AFC Offensive Line Play

by Ikey Azar, June 5, 2021

In this series, we will take an analytical dive into how the league’s offensive lines fared in 2020, and what we can expect for 2021. A fair amount of this information was used to help write the 2021 Team Previews for PlayerProfiler’s World Famous Draft Kit. This is the full version of the o-line analysis used within the Draft Kit.

 

AFC EAST

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins fielded a below average offensive line in 2020. They ranked No. 21 in PFF pass blocking and No. 30 in run blocking, while also ranking No. 24 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 20 in Adjusted Sack Rate. They did rank No. 31 in returning snaps last season, bringing back only 19-percent from 2019 as they started to remake the line. They brought in four new starters between free agent acquisitions center Ted Karras, guard Ereck Flowers, as well as first round pick Austin Jackson and second round pick Robert Hunt. All of that investment certainly did not pay off last season. They traded Flowers and are not bringing Karras back for 2021. Jackson graded No. 75 out of 79 offensive tackle last season per PFF, and Hunt graded as No. 51. Both underwhelmed in their rookie seasons.

Looking into 2021, the Dolphins decided to replace Karras with former Ravens center Matt Skura, who ranked No. 31 out of 36 centers, while Karras ranked No.17 last season. While they decided to draft wide receiver Jaylen Waddle over tackle Penei Sewell with their first round pick this year, they did continue to invest draft capital on the line, taking tackle Liam Eichenberg with one of their second selections. Eichenberg improved his PFF grading in each consecutive season, culminating in tying for the No. 9 grade in 2020. He did not allow a sack in both 2019 and 2020 combined, per PFF.

Interestingly, they traded Flowers for a sixth round pick after he graded as the No. 32 guard last season, and now return only 63-percent of their snaps from 2020. With the Eichenberg selection, they immediately could have plugged him at right tackle to take over for Jesse Davis, whose highest graded season was 2018 when he was ranked No. 53 out of 77 graded tackles. Instead, he now projects to eventually start at left guard next to Jackson where Flowers played last season.

 

This line seems to range between slightly below average to slightly above average unless both Jackson and Hunt take major leaps forward in their sophomore seasons.

 

Buffalo Bills

The Bills brought back 87-percent of their snaps and four of five starters on last season’s offensive line. The strength of their line are bookends Dion Dawkins and last season’s under the radar addition of tackle Daryl Williams, both of whom graded in the top 16 in pass block grade per PFF for tackles last season. However, their interior offensive line is not nearly as strong, though they are round league average. As a team per PFF, they ranked No. 6 in pass block grade and No. 15 in run block grade, while Football Outsiders had them No. 15 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 5 in Adjusted Sack Rate.

Once again, they return four of five starters and 88-percent of their snaps from last season. If 2019 second round pick Cody Ford can finally break out, it would give their interior line a boost, but he struggled as a rookie, ranking No. 73 out of 81 guards per PFF, and had graded similarly through the first seven weeks of the season before getting hurt. The good news for the Bills is they have contingency plans in place. They still have backup Ike Boettger on the roster, and with Brian Winters leaving this offseason, they brought in Bobby Hart for additional depth.

 

With the depth they have maintained, and as long as Dawkins and Williams were not to miss too much time, the Bills will once again have one of the league’s better offensive lines.

 

New York Jets

The Jets offensive line was awful in 2019, so they brought back only 15-percent of their snaps, bringing in new starters along the entire offensive line. They ranked dead last in pressure rate allowed last season, while ranking No. 31 per PFF pass block grade and No. 19 in run block grade. The lone bright spot was first round pick Mekhi Becton. A physical specimen at 6-7 and 364-pounds, he ranked No. 31 out of 79 offensive tackles in his rookie season.

The Jets hope Becton takes a step forward in 2021 to become one of the league’s dominant tackles. They return 85-percent of their snaps, giving them better continuity than they had last season. Guard Alex Lewis, ranked No. 26 out of 80 guards per PFF, will hopefully have better health since he was only able to play 55-percent of the snaps last year. The team also continued to spend premium draft capital on the line. They traded up in the first round to select versatile lineman Elijah Vera-Tucker, who was a consensus top five offensive linemen in this year’s class with the ability to play both guard and right tackle.

 

While their offensive line certainly will not be strong since there are still weaknesses and question marks from center on right, the Jets may have at least built their future left side in Becton and Vera-Tucker.

 

New England Patriots

The Patriots once again fielded a strong offensive line last season. However, that seemed to have skewed much more in favor of their run blocking than their pass blocking grades. Per PFF, they were the No. 6-graded run blocking team but only managed the No. 15 pass block grade, while Football Outsiders had them No. 28 in Adjusted Sack Rate and No. 3 in Adjusted Line Yards. All four of Isaiah Wynn, Shaquille Mason, David Andrews, and Mike Onwenu graded in the top 15 for run blocking, but fell outside the top 20 for pass blocking.

In 2021, the Patriots again return nearly 69-percent of their snaps, even after allowing all-pro guard Joe Thuney to leave in free agency. While they allowed Thuney to leave, they may have actually upgraded the line by bringing back tackle Trent Brown, allowing Onwenu to move to guard. They also brought back center/interior lineman Ted Karras, who had a one year stint with the Dolphins.

 

The Patriots have well above average starters along all five positions, which should provide them with a top five unit in 2021.

 

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens fielded an above average offensive line last season, but predictably took a step back after Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda’s retirement. In addition to Yanda’s retirement, the Ravens saw only two starters play over 65-percent of their snaps between finding the right combination of interior linemen and an early season-ending injury to all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who only got to play 30-percent of snaps. After grading out as PFF’s No. 1 pass blocking unit and No. 3 run blocking unit, those metrics fell to No. 10 and No. 14. Per Football Outsiders. Their Adjusted Line Yards moved from No. 3 to No. 8, and their Adjusted Sack Rate moved from No. 8 to No. 23.

The Ravens have made an effort to rectify their offensive line play over the course of the offseason. They allowed center Matt Skura to walk in free agency after a mid-season change to Patrick Mekari, who PFF graded No. 22 out of 36 centers, where Skura finished with the No. 34 rank. They made an offseason trade with the New York Giants to acquire Kevin Zeitler, PFF’s No. 32-ranked guard out of 79, to take over for No. 55-ranked D.J. Fluker.

While they traded away right tackle Orlando Brown, who is on the last year of his rookie deal and looking to capitalize by moving over the left side, there are those that believe the Ravens system has helped Brown, who was a former third round pick that they received a first rounder back in return for. While he graded out as PFF No. 24 and No. 25-ranked tackle over the last two seasons, they signed former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who has graded as the No. 23 and No. 28 tackle over the same time period, to replace him. In addition, they invested a third round pick on mammoth interior lineman Ben Cleveland, who stands 6-6 and weighs 343-pounds with a 92nd-percentile Speed Score.

 

After a year of surviving injury and the loss of a Hall of Famer, the offensive line is looking up for 2021.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers offensive line had already taken a step back in run blocking going into 2020 due to overall aging and longtime left guard Ramon Foster retiring. It’s now even worse. Their run blocking has downgraded even more, and there is potential for their pass blocking efficiency to drop this season as well. Last year, they ranked No. 30 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 31 in run blocking grade, but ranked No. 12 in Adjusted Sack Rate and No. 4 in pass block grade. They were relatively healthy, returning 75-percent of their snaps from 2019, and five linemen played over 76-percent of the snaps.

With long time center Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement, and both left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Matt Feiler leaving in free agency, the team returns only 47-percent of their snaps in 2021. They will rely on internal development. Returning is mammoth tackle Zach Banner, who stands 6-8 and weighs 353-pounds, but has 292 career blocking snaps to his name. The vast majority have come on heavy packages, with 206 run blocking snaps to 86 pass blocking snaps. Forced into action last season with Banner’s injury at right tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor will now have to move to the left side with Villanueva’s departure, and PFF graded him No. 70 of 79 tackles on over 1,100 snaps played last season. 2020 fourth round selection Kevin Dotson will now be moved into a full time role at left guard after playing only 354 snaps last season.

Replacing the now retired Pouncey, the Steelers drafted interior linemen Kendrick Green with their third round pick in this year’s draft. Green was a workout star with a 96th-percentile 40 yard-Dash, 93rd-percentile Speed Score, and a 98th-percentile Burst Score. He also graded as PFF’s No. 6 college guard last season. His strength was run blocking, finishing No. 4 in run block grading.

 

This offensive line has a chance to be closer to average overall, but it seems like starting Banner and Green could help their abysmal run blocking from last season. However, losing Villanueva, Feiler, and Pouncey could have the opposite effect where their pass blocking downgrades.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals offensive line was once again awful in 2020, resulting in Joe Burrow tearing his ACL in Week 10 of his promising rookie season. The Bengals ranked No. 27 in PFF pass grade, No. 24 in Adjusted Sack Rate, and No. 4 in pressure percentage allowed. Their run blocking did not fare much better at No. 31 in Adjusted Line Yards. While they did lack talent, they also did not have continuity on their side, returning just 50-percent of their 2019 snaps with no one playing more than 87-percent in 2020.

They did make an effort to try and improve their offensive line this offseason through both the draft and free agency. First, they replaced right tackle Bobby Hart, who finished with PFF’s No.59-ranked pass block grade out of 75 tackles, with the No. 34-ranked Riley Reiff. Then they used their second round pick on Clemson tackle Jackson Carman. He’s 6-5 and 317-pounds with 17th-percentile arm length, which should kick him inside to guard, especially after the Reiff signing. Carman improved his PFF grade each season, though he never finished with a grade above 80. Trey Hopkins returns at center, where he finished No. 18 among 36 PFF qualifiers. Left guard has a major hole and will likely see camp competition and a possible rotation during the season after underwhelming play.

While Ja’Marr Chase is an elite talent, one has to wonder if taking Penei Sewell at No. 5 overall and/or staying at No. 38 in the second round to take Teven Jenkins or Liam Eichenberg would have been more advantageous. There is hope that former first round pick Jonah Williams can turn into an elite pass pro tackle since he finished No. 31 in pass block grade after missing his entire rookie season in 2019. However, he again saw injury in 2020 and was only able to play 59-percent of the team’s snaps.

 

While this offensive line has a chance to come closer to league average in 2021, they lack high end talent and any depth to be able to sustain their play if injury strikes.

 

Cleveland Browns

Simply put, the Browns offensive line is stacked. They ranked No. 6 in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 1 in PFF run block grade, No. 31 in pressure rate allowed, and No. 1 in PFF pass block grade. Four of their five starters finished with top 10 PFF grades. Guard Joel Bitonio ranked No. 5, guard Wyatt Teller ranked No. 1, center J.C. Tretter ranked No. 2, and right tackle Jack Conklin ranked No. 10 tackle (and No. 3 at right tackle). While Jedrick Wills was their lowest graded lineman, he should improve since he was a top 10 selection with only 15 games played in college and finished with the No. 26 pass block grade in 2020.

Like most NFL teams, the Browns do not have great depth and were not hit hard by injury with four of five starters playing at least 90-percent of the snaps. However, despite lack of depth, the Shanahan/Kubiak scheme that Kevin Stefanski uses has proven to help offensive line play over the years.

 

The Browns will feature arguably the league’s best offensive line and return 100-percent of their snaps from last season.

 

 

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans

Outside of left tackle Laremy Tunsil, Houston’s offensive line was abysmal, ranking No. 27 in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 32 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders, and No. 5 in pressure rate allowed. The Texans grades look even worse considering they brought back 81-percent of their snaps from 2019 (No. 5 in the NFL), and four of those five starters played at least 82-percent of the snaps.

They allowed center Nick Martin to leave in free agency despite finishing No. 7 in pass block grade, and will replace him with former Seahawks center Justin Britt, who saw a four year decline in his PFF grade before not playing any of 2020. At right tackle, former first round pick Tytus Howard showed little improvement, ranking No. 61 of 79 tackles. But he could now be pushed inside as they bring in Marcus Cannon, who also did not play in 2020, is 33 years old, and has seen a four year decline in his PFF grade.

 

The Texans will once again field one of the league’s worst offensive lines in 2021, and they did not even try to address it with their limited draft capital this year after trading away their first and second round picks for Tunsil.

 

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts returned all five starters for a third consecutive season, finishing 2020 with the No. 7 pass block grade, No. 29 pressure rate allowed, and the No. 3 run block grade according to PFF. Per Football Outsiders, they finished No. 20 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 3 in Adjusted Sack Rate, once again fielding one of the league’s best offensive lines.

Even with longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo retiring this offseason, the Colts return four of five starters and 79-percent of their snaps. Though they interestingly did not address the offensive line during the NFL Draft despite the consensus No. 3 tackle Christian Darrisaw still being on the board when they were up in the first round. They instead have decided to try and fill that hole through free agency with former Kansas City Chief and PFF’s No. 16-ranked tackle Eric Fisher, but he tore his Achilles in the postseason and will not be ready to start Week 1. In his stead, the team also signed former Chargers left tackle Sam Tevi, though PFF graded him No. 73 of 79 tackles last season.

 

This unit will still be among the league’s best, but there’s certainly a gaping hole at left tackle unless and until Fisher returns to form.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Despite their investments and severe lack of performance, Jacksonville’s offensive line finally started to pay dividends in 2020. The team returned all five starters and 90-percent of their snaps from 2019 to finish as a middle-of-the-road line. They ranked No. 11 in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 25 in Adjusted Sack Rate, No. 25 in run block grade, No. 19 in pass block grade, and No. 16 in pressure rate allowed. The strength of this line is on the interior with guards Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann, who both finished top 12 in PFF pass grade for guards. And they were led by No. 4-ranked center Brandon Linder.

They do remain weak at tackle. Former second round pick Jawaan Taylor did not progress and saw his grade fall from No. 49 to No. 71 of 79 qualified tackles last season. Cam Robinson, another second round pick, finished No. 62 of 79 tackles. For 2021, the Jaguars once again return all five starters after franchise tagging Robinson. They did spend another second round pick, this time on tackle Walker Little, who possesses the physical tools at 6-7. However, he played a total of 72 snaps over his junior and senior seasons after an injury-derailed 2019 and opting out of 2020.

 

Since the team returns all of their starters, any improvement from the line will now be on continuity and a new scheme being implemented by new head coach Urban Meyer.

 

Tennessee Titans

Despite losing Jack Conklin in free agency to the Cleveland Browns, the Tennessee Titans pretty much sustained their level of offensive line play in 2020. They once again finished as a much stronger run blocking unit than pass blocking unit. They finished No. 2 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 5 in PFF run block grade. They were able to do so despite losing left tackle Taylor Lewan to an early season-ending injury that saw him play just 22-percent of their snaps. They also completely whiffed on first round selection Isaiah Wilson, who played just three offensive snaps. Rodger Saffold continued his excellent play as the No. 12-ranked guard, as did No. 5-graded center Ben Jones. The most surprising outcome was 2019 third round guard Nate Davis going from the No. 75-ranked guard to No. 15.

For 2021, the Titans return all three of Davis, Saffold, and Jones. At tackle, returning Lewan will go a long way towards improvement, but the team once again find themselves trying to fix the right tackle spot with Wilson and last year’s free agent signing Dennis Kelly being cut. Second round pick Dillon Radunz from North Dakota State, who showed well at the Senior Bowl, will need to eventually be the saving grace on the line’s right side.

 

If Davis can maintain his level of play from last season, Tennessee will field one of the best interior lines in the NFL.

 

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AFC WEST

Denver Broncos

Denver’s offensive line struggled last season with right tackle Ja’Wuan James missing the entire season and only two starters, left tackle Garett Bolles and right guard Graham Glasgow, finishing above average per PFF grades. They ranked No. 28 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 19 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders, also finishing No. 28 in PFF run block grade and No. 22 in pass block grade. Former second round pick Dalton Risner saw his grade fall from the No. 32-ranked guard in 2019 to the No. 49-ranked guard out of 80 in 2020, and rookie third round pick center Lloyd Cushenberry ranked dead last as PFF’s No. 36 center.

The Broncos return four of five starters for 2021, but have already once again lost James to a season-ending injury. This has led to Denver signing PFF’s No. 36-ranked tackle in Bobby Massie to help solidify the position. The team did use a third round pick on Division III interior lineman Quinn Meinerz, who could push either Risner or Cushenberry for a starting role. Meinerz, while lacking in level of competition, did light up his pro day at 320-pounds with a 88th-percentile Speed Score, 88th-percentile Burst Score, and 81st-percentile Agility Score.

 

If Risner bounces back and either Cushenberry or Meinerz can provide average play at center, the Broncos can turn this offensive line around quickly under renowned offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs brought back the No. 6 highest snap percentage from 2019 to 2020. They brought back four of five starters, with only Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opting out of 2020 to help with the global COVID-19 pandemic in his home country of Canada. They fieded a top 10 unit for most of the season, finishing No. 14 in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 4 in Adjusted Sack Rate, No. 12 in pass block grade, and No. 12 in run block grade. This despite also losing Mitchell Schwartz to a back injury that saw him play just 32-percent of their snaps. Come Super Bowl time, the Chiefs lost the majority of their line and were decimated by Tampa Bay’s pass rushers, leading to a Super Bowl loss. Going into 2021, they’re making sure what happened to them last season does not happen again with a slew of offseason acquisitions and free agent signings.

Kansas City will now field three new starters along their offensive line. They traded their first round pick to Baltimore for PFF’s No. 25-ranked tackle Orlando Brown, signed No. 9-ranked center Austin Blythe away from the Rams, and gave former Patriots guard Joe Thuney the largest contract for a guard in NFL history after he finished as a top 12 guard in each of the last four seasons. In addition to the new starters, the Chiefs will see Duvernay-Tardiff and 2020 third round pick Lucas Niang return from their opt outs, they signed Kyle Long out of retirement, and they invested a second round pick in PFF’s No. 8-ranked center in Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey.

 

They will have a top 10 unit and the much needed line depth most NFL teams do not possess.

 

Las Vegas Raiders

Between a few aging veterans and seeing neither tackle Trent Brown nor guard Richie Incognito playing more than 26-percent of their snaps, the Raiders offensive line was not as strong as it was in 2019. They fell from No. 6 in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate to No. 18 and No. 10 in 2020. Per PFF, they were the No. 17 graded pass block unit and No. 26-ranked run blocking unit. Inexplicably, Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock decided to strip the line, trading away center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson, and Brown.

The left side of the line is set with Incognito and tackle Kolton Miller, who both provide above average play. However they signed center Nick Martin from Houston, who was PFF’s No. 7-ranked pass blocking center but ranked No.34 among 36 run blocking centers. They return Denzelle Good at right guard, though he was only the No. 56-ranked guard. Topping it off, the team spent the No. 17 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on tackle Alex Leatherwood. While he’s a solid prospect, he was clearly a reach with Christian Darrisaw still on the board. Leatherwood is more known for his run blocking versus his pass blocking, where he graded outside the top 75 college tackles per PFF.

 

Once a well above average line, this has the makings of an average unit at best in 2021.

 

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers offensive line was abysmal in 2020 despite enjoying continuity with the No. 7 highest snap percentage to return for the season. Center Dan Feeney was a disaster, allowing the most pressures and hurries and the third highest quarterback hits and sacks among any center, finishing with PFF’s No. 35 grade. As a team, they were the No. 30-ranked pass blocking unit, allowed the third highest pressure rate in the league, and were dead last per PFF run blocking.

No team has done more than the Chargers to revamp their offensive line more for 2021 other than possibly the Chiefs. The only returning starter is 2020 free agent signing Bryan Bulaga, who has some durability concerns and played just 38-percent of the snaps last season. However, he’s graded as a top 30 tackle in every season where he has seen at least 700 snaps. Free agent guard additions in Matt Feiler (No. 32-ranked PFF guard, No. 17 in pass blocking) and Oday Aboushi (No. 26 PFF-ranked guard and No. 11 from Week 12 through the end of the season when inserted at right guard) will now bookend up former Packers center Corey Linsley, who received the richest contract for a center in NFL history. Linsley graded as PFF’s No. 1 center last season, and his lowest career grade was No. 17 in 2017.

Completing their offensive line rebuild, the Chargers saw Northwestern’s tackle Rashawn Slater fall to them at No. 13, where he was considered a top 10 pick and in a similar tier with No. 7 overall pick Penei Sewell. While Slater does not possess the ideal size (27th-percentile arm length) for what NFL teams look for at tackle, he does possess elite athleticism that saw him allow five total pressures on over 350 pass blocking snaps in 2019 before opting out of 2020. Slater’s PFF grades saw a healthy rise from his true freshman season through his junior season in 2019 where was the No.14 graded tackle in the country.

 

Provided enough health, no team in 2021 should see a larger turnaround in offensive line play from 2020 than the Chargers.