2017 NFL OL Outlook: Top 3 Linemen at Each Position

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]This is a multi-part series covering several areas of offensive line play in 2017; predictions on the five best OL units, top 3 OL at each position based on tape study, surprise OL unit, top backup OL, and a Q&A session with Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz – covering different aspects of his career and OL play in general. Part 4 looks at the top three linemen at each position along the offensive line.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The NFL’s Elite – Top 3 at Each Position

Left tackle:

  1. Tyron Smith – Cowboys

Smith is the prototypical LT; size, length, build, athleticism, strength, and power are all elite. Not only are his physical traits extraordinary, his skill set in terms of sustaining blocks, hand usage, zone/man blocking, use of leverage, and efficiency are all equally impressive. Plus he did this 30+ times in 2016.

Alternating Williams for Smith here is a reasonable take, although Smith is a better overall run-blocker, with Williams getting the nod on pulls and blocking in space.

  1. Trent Williams – Washington

Much like Smith, Williams is a genetic and physical freak of nature capable of remarkable feats using a rare blend of quickness, balance, and power. There is no better OT in the league at pulling and blocking in space:

Lastly, Williams gave us one of the more memorable games of 2016 from any OL when he lined up at LG for the first time and dominated:

  1. Joe Thomas – Browns

Thomas is three years older than Williams and six years older than Smith, but remains in the top-tier of LTs in the NFL. Thomas has a very good athletic base stemming from his days at Wisconsin with the best vertical set in football, and unmatched discipline in every area of his game, including the ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage (LOS) in pass protection until the last possible moment, preventing rushers from rarely ever having a two-way go to the inside:

When rushers are able to counter inside, Thomas seamlessly transitions to a power step to cut off and wash down. Thomas is the only OL in history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons, and has never missed a snap. That’s 160 consecutive starts with no significant signs of slowing down.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]Left Guard:

  1. Kelechi Osemele – Raiders

As previously mentioned, KO’s presence on the field makes grown men hesitate and run from him due to his size, strength, power, and unmatched aggression. There is really no question on whether or not he is the best LG in football, it is more a conversation about how far ahead he is from everyone else.

  1. Richie Incognito – Bills

Incognito is in a similar mold as KO, although not as strong or powerful, albeit still being very good in each area. The former Dolphin excels most as a puller and getting underneath first-level defenders at the point of attack (POA) to hit, lift, and drive them off the ball.

After being out of the game in 2014, Incognito has started every game the last two seasons and enters 2017 at 34-years-old, playing better than he has in his entire career.

  1. Andrew Norwell – Panthers

Ramon Foster was a consideration here, as was Joel Bitonio, but Norwell’s dependability (only one to start all 16 games last season), combined with age (25), and production were all deciding factors for his selection.
Norwell has been an up and coming OG for a couple of years now, going back to the 2015 season when I was first exposed to the UDFA out of Ohio State:

Norwell wins with very good square power, capable of knocking defenders off their spot at the POA in the power run game, and being an effective puller using his mobility to get underneath smaller defenders and drive them:

Norwell also uses angles to his advantage at the 2nd level, overcoming his average athleticism with efficiency, violence, and power:

Norwell’s ability to deliver a jolt on contact stems from aligning his hips and elbows at the POA, facilitating optimum power through his hands. Paired with explosive hip extension and violent intent, Norwell often jars defenders and contributes to Carolina’s renown physicality:

Norwell is also a solid pass-protector; showing good spatial awareness when uncovered to look for work and assist his linemates on stunts/twists. Identifies threats quickly and has a stout anchor to halt most speed-to-power attempts.

Norwell enters 2017 in his 4th season, starting 9, 13, and 16 games each of the last 3 seasons. This also is a huge opportunity for Norwell to earn a big contract; he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018 and only 26-years old. With Panthers C Ryan Kalil back healthy, expect Norwell’s production on double teams, combo blocks, and pass protection to steadily increase.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]Center:

  1. Travis Frederick – Cowboys

Frederick has carved out an incredibly impressive career thus far; zero games missed in his first four seasons, and he is still just 26-years-old. There is simply nothing Frederick cannot do at a high level and he remains a rock on the most talented OL in football.

  1. Alex Mack – Falcons

There is a strong argument for Mack being tops on this list, and I wouldn’t prolong the argument very far if others had him as the best in the game. Much like Frederick, Mack has no glaring weaknesses, but is nearly five years older than Frederick and is coming off of a broken bone in his leg. It should be mentioned that he elevated his ironman status by playing in last year’s Super Bowl with the injury, and has played in all 16 games in seven of his eight career seasons.

  1. Rodney Hudson – Raiders

Hudson simply does not get the credit he deserves, but is a key component on the best interior OL in football. Hudson has eased the transition of Gabe Jackson from left-to-right guard, and excels in every area of the game.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]Right Guard:

  1. Zack Martin – Cowboys

For my money, the best overall OL in the NFL. No other interior OL makes the game look easier than Martin, who plays with a precision and mastery of the nuance of run and pass blocking that is otherworldly, especially considering he is just 26-years-old. Coming into the NFL out of Notre Dame polished allowed him to hone in on fine-tuning his game, resulting in a sure-fire path to being the highest paid OG in history, and a Hall of Fame bust barring injury.

  1. Marshal Yanda – Ravens

Much like the Frederick/Mack discussion, I feel the same Yanda and Martin are interchangeable. Yanda is a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame, with 133 starts over 10 seasons, and unequaled versatility for an OG. Yanda plays with a tremendously consistent base and balance that he uses to stone interior DL at the POA in pass protection, rarely being moved off his spot. Through violent, precise hand usage and incredible use of leverage to sustain, steer, and control defenders there is very little he can’t do. In 2016 Yanda filled in and started at RT, LG, and RG, plus has filled in at RT in previous seasons, all at an extremely high level. The term ‘football player’ can be a bit ambiguous, but Yanda’s blend of toughness, technique, understanding of leverage, and smarts is an excellent representation:

  1. T.J. Lang – Lions

This is the most competitive position on the list, with names like Gabe Jackson, Brandon Scherff, Trai Turner, and Kevin Zeitler warranting consideration. Lang is the most polished of them all both in the run and pass game, with a jump set and power in his strikes that set him apart from the pack. Lang is aesthetically pleasing to watch, playing with a textbook stance that facilitates efficient movement from snap-to-finish.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]Right tackle:

  1. Bryan Bulaga – Packers

I thought Bulaga played more consistently than any RT in the NFL last season and did it spending the majority of his time on an island. Bulaga is fundamentally sound in his pass set, reaching his spot with excellent posture and balance, smoothly adjusting and expanding his set points against speed rushers and has the posterior strength to anchor down and halt speed-to-power. In the run game he shows very good play strength and mobility to get underneath DL on the first level, with a savvy ability to overtake and release off of double teams and combo blocks. While there may not be a single elite trait to his game, there are several good and very good ones built upon each other, resulting in an extremely consistent product on the field. At 28-years-old, Bulaga is in the middle of his prime with no signs of slowing down.

  1. Lane Johnson – Eagles

Johnson is a LT playing RT. His size (6’6”, 305) and length (35 ¼” arms) are prototypical, and his athletic measurables at the combine were spectacular (2nd best 40-yard dash since 2006 at 4.72, 34” vert, and the best broad jump since 2006 at 9’10”). Most impressively, Johnson’s raw athleticism translates to play speed. Johnson is explosive and efficient out of his stance with the quickness and processing to win the half-man relationship against all levels of competition. Additionally, Johnson demonstrates the explosive power and mobility in his hips and hands to win with superior pad level, creating leverage with his hands, and delivering a jolt at the POA that can stun DL, allowing him to sustain, steer, and control with good hand usage. The sky really is the limit for him at either LT or RT, but he missed 10 games in 2016 due to suspension and needs to stay clean to fulfill his potential.  

  1. Mitchell Schwartz – Chiefs

Schwartz is the leader of the Chiefs OL through his experience, reliability, consistency, and production. After being rolled up on against the Texans early in the season Schwartz dealt with lingering leg issues, but finished the year extending his streak of zero missed snaps or games (80 straight) in his career, increasing his reputation for being one of the toughest OTs in the NFL.

Schwartz’s vertical set in pass protection is one of the more crisp and consistent in the entire league, masking his average overall athleticism with good initial explosiveness to get out of his stance, hit his landmarks, and maintain the half-man relationship. In addition, he demonstrates the patience and hand placement necessary to win leverage at the POA, utilizing independent hand usage when appropriate to alter the rusher’s center of gravity and balance, limiting the rusher’s ability to string together moves. This results in him rarely falling off of blocks, instead sustaining and running rushers past the QB, often creating room for the QB to hitch up into the pocket to avoid the rush:

In the run game Schwartz wins with good pad level and hand usage to create leverage on defenders, continually running his feet through contact to sustain frontside and seal the backside. Schwartz is a well-rounded, rock solid player who has helped transform the Chiefs OL from a solid group to a fringe top 10 unit. Being fully healthy in 2017 should only solidify his place among the top 3 RTs in the NFL.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his 2017 NFL Draft Under the Microscope pieces on Pat ElfleinEthan Pocic and Cam Robinson.

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