NFC Offensive Line Play

by Ikey Azar, June 6, 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.

 

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals

While Kliff Kingsbury’s running scheme buoyed Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds to over five yards per carry, they ranked No. 22 in Adjusted Line Yards according to Football Outsiders in 2019. The run blocking took a step back last year, ranking No. 30 in Adjusted Line Yards and was elevated by Kyler Murray’s rushing ability. On the other hand, their pass blocking took a large step forward, improving from their No. 26-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate to No. 8, with the second-lowest pressure percentage allowed.

In 2021, the Arizona Cardinals return four of five starters from 2020. The team allowed center Mason Cole to leave in free agency and then traded a third round pick for PFF’s eight-highest graded center in Rodney Hudson. Going from the No. 22-ranked center per PFF to No. 10 will immediately stabilize the pass blocking to ensure last season was not a fluke, but will also upgrade the running game. J.R. Sweezy is now the weak link in the offensive line, allowing the most total pressures for the Cardinals on just 56.8-percent of the team snaps.

 

If they can either replace Sweezy or get better play out of him, they could boast one of the best overall offensive lines in the NFL.

 

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers added an all-pro left tackle to their offensive line last season in Trent Williams; however, they returned just 50-percent of their 2019 snaps last season. According to Football Outsiders, their Adjusted Line Yards fell from No. 8 in the league to No. 22. In addition, they went from the eleventh-lowest pressured team to the eighth-highest pressured team while being blitzed at near a league average rate. A portion of this slide is undoubtedly due to quarterback play. On the other hand, the team had four offensive linemen play at least 92-percent of the snaps. They return four of five starters in 2021, making up the league’s fourth-highest returning snap percentage.

In addition, the 49ers upgraded their center position by signing free agent Alex Mack, who played under Kyle Shanahan when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Due to injury and ineffectiveness, they had to move Daniel Brunskill to center and had four other linemen play at least 20-percent of the snaps. While Mack may not be the all-world center he was in Atlanta, he still graded as the No. 16 center according to PFF and hasn’t missed a game since 2014. In addition, they drafted Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks, PFF’s No. 14-ranked guard, in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He will be paired on the right side with former Notre Dame teammate Mike McGlinchey.

 

An already individually strong unit gets stronger by upgrading two interior positions and having one of the highest continuity ratings going into this season.

Seattle Seahawks

No quarterback has faced a higher percentage of pressure per drop back than Russell Wilson since he entered the NFL in 2012. While Wilson’s play style is partly to blame for this, the Seahawks still ranked No. 30 in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate and were the seventh-highest pressured team, allowed the fourth-most hurries, eighth-most hits, and tied for the third-most sacks in 2020. On the other hand, the run blocking took a major step forward with the addition of rookie center Damien Lewis who was PFF’s fifth-highest rated guard in run block grade. The team went from No. 16 in Adjusted Line Yards to No. 10, and improved from No. 14 in yards before contact to No. 4.

Continuing a theme in the NFC West, the Seahawks will return four of five starters from 2020 and also added guard Gabe Jackson from the Las Vegas Raiders. Lewis was graded as the No. 71 guard when it came to pass blocking, so Jackson’s arrival can help offset the poor pass protection if he does not improve in that area. His calling card is pass protection, earning the No. 21 rank in that area per PFF. Now the weakest link on the offensive line is center Ethan Pocic.

 

If his play improves to around league average, Wilson could be playing with one of his best offensive lines in his career.

 

Los Angeles Rams

Last season, the Rams offensive line experienced a complete 180 from 2019. The entire interior has changed over the past two seasons. Guard Jamon Brown left after 2017, moving Austin Blythe into a starting role, then center John Sullivan and guard Rodger Saffold left after 2018. In 2019, only two offensive linemen played over 80-percent of their snaps. They experienced injuries, and the other four linemen to play significant snaps had never played more than 100 in an NFL season. Fast forward a year, and the line was among the league’s healthiest. Four linemen played over 1,000 snaps and they only played six over the course of the entire season. With that continuity, the Rams improved to the No. 7-ranked team in Adjusted Line Yards, were in the bottom 10 in pressure percentage allowed, and ranked No. 2 in Adjusted Sack Rate.

In 2021, the team returns four of five linemen. However, left tackle Andrew Whitworth is coming off a season-ending knee injury, and center Blythe left for Kansas City in free agency. Blythe was the ninth-highest graded center according to PFF, in particular due to his No. 8-ranked run blocking grade. The Rams will replace Blythe with a player who has already been in their system: 2018 fourth round pick in center Brian Allen, who opted out of last season.

 

The team returning four of five linemen will help them maintain continuity and keep up their well-above-league-average play.

 

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons

In 2019, the Falcons attempted to start fixing their offensive line with a pair of first round selections in RG Chris Lindstrom and RT Kaleb McGary. They allowed the league’s 11th-highest Pressure Rate last season and ranked No. 26 in Adjusted Line Yards according to Football Outsiders, while allowing the fourth-fewest yards before contact per rush. Both players will need to take major steps forward in 2021. Lindstrom showed promise in his rookie season before being injured after only 200 snaps, but took a major step forward in 2020, ranking as PFF’s No. 9 guard. However, McGary only ranked as PFF’s No. 53 tackle.

Atlanta has allowed long time center Alex Mack to leave in free agency. Taking over will be 2020 third round pick Matt Hennessey, who played just over 200 snaps last season. However, he allowed the highest Pressure Rate for a center who played at least 200 snaps. In free agency, they only brought in guard Josh Andrews from the Jets, who PFF ranked No. 78 out of 80 guards. In the third round this year, they selected guard Jaylen Mayfield to man the LG spot.

 

Overall, this is a unit with only two spots where we can expect average to above average play. They’re banking on continued improvement and new head coach Arthur Smith’s scheme to improve their play.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After drafting Tristan Wirfs with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers fielded one of the league’s best offensive lines. Tampa Bay allowed the fifth-lowest pressure rate, ranking No. 9 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 3 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders.

The Bucs will return all five starters from last year’s offensive line, with the second-highest rate of overall returning snaps. Adding insult to injury, they drafted versatile Notre Dame tackle Robert Hainsey in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Hainsey played right tackle last year at Notre Dame, grading out as PFF’s No.12 overall tackle. However, teams tried him out at guard and center during his Senior Bowl where he reportedly impressed, making him a versatile backup for a team that saw all five starters play at least 79-percent of their snaps.

 

Look for this line to once again rank among the league’s elite unit.

 

Carolina Panthers

Despite having poorly individually graded players, the Panthers scheme seems to have elevated the play of their offensive line. They allowed the tenth-lowest Pressure Rate, ranked No. 13 in Adjusted Line Yards, and finished No. 17 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders. They had four players play over 86-percent of snaps, while they had to makeshift left tackle with Russell Okung only playing 400 snaps. While they didn’t make any truly inspiring moves to improve the talent along the offensive line in free agency, bringing in guard Pat Elflein and tackle Cameron Erving, they do have a few things working in their favor. They return close to 70-percent of the snaps after bringing back only 44-percent from 2019.

Greg Little, the team’s second round pick in 2019, is a wildcard here after missing most of his first two seasons due to injury. Having played less than 400 snaps over his first two seasons, a healthy return could help improve the line since he was once considered a first round talent. With their third round selection, the Panthers drafted BYU’s 2020 standout left tackle Brady Christensen, who graded as PFF’s No. 1 college tackle last season. The question will be whether he stays at tackle or is moved to guard given a shorter arm length than what NFL teams are typically comfortable with.

 

All in all, this is a unit that should, at worst, stay average to slightly below average, which is a considerable upgrade to what Sam Darnold experienced with the New York Jets.

 

New Orleans Saints

The Saints brought back three of five offensive line starters last season after cutting guard Larry Warford and drafting Cesar Ruiz with their first round pick in 2020. Their offensive line remains among the league’s best, ranking No. 5 in yards before contact per rush, allowing the fourth-lowest pressure rate, and ranking No. 4 in Adjusted Line Yards and No.13 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders.

In 2021, the Saints return all five of starters and 90-percent of their snaps. They have three studs in PFF top 10 tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, and last year’s No. 11-rated center in Erik McCoy.

 

Improved guard play from both Ruiz and Andrus Peat, who both ranked outside the top half of graded guards, would be the cherry on top. 

 

 

NFC EAST

Washington Football Team

Washington went into 2020 with an already-built center-to-right-tackle part of their offensive line featuring PFF’s No. 6-graded center Chase Roullier, No. 4-graded guard Brandon Scherff, and No. 18-graded right tackle Morgan Moses. No one knew how the left side would hold up with left tackle Donald Penn retiring and left guard Ereck Flowers leaving in free agency. Geron Christian struggled at left tackle over the season’s first six weeks, allowing 24 total pressures in under 400 snaps and putting him on pace to finish with the most pressures allowed. However, he hurt his knee in Week 7 and landed on season-ending injured reserve. Backup Cornelius Lucas entered the lineup and graded as PFF’s No. 22 tackle, allowing 14 total pressures over his 536 snaps. Wes Schweitzer graded as the No. 18 guard, predominantly due to his No. 15 pass block grade versus his No. 29 run block grade.

The team will return nearly 97-percent of their snaps in 2021. However, that did not stop them from adding additional talent to try and upgrade the left side. They traded a late round pick to Miami to bring back Flowers, who allowed only 20 pressures in over 800 snaps last season. They signed former Bears left tackle Charles Leno, PFF’s No. 28-ranked tackle last season. In addition, they used their second round pick on tackle Samuel Cosmi from Texas. Cosmi was considered one of the most athletic tackles in this class and improved each season per PFF’s college grades, going from No. 22 as a freshman to No. 20 as a sophomore and finishing out his junior season at No. 9.

 

This offensive line seems to have last season’s production as a baseline with room to grow given the depth and talent added over the offseason.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles offensive line was decimated by injuries last season. Brandon Brooks, PFF’s top-graded guard in 2019, suffered a season ending Achilles injury before the season started. This prompted the team to re-sign Jason Peters, who was expected to retire, to play guard. First round pick Andre Dillard was set to take over for Peters at left tackle, but he tore his biceps, forcing him to miss the entire season and moving Peters back to left tackle, where he was only able to play 45-percent of the snaps. Starting left guard Isaac Seumalo only played 52-percent of the snaps, and right tackle Lane Johnson only played 36-percent. The Eagles used 14 different line combinations over the season. This resulted in finishing with the tenth-highest pressure rate per PFF, while ranking No. 23 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 31 in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders.

Brooks graded as a top 10 guard from 2017 through 2019. Seumalo saw his PFF grade improve from No. 28 in 2018 to No. 19 in 2019 while nearly doubling his snaps. Johnson has graded as a top 10 right tackle from 2014 through 2019. And Dillard will finally have his chance to replace Peters. The Eagles backups got plenty of run last season and return 88-percent of their snaps. However, they were smart to add additional depth, drafting interior offensive lineman Landon Dickerson. While he was PFF’s No. 2-ranked center last year, he did fall out of the first round due to multiple ACL injuries.

 

For 2021, return to health will be the largest factor on how this line fares.

 

New York Giants

The Giants came into 2020 looking for an improved offensive line after drafting left tackle Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick last season. Nate Solder opted out of 2020, resulting in Cameron Fleming starting at right tackle and allowing the seventh-most pressures by a right tackle, finishing with PFF’s No. 69 grade. Left guard was a mess, with Will Hernandez and Shane Lemieux combining to allow 50 total pressures from that position. Lemieux finished dead last among 80 guards ranked by PFF. The Giants finished the season allowing the second highest pressure rate, graded out as the league’s worst pass blocking unit, and the fifth-worst run blocking unit.

The Giants enter 2021 banking mostly on improved play from their current roster. A cap casualty, the team’s most consistent blocker Kevin Zeitler was traded, leaving them with a combination of newly signed Zach Fulton, Hernandez, and Lemieux at guard. Solder returns at tackle after allowing the league’s most pressures the last time we saw him play in 2019. Last year’s third round selection Matt Peart only played 140 snaps, so maybe he will emerge and allow the Giants to play either him or Solder at guard. The team hopes Thomas’ improvement over the second half of the season is here to stay. He allowed 39 pressures over his first eight games, with at least three in every game and 18 total pressures over his final eight games, and allowing three-plus pressures three times.

 

Based on their current construction, the line’s upside seems to be league average.

 

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys offensive line took a step back last season after fielding what was arguably the league’s top line in 2019. Center Travis Frederick retired, leaving Joe Looney and 2020 fourth rounder Tyler Biadasz to start at center. They graded as the No. 32 and No. 33 players at their position per PFF. Left tackle Tyron Smith played 154 snaps (13-percent) before suffering a season ending injury, while 2019’s No. 5-ranked right tackle La’el Collins missed the entire season, and all-pro guard Zack Martin played only 54-percent of the snaps.

Not much has changed for a good-looking group entering 2021, though the center position is still a hole that needs to be filled following Frederick’s retirement.

 

Like the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys are banking on health in 2021 as Martin, Collins, and Tyron Smith return to play alongside Connor Williams

 

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NFC NORTH

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have been trying to put together a quality offensive line for a few seasons now. Things didn’t get much better last year. They ranked No. 7 in pressure percentage allowed per PFF, paired with their No. 29 ranked pass block rate, and No. 26 rank in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders. On the other end of the spectrum, the Kubiak zone blocking scheme buoys their play in the run game, where they finished as PFF’s No. 2-ranked run blocking unit and ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards.

The Vikings return nearly 74-percent of their snaps from last season. However, they allowed Riley Reiff to leave in free agency. He was their highest graded pass blocker, and the only to rank even in the top 30 at their position in pass blocking. Guard Dakota Dozier played the most amount of snaps last season and led all guards in pressures allowed, but the Vikings look to have drafted his replacement in the third round this season in Wyatt Davis. After trading down to pick No. 23, they also spent their first round pick on tackle Christian Darrisaw, who was their expected pick at No. 14 and a consensus top three tackle in this year’s draft.

 

With the additions of Davis and Darrisaw, the Vikings finally have the talent to give Kirk Cousins at least average pass blocking.

 

Chicago Bears

The Bears offensive line once again experienced injuries and was a below average unit. Tackle Bobby Massie played 44-percent of the snaps and guard James Daniels played less than 30-percent, forcing time to be split between Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher and Rashaad Coward. Bars was PFF’s No. 66-ranked guard out of 80, Mustpher ranked No. 28 among 36 centers, and both Massie and Coward are no longer with the team, leaving them with just 64-percent of their snaps returning from last season.

James Daniels should return from his injury to lock down left guard, they traded up in the second round to draft tackle Tevin Jenkins who was considered a possible first round selection, and they drafted tackle Larry Borom in the fifth round. However, they inexplicably decided to cut left tackle Charles Leno, PFF’s No. 28-ranked tackle last season who led the team in snaps, as a cap casualty. So while they seemed to have taken a step forward, they took two steps back since Jenkins will now have to replace Leno and they’re prevented from shuffling players on the roster to what could have been easier positions of play for them. Andy Dalton should see plenty of pressure, which could lead to Justin Fields seeing the field even sooner than they expect. In addition, the pass blocking could lead to plenty of rushing from Fields.

 

In 2021, the Bears have taken the appropriate steps towards solidifying their offensive line. 

 

Detroit Lions

Detroit’s offensive line was, and is, the strongest positional grouping on their team. They ranked as PFF’s No. 9 pass blocking unit, No. 13 run graded unit, and were just No. 24 in pressures allowed. This is a unit currently led by No. 12-ranked tackle Taylor Decker and No. 3-ranked center Frank Ragnow. Guard is still a question mark for this team. 2020 rookie Jonah Jackson struggled, allowing the fourth-most pressures last season, and newly signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai played 43-percent of their snaps, seeing a 15-point drop in his PFF grade after his breakout year in Philadelphia where he was the No. 11-ranked guard.

An already strong unit returning 88-percent of their snaps should be even stronger this coming season with the addition of tackle Penei Sewell in this year’s draft to lock down right tackle, which had been vacated by losing Ricky Wagner to free agency last year. Sewell fell outside the top five picks in this year’s draft. However, at 6-5 and 331-pounds, he was PFF’s highest graded tackle in 2019 at 19 years old.

 

This is a top 12 offensive line, which is even more important if they actually want to win games with Jared Goff, who has been among the worst quarterbacks under pressure since being drafted.

 

Green Bay Packers

The Packers fielded a top five offensive line last season ranking No. 3 in run blocking and No. 2 in pass blocking per PFF, and ranking No. 5 in adjusted line yards and No. 6 in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders. The Green Bay offensive line saw six players play at least 600 snaps, with tackle Ricky Wagner filling in for when Billy Turner and David Bakhtiari missed snaps.

The team returns four of five starters and could still re-sign Wagner, which would return 86-percent of their snaps. However they did lose all-pro center Corey Linsley, who has graded as PFF’s No. 6, No. 7, and No. 1 center over the last three seasons, in free agency. They hope they’ve drafted his replacement in Ohio State’s center Josh Myers, who they selected in the second round. Meyers, PFF College’s No. 30-ranked center in 2019, fell to No. 92 in 2020. While Creed Humphrey, selected by the Chiefs one pick later, saw his grading improve from No. 36 to No. 7 last season.

 

While losing Linsley will hurt, there is still enough talent along this offensive line to remain a top unit in 2021.