowed help to shine a spotlight on the 49ers Achilles heel up front.

 

2. Washington Redskins

 

Projected Starters:

TacklesTrent Williams (25), Tyler Polumbus (28)

GuardKory Lichtensteiger (28), Chris Chester (30)

CenterWill Montgomery (30)

 

Outlook:

The zone-blocking Redskins have among the most consistent offensive lines in football in terms of personnel. In 2013, they’re expected to return all five starters to the same positions they were in last season, and the same positions four of the five were in 2011. In fact, the Redskins didn’t select a single lineman in the 2013 draft, speaking to their comfort level with the personnel. Last season, the Redskins surrendered 33 sacks, in the better half of the NFL, and no team in football ran the ball better (a league-high 169.3 YPG and a 2nd-highest 5.2 YPC). LT Trent Williams made the Pro Bowl after a great 2012, and he seems poised to improve in 2013 after taking some huge strides and having a positively quiet off-season. LG Kory Lichtensteiger was among the weak links along the Redskin line last season, but he was recovering from a serious knee injury, and he played through a high ankle sprain. The Redskins were happy with Lichtensteiger’s determination and signed him to a five-year extension this off-season, and he’ll be entering training camp healthy. C Will Montgomery was fantastic in 2012, ranking #3 among all centers according to Pro Football Focus, despite playing through an MCL sprain. Perhaps speaking to the importance of consistency, RG Chris Chester had what might have been the best season of his career in 2012 after his shaky 2011, and he hasn’t missed a snap in over two seasons. RT Tyler Polumbus is probably the Redskin most in danger of losing his starting spot. Although he re-signed in Washington on a two-year deal, he will face competition from veteran Jeremy Trueblood and youngster Tom Compton. According to Pro Football Focus, Polumbus was the worst RT in football last season. The biggest issue for the Redskin line is depth. With QB Robert Griffin III returning from injury, it is imperative the Redskins stay healthy up front because Trueblood is the only reserve with significant experience. If G Josh LeRibeus impresses, he could push Lichtensteiger for playing time, but that’s a big “if.”

 

Zierlein Says:

Last year, I wrote an article during the summer predicting the Redskins would have one of the top rushing attacks in the league. Offensive lines tend to gel in year two after implementing the zone scheme, and RG3 was certain to expedite that process. Washington ended up leading the league in rushing, and while RG3 and Alfred Morris deserve credit, the play of the offensive line deserves its fair share as well. However, let’s not go overboard. The left side of the line was more consistent than the right side, thanks primarily to Trent Williams, who really came on last season. 50.7% of the Redskins rushing yards came running left versus just 38.6% to the right. Chris Chester fits in this zone scheme due to his quick feet, but both he and Lichtensteiger are more steady than talented. I don’t think the right tackle position will matter that much as the scheme will cover that position up. In 2012, almost 50% of Morris’ yards came after contact, and he had to break a whopping 22 tackles. In other words, he still had to work for his yards. The Redskins will likely run fewer zone read plays in an effort to protect RG3, but they will still run just as much zone scheme.

 

3. New York Giants

 

Projected Starters:

TacklesWill Beatty (28), Justin Pugh (23) ®

GuardsKevin Boothe (30), Chris Snee (31)

CenterDavid Baas (31)

 

Outlook:

The Giants may not have had one of the flat-out best lines in football last year, but they do have some stability, and it appears they’re going to improve where they needed to the most. Whether it was the play of QB Eli Manning or other factors, the Giants surrendered only 20 sacks last season, fewest in the entire NFL, which certainly helped LT Will Beatty secure his monster five-year extension in the off-season. Beatty will form an interesting pair on the left side of the New York line with veteran LG Kevin Boothe. Boothe, who signed a one-year deal in the off-season, isn’t a great anchor in the pass game, but he’s aggressive as a run blocker. Boothe was among the leading factors in the Giants’ finishing in the top half of the NFL in both YPC (4.7) and rush YPG (116.4). RG Chris Snee might not be the best guard in football anymore, but he’s a tough player who plays through pain and still excels as both a run blocker and a pass protector. Snee is recovering from off-season hip surgery, but he is expected to be ready for camp. Also recovering from off-season surgery is C David Baas, who had bone spurs removed from his elbow. Baas was solid last year after a bad 2011, but his inconsistency might be a concern for the Giants. The Giants, however, needed to improve significantly at RT, where David Diehl was bad last year. They drafted rookie Justin Pugh in the 1st round in April, and Pugh is expected to step right into a starting job. Pugh has been criticized for having short arms, but the Giants feel he is athletic enough to make up for it and stick at RT, where he played exclusively in OTAs. Like Diehl, Pugh can also play guard. Diehl and OT James Brewer will be the top backups on the line.

 

Zierlein Says:

The Giants struggled to run the ball effectively in 2011, but they bounced back in a big way in 2012, and they did it with solid, cohesive play as a run-blocking unit that included the TEs and WRs. The Giants are fairly straight-ahead with how they run the ball. They will run some inside zone mixed in with their man blocking, and they prefer to run out of 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end and 2 wide receivers) or 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end and 3 wide receivers). New York ran for 1330 yards out of the “21” and “11” formation groupings, so they aren’t looking to trick you when they run the ball; they are just looking to block you. The Giants are solid from guard to guard in the run game, and Beatty came along as a run blocker last year. The right tackle spot has been a problem for consecutive years and the Giants are hoping that rookie 1st-rounder Justin Pugh takes care of those problems. While Pugh will help in the running game, I think he will struggle as a pass protector, which means the Giants will still have to continue to give their right tackle help. 2013 should look similar to 2012 for the Giants, and I’m sure they will take that.

 

4. New England Patriots

 

Projected Starters:

Tackles: Nate Solder (25), Sebastian Vollmer (29)

Guards: Logan Mankins (31), Dan Connolly (31)/Marcus Cannon (25)

Center: Ryan Wendell (27)

 

Outlook: 

The Patriot offense has been a volatile group this off-season, but thankfully one area where they haven’t seen much change is along the offensive line, which is completely intact from its strong 2012 season. The group should still be one of the better lines in the NFL, especially in pass protection. The Pats allowed just 27 sacks last season, the 5th-fewest in the league, thanks in large part to this offensive line, but also because of QB Tom Brady, who gets the ball quickly out of his hands. They also improved in run blocking, important for the 2013 season, given the change at TE and WR. The Patriots ranked 7th in rushing YPG (136.5) and tied for 14th in YPC (4.2).Nate Solder stepped in for the retired Matt Light last season and played admirably, and the third-year pro should only get better. RT Sebastian Vollmer didn’t have much of a market in free agency because of back issues and a knee scope, but he’s expected to be ready for the season after re-upping with the Patriots. LG Logan Mankins continues to play near a Pro Bowl level, and the unheralded member of the group, C Ryan Wendell, barely left the field and played at a high level in this no-huddle offense. About the only spot where the Patriots could see change is at RG, as Marcus Cannon is expected to challenge veteran Dan Connolly for the starting job. This year more than ever, the Patriots will be relying on solid offensive line play from week to week, and fortunately for them, this group almost always delivers.

 

Zierlein Says:

The Patriots have tried to stay ahead of the curve in terms of their approach to their offense. Last season, the Patriots made tempo a bigger part of their offense, and they got back to running the ball effectively under OC Josh McDaniels. The Patriots up-tempo philosophy allows them to get more snaps than other offenses, which accounts for their ability to get more rushing attempts than every other team but one last year, while still finishing 4th in the league in passing attempts. With Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker gone and with a lack of reliable WRs outside, the Patriots could be looking to run the ball even more this season. Unlike the Bills and Panthers who gained a solid percentage of their rushing yardage out of the shotgun, 85.3% of the Patriots rushing yardage came when Brady was under center, which meant the Patriots were able to grind it out up front, and with a big TE like Jake Ballard being added into the mix, the Patriots might be even more prepared to do that once again. There is no real reason to even talk about pass protection, since the Patriots usually do a pretty good job and Brady gets rid of the ball quickly when blitzed.

 

5. Seattle Seahawks

Projected Starters:

TacklesRussell Okung (25), Breno Giacomini (27)

GuardJames Carpenter (24)/Paul McQuistan (30), J.R. Sweezy (24)

CenterMax Unger (27)

 

Outlook:

The Seahawks have a young line, which means there’s still a lot of time for zone-blocking guru Tom Cable to coach ‘em up and get the most out of it. And to be fair, the Seahawks ranked 3rd in the NFL, with 161.2 rushing YPG, and 5th with 4.8 YPC. But on perhaps the NFL’s most talented overall roster, offensive line might be the weakest unit on the club. One of the major reasons? Injuries. LT Russell Okung is a really talented player with the chance to become a star, but he’s dealt with knee, pec, and ankle injuries in his career. He’s also among the most penalized linemen in football. But Okung’s 15 starts in 2012 were the most of his career thus far, so at least he’s trending upward. LG James Carpenter has played only 16 games in two seasons, and he is coming off knee surgery and concussion issues. When drafted as a right tackle in the 1st round back in 2011, many considered Carpenter a “reach,” and he hasn’t really had a chance to prove otherwise. Carpenter is expected to be ready for camp, but the Seahawks won’t rush him, and it’s possible Paul McQuistan opens camp as the starting LG. RT Breno Giacomini didn’t have a good season in 2012, had elbow surgery after the season, and is dealing with knee problems as he heads into camp. RG J.R. Sweezy is hoping to improve heading into 2013 after starting five games in 2012, in which he was inconsistent. At the least, the Seahawks’ depth is best along the interior, where McQuistan and third-year pro John Moffitt could compete for snaps, and projects Ryan Seymour and Jared Smith have upside for the future. And C Max Unger is one of the most underrated players at his position in the league. But the Seahawks lack depth at tackle (the top guy outside of swingman McQuistan could be 2013 7th-rounder Michael Bowie), and injuries could make things tough for Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson (sacked only 33 times in 2012, to be fair).

 

Zierlein Says:

Marshawn Lynch’s career has been resurrected in Seattle, thanks to a well-schemed rushing attack that gets the most out of Lynch and the linemen in front of him. Three out of every 5 yards gained per carry by Lynch were “clean yards,” which speaks volumes about the way the running game is coordinated and how the O-line worked together. While Max Unger gets pushed around by bigger NTs, he’s very technically sound and a big reason for Seattle’s improvement up front over the last few years. If Russell Okung can stay healthy, we are potentially looking at the best LT in the NFC. Okung allowed his QB to get hit just 6 times last year, including only 2 sacks, and the Seahawks averaged 5.4 YPC when running over his left tackle. RT Breno Giacomini has quick feet and works fairly well in space, but Seattle needs to upgrade that position soon. James Carpenter never seemed athletic enough to be a fit at tackle in this scheme, but I do like him at LG, where he’ll play when healthy. The trio of Unger, Carpenter, and Okung in front of the physical Lynch should wreak havoc on defenses all year. Seattle will likely try and open things up for Russell Wilson this year, which means the O-line will be tested more often in pass protection, but I think they are up for it.

 

6. Baltimore Ravens

 

Projected Starters:

Tackles: Bryant McKinnie (33), Michael Oher (27)

Guards: Kelechi Osemele (24), Marshal Yanda (28)

Center: Gino Gradkowski (24)

 

Outlook: This Raven offensive line has undergone some minor changes heading into 2013, but the group should still be one of the better groups in the league. One of the more underrated stories of the Ravens’ championship year, Bryant McKinnie will be back at LT this season after taking over the spot last January and playing well throughout the Super Bowl run. McKinnie reportedly showed up to minicamp in good shape, which has been the biggest gripe about him the last few years. McKinnie took over for Michael Oher, who moved over to RT and will stay there to start the season. The Ravens allowed 38 sacks last season, which was middle of the pack. Oher’s versatility has certainly helped this offensive line the last few years, even though he’s struggled with consistency. Kelechi Osemele started all 16 games last season at RT before moving to LG in the playoffs, where he will stay this season. Speaking to his natural ability and strength, he played excellently against Vince Wilfork in the playoffs. Osemele has the skill to play at right tackle in the future or in case of injuries, but he has the skill to be dominant at guard. RG Marshal Yanda is one of the best guards in all of football, but he is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. He played and played well through the injury last season. About the only major question mark will be at center, with Matt Birk retiring after the Super Bowl victory. Second-year C Gino Gradkowski is expected to fill the role after learning for one year behind Birk. The Ravens have an above-average run-blocking group, ranking 11th in rushing YPG (118.8) and 12th in YPC (4.3).  Additionally, the Ravens have some solid, experienced depth in G Ramon Harewood and T Jah Reid. If McKinnie is able to stay in shape and healthy, this group should be one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.

 

Zierlein Says:

The Raven offense had its ups and downs, but there is no denying that they rediscovered the running game late in the season, and it carried over into the playoffs.  Baltimore’s five highest rushing totals came over their last eight games of the season, including the playoffs, and only center Matt Birk is gone from that offensive line combination that really clicked on the road to the Super Bowl. The guard combination of Osemele and Yanda reminds me of what the Saints had with Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, but I still think Osemele is best suited to be a full-time tackle for the Ravens. The Ravens have good size up front, but also enough athleticism to be effective with outside zone plays to go with their gap plays. Look for big things from the running game, including not only Ray Rice, but also Bernard Pierce. Bryant McKinnie looks like a man who is desperate to hang onto his career and that is a good thing, but RT Michael Oher is subpar in pass protection and allowed 11.5 sacks in 2012. Oher is likely playing his last season as a Raven. With a new center and a shaky RT, I’m somewhat concerned that Joe Flacco could be under pressure and start falling into his old ways.

 

7. Kansas City Chiefs

 

Projected Starters:

Tackles: Branden Albert (28), Eric Fisher (22) ®

Guards: Jeff Allen (23)/Geoff Schwartz (27), Jon Asamoah (25)

Center: Rodney Hudson (24)/Allen

 

Outlook: 

The Chiefs used the #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft on Eric Fisher, so clearly the underrated group has some potential to be an even better unit this season. Before they landed Fisher, the Chiefs had a young, talented group in place, anchored by Branden Albert at LT. The Chiefs tried to trade the franchised Albert for some 2013 draft assets but failed, so Albert will be around to protect QB Alex Smith’s backside for at least this season, as he wants to get paid, and the Chiefs can eventually transition to the blind side. Fisher played mostly at left tackle during his time at small school Central Michigan, so he’ll have a big transition to RT and to a much higher level of play, but the kid went #1 for a reason. Fisher is still clearly an upgrade over an older Eric Winston from last season. The Chiefs allowed 40 sacks, despite 475 pass attempts, so they’ll need to be better in a more diverse offense. The Chiefs will likely give second-year pro LG Jeff Allen another chance to play, but Pro Football Focus graded him as the 3rd-worst guard in the entire league last season. The Chiefs also signed OG Geoff Schwartz, a 16-game starter for the Panthers last season, to put some pressure on Allen this season. Left guard could be the weakest spot along this offensive line heading into the year, but the Chiefs are also concerned about Rodney Hudson at center. Hudson is the favorite to win the job, but Allen also worked at the spot in minicamp. Third-year RG Jon Asamoah has started all but one game the last two seasons because of a thumb surgery, and he’s a better-than-average run blocker. The Chiefs ranked 5th in rushing YPG (149.7) and tied for 5th in YPC (4.8) last season, impressive marks, despite an awful passing game. The Chiefs have some real talent and youth along their offensive line, so they need to continue to dominate in the run game and improve in protection for Andy Reid’s pass-happy schemes.

 

Zierlein Says:

The zone scheme does it again. Well, it’s hard to put it all on the scheme when Jamaal Charles played out of his mind coming off an ACL injury in 2012, but there is no doubting that this scheme put Charles in position to make big plays in space. The outside zone allows Charles to use his gift or burst, cut-back ability, and breakaway speed to the best of his ability. I have a metric I created called a “consistency indicator” for offensive lines, and the Chiefs ranked 8th in that metric. It is worth noting that Kansas City ran for only 261 yards over LG and LT combined but 612 yards over RG and RT (those stats don’t account for runs around the end), and with the athletic and talented Eric Fisher taking over at RT, the Chiefs might do more of the same. RG Jon Asamoah is one of the most underrated guards in the game as a run-blocker, and I don’t think continuity will be a problem for this unit, despite a new coaching staff. The real question for owners of Jamaal Charles is going to be how often Andy Reid actually runs the ball. The Chiefs were run-heavy last year because they had to be, but with Reid and Alex Smith there, the Chiefs will likely throw it more. With Fisher in for Winston, the pass protection will improve.

 

8. Tennessee Titans

 

Projected Starters:

Tackles: Michael Roos (30), David Stewart (30)

Guards: Andy Levitre (27), Chance Warmack (21) ®

Center: Fernando Velasco (28)

 

Outlook: 

The Titans made it abundantly clear this off-season that they intend to run the heck out of the ball next season by signing the best free agent OG, Andy Levitre, and spending a top-10 pick on an OG, Chance Warmack. While Levitre is a better pass blocker than a run blocker, he’ll still provide a major upgrade for an offensive line that struggled on the interior (ask RB Chris Johnson, who has been vocal about his line’s struggles). However, Levitre did battle knee soreness during minicamp and is questionable for the start of training camp. Warmack is wide-bodied blocker, who will pave some gigantic holes like he did for Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson at Alabama. The Titans ranked 21st in rushing YPG (105.4) and tied for 8th in YPC (4.5) last season, so there is room to improve here. Also on the inside, C Fernando Velasco did well for himself as a first-time starter in his fourth season, and he earned the chance to start another season, although the Titans added competition in 4th-round rookie Brian Schwenke. Titan offensive tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart were the clear strengths of the unit last season, as the Titans allowed 39 sacks last season to rank in the middle of the league. But Stewart’s RT spot has a chance to be a concern. Stewart broke his right leg last December, and his recovery has been a little slower than expected, putting him in jeopardy of being ready for training camp. The injury was enough of a concern that the team took a long look at veteran RT Eric Winston, just in case (Winston remains unsigned). Versatile reserve OT Mike Otto is the most likely candidate to fill in if Stewart isn’t ready to go immediately this preseason. Roos has been extremely durable, as he missed the first game of eight-year career last season because of an emergency appendectomy. If Stewart is healthy enough to play, Warmack doesn’t play like a rookie, and Levitre plays like a Pro Bowler, this Titan offensive line clearly has a chance to be one of the league’s better groups. They also need QB Jake Locker to step up in his third season, and they need CJ to run hard, which are likely the two bigger issues.

 

Zierlein Says:

The Titans’ offense is still a work in progress, but their front office clearly understood the need to remake the interior line. The Titans know they have to take on J.J. Watt twice per year and drafting a power RG like Chance Warmack will help with that matchup. Andy Levitre had a great year for the Bills and was an outstanding addition to this offensive line. While Levitre can move in space and fit into the zone scheme, that isn’t Warmack’s style, and the Titans are much more likely to start trying to pound on teams a little more. The Titans had a higher percentage of runs that went for no gain as opposed to 10+ yards, and that is always a good indicator of how well the line is blocking and how tough the RB is. Michael Roos is still solid, but I saw signs of RT David Stewart’s game slipping. Rookie C Brian Schwenke is going to be a good player, and he might just be the starter by the middle of the season. The Titans’ commitment to the offensive line means the running game is going to be front-and-center this year, and the results should be much better in 2013.

 

9. Houston Texans

 

Projected Starters:

Tackles: Duane Brown (28), Derek Newton (25)/Ryan Harris (28)/Brennan Williams (22) ®

Guards: Wade Smith (32), Brandon Brooks (23)/Ben Jones (24)

Center: Chris Myers (31)

 

Outlook: 

The Texans had one of the best offensive lines in football a few years ago, but the unit took a bit of a step back in 2012, and there is now some unrest up front. The Texans gave up the 7th-fewest sacks, with just 28 allowed in 2012, thanks to big-money LT Duane Brown. He is one of the best OTs in the league, and a minor off-season surgery to remove a bone spur likely won’t change that. Meanwhile at RT, Derek Newton is a huge worry coming off a season in which he got beat around and had off-season patellar tendon surgery. Rookie Brennan Williams and veteran Ryan Harris will push for playing time if Newton continues to struggle. In fact the whole right side of the Texan line is a question mark, as Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones will compete for the RG job. Brooks has struggled with weight issues early in his career, but HC Gary Kubiak believes Brooks had the slight edge out of off-season workouts. LG Wade Smith made his first career Pro Bowl last season, but he is coming off a knee scope and entering his 11th season, so there’s a little room to worry. C Chris Myers remains one of the best centers in the league and a premier zone blocker, and he helped the Texans rank 8th in rushing YPG (132.7) and tied for 14th in YPC (4.2) last season. The Texans still have an above-average offensive line with studs like Brown and Myers, but the right side of the line needs to improve for this group to get into the upper echelon once again. Remember, RB Arian Foster’s rate stats fell off big time last year.

 

Zierlein Says:

After performing as one of the most fluid and consistent offensive lines in the NFL in 2010 and 2011, the Texans o-line took a step back as they were unable to get the same level of consistency from RG and RT after the departures of Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston. Duane Brown is one of the best LTs in all of football, but he got too heavy last year and his play dipped.  Brown came into OTAs at 300 pounds, which shows a commitment to getting his game back on top. Chris Myers is a rock at center, and second year RG Brandon Brooks has a chance to provide some power that has been missing from the guard position. Despite making the Pro Bowl, Wade Smith’s play isn’t what it should have been last year, and his play should be monitored. The Texans use bootleg play-action off their outside zone plays, which means QB Matt Schaub will usually be fairly well-protected. The RT position is a mess. Derek Newton is hurt and likely not good enough anyway, while rookie Brennan Williams won’t get much of a sniff this year, as Kubiak will look toward veteran Ryan Harris. Issues at RT, combined with the addition of WR DeAndre Hopkins, could signal more passing and less running.

 

10. Minnesota Vikings

 

Projected Starters:

TacklesMatt Kalil (24), Phil Loadholt (27)

GuardsCharlie Johnson (29), Brandon Fusco (25)

CenterJohn Sullivan (28)

 

Outlook:

RB Adrian Peterson had a legendary season in 2012, perhaps the best ever by an NFL player, but he certainly had some help. The Viking line, which is one of the more underrated and effective in the entire game, helped the club post a league-best 5.4 YPC and 2nd-best 164.6 rush YPG. That started with two players have fantastic seasons: LT Ryan Kalil and C John Sullivan. Kalil, in particular, has to make the Vikings giddy. He gave up only 3 sacks in 2012 (the Vikings gave up 32 overall, down from 49 in 2011), and two of those came late in the season after a bout with pneumonia forced him to drop about 15 pounds. Kalil has since gained all that weight back, and he plans to bulk up to about 315 pounds as he’s more comfortable with his role. Sullivan was a total revelation for the Vikings. He got All-Pro votes after a season in which he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall center, thanks to his run-game domination. Sullivan is recovering from “minor” Microfracture surgery, however, and while he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp, “Microfracture” still scares us. Monitor this situation. RT Phil Loadholt is occasionally slow on his pass drops, but he’s a monster who is a total mauler in the run game. The Vikings rewarded him with a big-money four-year extension this off-season. The biggest question marks for the Vikings come at guard. RG Brandon Fusco had an up-and-down season in which he rotated with Geoff Schwartz, but he played his best football in December, and it would be an upset if he wasn’t starting come Week One. The player who is in most danger of losing a job is LG Charlie Johnson. Johnson restructured his contract this off-season or else he might have been a cap casualty. Depth could be an issue for the Vikings, however. The top backups appear to be G Troy Kropog and T Brandon Keith, nether of whom has a particularly impressive resume. C Joe Berger was retained in the event Sullivan experiences difficulties returning from his surgery. But if the Vikings stay healthy, this could be one of the best lines in the entire game. That’s great news for QB Christian Ponder, who has Peterson, the line, and an improved set of receivers to lean on.

 

Zierlein Says:

The lazy way out would be to watch Adrian Peterson break tackles, make an incredible stutter step, run to daylight and assume that he made the line look better than they were. While Peterson did more than his fair share to reach the 2,000 yard barrier, his offensive line cleared the way for 1,050 pre/non-contact yards against a slew of 8-man fronts. The Vikings are one of the better coached run-blocking units in the league, and you don’t see them bust assignments very often. Phil Loadholt is limited athletically and Charlie Johnson is “just a guy,” but the Vikings still run every scheme imaginable up front in their rushing attack. John Sullivan is terrific at working with both guards to help wash down the middle of the defense and open up cut-back lanes for Peterson. Brandon Fusco does some nice things in the run game but is problematic as a pass protector, allowing way too much pressure from inside. Kalil has been terrific as a run blocker, but he still has some work to do in pass protection. Beware of teams with edge speed against Loadholt, as they will always cause problems for him. The Vikings run the delay-lead play better than anyone in football right now.

 

 

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