We often talk about a player’s talent level and sometimes we’ll reference their coach and offensive scheme, but when talking about running backs, why don’t we talk about their offensive line more often? While there are things more important, offensive line play has a direct impact on the type of success a running back will have.
For instance, many fantasy football players know that Kenyan Drake is now on the Raiders, but most can’t tell you Pro Bowl center Alex Mack went from the Falcons to the 49ers this offseason or that the Bears will have two new starting tackles. It’s not just running backs who’ll feel it, either, as quarterbacks are impacted quite a bit by offensive line play, too.
Some teams have added significant talent through free agency, while others have added through the draft. Some teams have lost players and haven’t done much to replace them, which will impact their grade. But it’s also important to note that a team will get a bump in the rankings for returning linemen, as continuity absolutely matters. Are there players you should move up or down in your rankings because of this? Absolutely, and I’m going to do my best to let you know why.
32. Carolina Panthers
No one really knows what the Panthers are doing with their offensive line. The unit they had in place last year gave their running backs a league-worst 1.03 yards before contact. Ok, sure, I get it, let’s shake it up. But what they did was add an extremely disappointing Pat Elflein, a horrendous Cam Erving, and then offensive linemen with their third- and sixth-round picks. Just ask Cowboys fans how Erving at left tackle works out. The only bright spot on this offensive line is Taylor Moton at right tackle. That’s it.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers
“How are the Steelers down this far considering Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just 13 times?” Well, that’s a large part of the reason his average depth of target was so short; he was getting the ball out. The run game suffered behind an offensive line that created just 1.20 yards before contact, the sixth-worst number in the league. On top of that, they lost their starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey, and guard David DeCastro. Granted, they were aging players, but it’s still a lot of moving parts. There isn’t a player on this line that you can say is above average right now, which is certainly an issue for the skill-position players, especially when it comes to their efficiency.
30. Chicago Bears
When you replace both your starting left and right tackle, it’s a problem. That’s precisely what the Bears did this offseason, cutting both Charles Leno and Bobby Massie due to salary cap issues. What this means is that they’ll have to start rookie Teven Jenkins, who played as a right tackle in college, at left tackle from day one. They’ll move Germain Ifedi from guard to right tackle, which is likely to be a downgrade from Massie. The combination of James Daniels and Cody Whitehair is solid on the interior, but there are just too many questions about the most important positions to trust this line.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars waited until the last minute to franchise tag Cam Robinson, highlighting that they weren’t entirely convinced they wanted him to be the left tackle of their future, but they had no alternate plan and couldn’t risk waiting to see if one was there at pick No. 25 in the draft. Jawaan Taylor was supposed to be a steal in the second round a few years back, but he hasn’t looked like it. The two most important positions (the tackles) are the weak spots, as Andrew Norwell, A.J. Cann, and Brandon Linder are a solid unit up the middle. They drafted Walker Little in the second round as what may be Robinson’s replacement, but he’s not guaranteed to be an upgrade.
28. Las Vegas Raiders
You can’t look at last year’s numbers for the Raiders’ offensive line because there are so many moving parts, but even if you did, they created just 1.26 yards before contact for their running backs, the eighth-worst mark in the league. They’ve now stripped away all their continuity, as Trent Brown, Gabe Jackson, and Rodney Hudson are all gone. Insert first-round pick Alex Leatherwood at right tackle, Denzelle Good at guard, and Nick Martin at center… that doesn’t sound like the ideal scenario, does it? It helps that they get Richie Incognito back, but this is certainly a work in progress.
27. New York Giants
The Giants offensive line should be better than it is. They have invested money in free agency, as well as high equity in the draft. Andrew Thomas was okay his rookie season and should continue to develop as a sturdy left tackle. Will Hernandez has never lived up to expectations, nor has Nate Solder, their prized free agent from a few years ago. They lost Kevin Zeitler in free agency, which created a void they really didn’t repair, but maybe they slide Solder or Matt Peart to guard? At this point in time, there’s not a player who’s performed above average on this line. The 1.14 yards before contact they gave their running backs last year highlights that, as it was the fourth-lowest number in the league.
26. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins invested a lot in their offensive line last year, though they didn’t land any superstars out of the gate. Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt were mediocre at best, while Solomon Kindley didn’t live up to expectations on the interior. They let Ereck Flowers walk this offseason, which creates a void they hope to fill with Liam Eichenberg? It’s possible they move Hunt to the interior and place Eichenberg at tackle. These questions and moving parts certainly hurt their grade. Their line is well below average, and the running backs did nothing to help them look better last year, averaging just 2.46 yards after contact, the second-lowest mark in football.
25. New York Jets
The rebuild of the offensive line has begun, though there’s still work to be done. Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker might be one of the best tackle combos in the league a few years from now, but we can’t automatically assume they both pan out. Moving George Fant to guard seems logical, but they could slide Vera-Tucker inside to make the transition smoother. Whatever the case, Greg Van Roten and Conner McGovern are both below average and drag down the overall ranking. The Jets did try to grab interior lineman Dan Feeney, who should be considered a reclamation project after a failed rookie contract with the Chargers.
24. Houston Texans
They have the most important position locked down at left tackle with Laremy Tunsil, though they’re still paying for it through the draft. They signed tons of offensive linemen this offseason, but no one really of note. It’s just a collection of mediocre linemen, similar to what they’ve been trotting out there for years. This offensive line isn’t going to prop up any running backs and it won’t make life easier on whichever quarterback they have under center.
23. Seattle Seahawks
When your quarterback says he’s tired of getting hit and wants more protection, that’s a problem. They did go out and snag guard Gabe Jackson, who’s at least been competent throughout his seven years in the league. They only had three draft picks, so it’s not like they could’ve done much in the draft, either. Having Duane Brown at left tackle is certainly a score booster, as it’s the most important position on the line, even if there’s not another above average player (maybe Jackson now) on the line.
22. Cincinnati Bengals
Ever since they let go of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, the Bengals offensive line has been in shambles. Seriously, they’ve been rebuilding ever since. Have they finally gotten it right? With Jonah Williams at left tackle, free agent Riley Reiff at right tackle, and second-round pick Jackson Carman at guard, they might have a formidable group for the first time in five years.
21. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have managed to rebuild their offensive line on the fly, and stole Rodney Hudson from the Raiders this offseason, giving them a sturdy presence up the middle of the field. Justin Pugh and Justin Murray up the middle isn’t the best duo at guard, but the play of D.J. Humphries and Kelvin Beachum in 2020 helped make up for that, creating plenty of yards before contact for the running backs, though the offensive scheme certainly helps that. If last year’s third-round pick Josh Jones were to have panned out, they would be looking great right now, but instead, they’re near the middle of the pack.
20. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings cutting Riley Reiff didn’t do their ranking any favors. Sure, drafting Christian Darrisaw in the first round helped fill the void, but offensive tackles drafted in the mid-to-late first round don’t always pan out, and Reiff was a proven commodity. Garrett Bradbury didn’t tear it up in his first two years but should continue to improve. Adding Wyatt Davis in the third round was one of my favorite picks they made in the draft, and he should prove to be an upgrade on the interior of the line right away. I’d describe their offensive line as average that can become above average if Darrisaw proves he can hang at left tackle in the NFL.
19. Tennessee Titans
After the failed first-round pick that was Isaiah Wilson, the Titans had to try and replace Jack Conklin once again in this year’s draft, selecting Dillon Radunz in the second round. Not only that, but they also snagged Kendall Lamm in free agency for depth. Can Taylor Lewan stay healthy and on the field? If so, they have a solid offensive line that won’t hold offensive skill-position players back. Rodger Safford, Nate Davis, and Ben Jones all played adequately last year, but it’s worth noting that Derrick Henry does make them look better; just 26.6 percent of his yards came before contact (fourth-lowest mark in the NFL).
18. Buffalo Bills
There’s nothing special about the Bills offensive line, but there’s also not much wrong with it. Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams are solid tackles that I’d even call above average. The interior of the line is where there are some questions, as Cody Ford was supposed to be the answer, but hasn’t been to this point. Jon Feliciano is someone I’d describe as below average, while Mitch Morse isn’t far from that. Can the Bills coaching staff resurrect Forrest Lamp‘s career as a former second-round pick? Will the draft picks of Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle provide depth, or will they move one of them to guard?
17. Atlanta Falcons
I loved the pick of Jalen Mayfield in the third round; it felt like one of the steals of the draft. Do they slide him inside to play guard? It seems likely with Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary on the edge. If Mayfield pans out, he and Chris Lindstrom would be one of the better guard combos in the league. Losing Alex Mack hurts quite a bit, as he’s been a steady presence for them at center for the last few years. They do have their replacement in Matt Hennessy, but he wasn’t very good in a small sample size during the 2020 season. There are certainly questions on this offensive line, but it’s possible they’re a top-12 unit this time next year.
16. Los Angeles Chargers
This offensive line was probably a bottom-five unit last year, as Bryan Bulaga was the only positive on it. The Chargers realized it and did something about it, snagging what might be the best center in the league during free agency (Corey Linsley), and then drafting left tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round, as well as Brenden Jaimes in the fifth round. They also added a couple guards in free agency to replace Forrest Lamp and Trai Turner, who both turned out to be major disappointments. There will be new starters at four of the five positions, but in the Chargers case, that’s a good thing.
15. Denver Broncos
I was someone clamoring for the Broncos to add an offensive tackle (if they didn’t go quarterback) at No. 9 overall because they needed to upgrade Ja’Wuan James at right tackle. This line is sneaky good, and I love the fact that they snagged Quinn Meinerz in the third round of the draft, who is an upgrade over Lloyd Cushenberry. Right tackle was still a big question mark after James tore his Achilles this offseason, and was then released from the team, but the Bears made life easier on the Broncos by releasing Bobby Massie, who will walk in and start right away.
14. Washington Football Team
They’re an underrated unit, particularly on the inside where they created an average of 1.70 yards before contact for their running backs, ahead of teams like the 49ers, Vikings, and Eagles. They also went out and snagged recently-cut Charles Leno from the Bears, as well as drafting Samuel Cosmi in the second round, making a legitimate competition for their starting left tackle spot. They also went out and snagged Ereck Flowers, who’s been much better as a guard than a failed tackle, giving them depth on the interior. This is no longer a below average offensive line, and if Cosmi hits, it could be one of the better ones in the league.
13. Los Angeles Rams
It seems Andrew Whitworth discovered the fountain of youth, as he was said to be retiring two years ago, but he played some of his best football in 2020, as did Rob Havenstein. Still, we can’t forget Whitworth, their best offensive lineman, is going to be 40 at the end of this year and may decline rapidly. The tackles are what make this line slightly above average because between David Edwards, Austin Corbett, and Brian Allen, there’s not a standout talent. Still, it’s promising to see them create 1.73 yards before contact for their running backs last year, which ranked sixth.
12. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys offensive line last year was a straight up joke towards the end of the year. The only offensive lineman to play 16 games was Conner Williams, and it showed. They created just 1.05 yards before contact for their running backs last year, which ranked as the second-worst mark in the league. You think it was Ezekiel Elliott who declined? That number was 1.43 yards before contact in 2019. Elliott and Pollard combined to post 74.3 percent of their yards after contact, which was the highest mark in the league. Whatever the case, injuries made them look worse than they are, but we can’t ignore that Tyron Smith is nearing the end, and when they lose him, this line doesn’t look nearly as dominant.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
They had plenty of injuries that accounted for their poor play last year, but these rankings are based upon the talent when healthy. Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson form a solid tackle group when healthy, which has been an issue. They also have one of the better centers in the league with Jason Kelce. Adding Landon Dickerson in the second round was great, as he should be an upgrade over the rapidly declining Jason Peters at guard. They’ll also get back Brandon Brooks, who didn’t play a snap during the 2020 season. Health is the biggest concern with this line, but if they remain healthy, they’re a top-10 unit.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs found a steal at No. 13 overall last year, as Tristan Wirfs was among the best right tackles in the game his rookie season. I’ve been hard on Donovan Smith, but he’s slowly improved the last two years, and is a competent starting left tackle. With Ali Marpet on the interior, they have some rock-solid pieces, though I still believe they could upgrade from both Alex Cappa and Ryan Jensen. They were much better pass blockers than run blockers last year, as evidenced by just 29.1 percent of their running backs yardage coming before contact, which ranked 25th in the NFL.
9. Kansas City Chiefs
Had the Chiefs not done anything in free agency and/or the draft, they would’ve been a bottom-10 offensive line, but they did the opposite of that. They went out and essentially rebuilt their line, adding Kyle Long and Joe Thuney in free agency, then trading for Orlando Brown to take the place of Eric Fisher, and finishing it off by drafting both Creed Humphrey (second round) and Trey Smith (sixth round). They’ll also get last year’s third-round pick Lucas Niang back after he opted out in 2020. There are many moving parts, which means it could take time for them to gel, but the talent is there on this offensive line.
8. Detroit Lions
This offense isn’t projected to score too many points, but it won’t be because of a bad offensive line. Taylor Decker and No. 7 overall pick Penei Sewell at tackle, Tyrell Crosby and Jonah Jackson/Logan Stenberg at guard, and then Frank Ragnow at center? That’s a stacked offensive line, especially if Sewell lives up to the hype. The Lions running backs did them no favors last year, averaging just 2.48 yards after contact, but just know that 39.2 percent of their yards came before contact, which ranked as the ninth-most in the league, right in between the 49ers and Ravens.
7. Green Bay Packers
This offensive line took a hit during the offseason when they lost long-time starting center Corey Linsley and right tackle Rick Wagner. Fortunately for them, they have an offensive lineman who can play multiple positions in Elgton Jenkins, who might slide to center, while second-round draft pick Josh Meyers starts at guard. They also added more interior depth drafting Royce Newman in the third round. David Bakhtiari is one of the best in the game, and Billy Turner is a solid replacement for Wagner, so there shouldn’t really be any major weakness on the line. The Packers running backs averaged a massive 3.21 yards after contact last year, but don’t let that overshadow the fact that the line created 1.84 yards before contact, which ranked fourth in the league.
6. Cleveland Browns
I’m sure many will give me slack for this one but hear me out. We know them for dominating in the run game, right? Well, just 27.7 percent of the yardage they totaled was before contact, which ranked as the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. The combination of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined to average a massive 3.55 yards after contact, which ranked as the second-highest mark in the league, making the line look that much better. They’re still a very good offensive line, but I’m not seeing greatness just yet. The fact that they have all five linemen returning definitely gives them a bump, though.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Many want to anoint the Colts as the top offensive line in the game, but I’m pumping the brakes a tad. They lost their starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo to early retirement, which created a massive question mark. After passing on offensive tackles in the draft, they were able to land Eric Fisher in free agency, but he’s not likely to be ready for Week 1 after suffering an Achilles tear during the playoffs. That question moves them down the list, but they’re still a top-tier unit who created the fifth-most yards before contact for their running backs.
4. New England Patriots
The combination of Isaiah Wynn and Mike Onwenu was very good last year, but the Patriots decided to take it a step further and bring back a familiar face in Trent Brown, who had his best years with the team. That kicks Onwenu inside to join Shaq Mason and David Andrews for what is one of the most well-rounded offensive lines in the game. It’s not a shock to see 39.6 percent of the Patriots’ running backs yards came before contact, the sixth-highest mark in the league.
3. San Francisco 49ers
I can easily make the case for the 49ers to be the top team on this list, as they have the best bookend duo in the game with Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey, but there are a lot of moving parts on the interior of the line. Still, it’s not a bad thing that they went out and snagged Alex Mack on a one-year deal in free agency, and then drafted Aaron Banks in the second round in order to beef up the interior of the line.
2. Baltimore Ravens
It’s tough to put the Ravens at No. 1 considering the departure of Orlando Brown, who was a massive presence for them. But with Ronnie Staley at left tackle, they weren’t going to play Brown there. They replaced him at right tackle with Alexander Villanueva who’s played his entire career at left tackle, so the transition may be more than most realize. Still, even without Staley for more than half the season, this offensive line created a league-leading 2.01 yards before contact for their running backs. They also added Kevin Zeitler in free agency, who’ll give the interior of the line a nice boost.
1. New Orleans Saints
Continuity is something that’s required to get to the top of this list, and the Saints have that, with all five starters returning. The duo of Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk at tackle is among the best in the game, while Andrus Peat, Cesar Ruiz, and Erik McCoy on the interior is more than adequate. There’s not a below-average talent on their entire line, and it showed when they created 1.96 yards before contact for their run game last year, which ranked second in the NFL. Oddly enough, the Saints running backs averaged just 2.73 yards after contact last year, which ranked 21st.