This article will focus on the big men up front, the unsung heroes of a team, the guys you only hear about when they screw up. Being an offensive lineman in the NFL is sort of like being a janitor, you do all the dirty work and you only get noticed if there is poo on the seat.
Offensive lineman are the key to any offense and while janitors may not be vital to whatever building they are in, if there is a leak that isn’t fixed, or poo everywhere, they surely won’t keep their job. If you can’t control the line of scrimmage you can’t win and you are starting to see more and more teams address these positions early in drafts as a result. From 2000-2006 the average amount of offensive lineman drafted in the first round was about 3 and 1/2. The total number of lineman drafted in the top ten during that time span, was 7. From 2007 until now those numbers have increased to about 6 linemen per draft in the first round, and 8 top ten draft picks! Call them ”safer picks” if you want, but just like any other position, there is a laundry list of guys that couldn’t cut it. It seems that teams are starting to build from the lines because as I said before, if you control the line of scrimmage, you control the game. This is how I see the pecking order for offensive lineman in the AFC East:
1) New York Jets- The Jets were the best running football team in the league last season and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. There is not doubt in my mind that the offensive line of this team single handedly paved the way to the AFC Championship game last season. Shonn Green led the post-season in rushing yards and probably was the main factor in letting go Thomas Jones. The Jets boast 3 former 1st round picks on the line with a good mix of youth and experience.
Damien Woody is the elder statesman of the line and this former 17th pick overall from the Patriots is still a solid RT. Woody made the Pro Bowl for New England as a Center in 2002 but still finds himself getting the best of defensive lineman. D’Brickashaw Ferguson was the fourth pick of the 2004 draft and has been a book-end LT for the Jets. Ferguson is very athletic for his big stature and has very long arms that allow him to steer defenders when engaged.
In that same draft (04) the Jets selected Nick Mangold out of Ohio State at 29th overall. Mangold is a very solid blocker and his only weakness is anchoring vs. a bull rush. He is an extremely effective Center and is the key cog in this offensive line. Mangold has become a perennial pro bowler for this team and really solidifies the middle of this front.
The guard spot is no doubt the weakest part of this line and the big whole left by All-pro LG Alan Faneca will be filled by a rookie out of UMASS, Vladimir Ducasse. Ducasse is coming from a 1A college and is converting from Tackle to Guard. This transition is something the Jets coaching staff will be monitoring all camp. The RG spot for this team has been solid since 2004, another rushing title year for this line, by Brandon Moore. Moore is a converted DT and was an UFA signing in 2002, he is easily the most under-rated lineman of this group and is extremely solid across the board.
The depth on this front is a bit of an issue with two of their reserves seeing time as a third tight end in some packages, but none getting significant time at all other than special teams. The most valuable backup is Matt Slauson who was a solid lineman for a Nebraska and received second team honors in the Big-12 from several sources.
2) Miami Dolphins- Miami has stockpiled offensive lineman since they landed the big Tuna. With a former offensive line coach as their head coach, Tony Sparano loves bringing in big men and has been quoted several times with saying, “you can never have enough bigs”.
Jake Long anchors this offensive line that averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season and led the NFL in rushing TD’s. He was the first pick in 2008 and has made the Pro Bowl every season since then. Long is in my opinion the best offensive Tackle in this division and in time will be the top Tackle in the game along with Joe Thomas from Cleveland. The RT spot for Miami is filled by Vernon Carey; a former 1st round draft pick out of “THE U” Carey is a solid RT that show flashes of greatness but has been known to kill drives with penalties.
The Center of this offensive line is a little bit of an unknown in Jake Grove. Grove is an extremely powerful blocker and is solid up the middle. Grove was brought in from the Raiders in a trade with former 2-year starter Samson Satele who although was talented, he was far too small to handle the great DT’s in the division. Grove played well against the AFC East DT’s in 2008 and was brought in because of his performances against the likes of Wilfork and Jenkins.
The Guard slots of Miami are heavily rotated throughout the season. It is something this coaching staff believes in to keep guys fresh. John Jerry, the Dolphins 3rd round draft pick, and only offensive player drafted this season, will get the start at LG. Jerry is a monster at 6’5″ 328, and his switch from RG to left will a big focus in Miami’s camp. Miami also brought in bad-boy Richie Incognito. Incognito has been a penalty machine in the past but also possesses great strength and brings intensity to an already physical line. The Miami Dolphins have great depth at the interior line which helped them edge out the Patriots for this slot.
Donald Thomas is going into his third season as a Guard for the Dolphins. He was a fourth round pick who worked his way to being the opening day starter for the Dolphins in 2008 only to go on IR with a foot injury week one. He got off to a slow start last season and was eventually beat out for the starting guard spot by Nate Garner. Garner will be competing for the LG spot with the rookie Jerry and he was a bright spot for the team in its closing games last season. Justin Smiley who was the starter at LG, has been on the trading block since February and it’s rumored that his shoulder may need surgery.
3) New England Patriots- New England gets the third slot here because it’s not as complete as the two teams listed above in my opinion. The biggest misconception about the Patriots is that they cannot run the football. This notion is totally false, New England ranked 12th in rushing offense and averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season. Sure New England’s great passing game sets up the run but just because it isn’t the common approach, doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective. The Patriots spread defenses out with multiple receiver sets and are still able to run effectively without bringing in TE’s for extra blockers.
The Left Tackle spot filled currently, but not for long, by Matt Light, is a position that will change in the somewhat near future. Light, in my opinion, is the most over-rated Left Tackle in the game, and similar to former Colt Tarik Glenn, is given more credit because he has a great quarterback behind him. Sure the Fagan door guy can block, but Brady’s great release and ability to manipulate the pocket, mask Light’s deficiencies over the past few seasons. The Pats seem to have struck gold in the form of monster Sebastian Vollmer. This 6’8″ Redwood is a converted TE out of Houston who has already been productive at LT when Light has gone down due to injury. The RT slot is filled by Nick Kazcur who is an average RT that could be unseated if the Pats decide to start Vollmer there. The Tackle position is definitely an interesting spot to watch in the offense this season. Will Vollmer start as a backup LT or start over Kazcur at RT. At this point I don’t see how you can keep him off the field.
The pats have probably the best guard in the division with the departure of Alan Faneca from New York in Logan Mankins. Mankins was the 32nd pick in the 2005 draft and made his first pro bowl appearance in 2007, the only Patriot guard to do so since John Hannah. The pair also share the achievement as being the only rookie Pat’s offensive lineman to start every game in their first season as well. I’m sure Mankins would love to follow Hannah to the Hall of Fame, and he is well on his way to a solid career. Stephen Neal is far from his production level in 2004 when he was a part of Cory Dillon’s franchise record setting season. Neal, the converted wrestler, mulled retirement after the 2009 season, and although he is starting to decline in his skill set, he has three super bowl rings on his resume and has been a great Patriot. If he can get back to full health (12 stars last season) he should be serviceable in 2010.
Dan Koppen anchors the middle of this offensive front and he has been on the field for every game but on in the last 7 season for New England. Koppen made his first career Pro Bowl with fellow teammate Mankins in 2007. He was 2nd team All Pro in that season and with 13 playoff starts, Koppen’s experience is just as vital as his talent.
The Patriots have been quietly addressing the age issue of this offensive line as it is getting older more than it is getting better. Dan Connolly has the most experience and has backed up both Koppen at Center, and started four games at Guard in place of Neal. Vollmer has all the makings to be the Left Tackle of the future but it ends there. George Bussey was placed on IR in September of last season but was productive in college. The Pats drafted him in the fifth round and hope that he could develop into a starter at some point in the future. There is however another wrestler on the bottom of the depth chart in New England. John Wise was recently brought in as a free agent and under Neal’s tutelage might make the practice squad on the developmental side.
Buffalo Bills- The Buffalo Bills remain in the basement in this edition of the rankings and have themselves to blame. Letting go of Jason Peters for peanuts was no doubt a necessary move when you get into the details of the matter. However if you had to rank Left Tackles in the NFL right now Peters, would be on the short list. The Bills offensive line was decimated by injuries last season, not to mention every guy on the opening day starting roster was either at a different position on the line, or in college the previous year. The Bills running game was in the middle of the pack at 16th in total rushing yards and posted a solid 4.4 yards per carry average. This offensive line was the fourth worst in the league at protecting its quarterback, allowing 46 sacks.
Demetrius Bell will play the LT spot for the Bills this season. Bell is the bastard son of Karl Malone, this unfortunately does not boost his talents as a Left Tackle, but by genetics alone he should be athletic. The Bills do like the young lineman and offensive line coach last season Sean Kugler [now with the Steelers] has said “he has the ability to recover when he finds himself out of position”. The Right Tackle spot for the Bills this season will be occupied most likely by Jamon Meredith. Meredith played his college ball at the University of South Carolina and proved to be athletic enough to play LT in Steve Spurrier’s offense. He started 4 games last year and will be competing for the starting role with China’s hope for an NFL talent Ed Wang. Even if Wang doesn’t start he will sell the most jerseys of any Buffalo Bill in recent history. China has not had an NFL player and there have been over 300 articles written in China about the rookie already. Wang is a typical size to play RT at 6’5″ 300 lbs and he should get an honest chance at a starting role.
The Bills drafted two offensive linemen with their first two picks of the 2009 draft. Eric Wood was a Center that has converted to Guard and Andy Levitre will play the other Guard slot. Wood is recovering from a broken leg that occurred in week 11 of last season. In a recent interview at the end of March, Woods said he is shooting for July to be ready to fully participate in training camp. The opposite Guard slot on the Left side goes to Andy Levitre. Levitre started all 16 games last season for Buffalo and in his second season looks to improve on a decent rookie campaign. Levitre is a tough physical blocker that has the opportunity to develop into a solid starter. Woods injury really hindered the duo’s development as a potential force for the future in this offensive line and the new coaching staff needs them to develop in order to improve.After the 2008 season the buffalo Bills targeted Center Geoff Hangartner. Buffalo Bills coach [at the time] Dick Jaroun commented on the signing of the center, “Our position is so tough on centers because of the 3-4 (defenses) and the quality of the nose tackles in our division.” Hangartner, alongside Levitre, was a consistent force in the middle of the Bills defense and the only real consistent starter the team had. The biggest problem with the Buffalo Bills offensive line can also be seen as a positive. The inexperience the Bills have with all of the youth spread across its offensive front provides if nothing more, hope. Hope for the future success of a struggling offense and franchise. If this young line can stay healthy and come together, they have a chance to be successful, especially with the talent behind them at running back.