2017 NFL OL Outlook: Rounding Out the Top 5 Offensive Lines

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 2 rounds out the top 5 OL units after Part 1 covered the top 2 units.

Criteria:

– Individual skill-set + physical tools

– Experience playing together

– Production

Tier 2

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

LT Alejandro Villanueva
LG Ramon Foster
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG David DeCastro
RT Marcus Gilbert

Key backup: IOL B.J. Finney

Average age/rank: 28.6 (2nd oldest among the top 5 units)

Pittsburgh’s offensive line helped set numerous records in 2016, propelling RB Le’Veon Bell to the most rushing yards in a regular season game (236 in Week 14) and postseason game (170 in the Divisional Round) in team history. Additionally, the OL gave up the fewest sacks in QB Ben Roethlisberger’s career with just 17.

Most impressively, four of the five Steelers starters are homegrown, as all were drafted by GM Kevin Colbert. The Steelers OL boasts an experienced interior with LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, and RG David DeCastro forming a productive trio that works extremely well together.

The tackles (OTs) are quite different, but were very productive in 2016 with LT Alejandro Villanueva coming a long way since trying out and failing to make the Bears and Bengals in 2010, plus being cut by the Eagles in 2014. Since being thrust into the starting lineup in 2015, raw and inexperienced, OL coach Mike Munchak has masterfully developed the former Army Ranger into an above average starter who has room to grow at just 28-years-old with only 26 starts under his belt. Villanueva’s athleticism and movement efficiency to the second level stand out most:

Experience breeds enhanced communication on the field, facilitating assignment-sound blocking. This is a big part of what makes the Steelers experience up front so valuable on the field. According to Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora, LG Foster, RG DeCastro, and RT Gilbert have been playing together since 2013, and the unit as a whole enters their second season together in 2017.

The familiarity throughout the unit contributes to their high level of consistency on a per-snap basis both in the run and pass game, with excellent use of leverage and angles contributing to their success. They are a well-coached unit led by former HOF OL Munchak, with a good blend of strength, athleticism, and experience in each player.

Health is the biggest concern with the OL, Pouncey in particular, who has missed 17 games over the last three seasons. The value of having depth like B.J. Finney helps hold Pittsburgh at the elite NFL level, serving as the primary backup at both C and LG. Finney is an undrafted rookie, but is a productive spot starter at multiple positions (3 starts in 2016) from Kansas State who plays with solid overall technique and power, with good hand usage and competitive toughness in the run game:

Additionally, swing OT and fourth-year pro Chris Hubbard is the primary backup to both tackle spots, a rarity in today’s NFL. The versatility and depth of the Steelers OL doesn’t necessarily make them as great of a collection of individual players like the Cowboys are presently constructed (boasting 3 players all at the top of their respective positions in terms of skill set and physical tools in LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and RG Zack Martin) rather the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are by no means pedestrian. DeCastro is a good-to-very-good guard who is excellent at pulling and blocking in space, gradually improving his hand usage and placement in pass protection. Gilbert is a top 5 RT in football, and Foster is extremely underrated with very good power and competitive toughness at LG both pulling and at the point of attack:

This unit has the luxury of playing in a scheme that hasn’t changed in six years, as well as playing for an OL coach that is entering his fourth consecutive year with the team. Chemistry and working off one another well are two characteristics that are underrated with the Steelers OL. Each trait helps to facilitate an uneventful but steady demeanor on the field, with the toughness and smarts to adjust and impose their will when needed.

This also provides elite RB (Le’Veon Bell) with the luxury of being patient and picking his spots selectively, enhancing his already elite quickness, lateral agility, change of direction, and burst. With another year of experience to build from, plus WR Martavis Bryant being reinstated, this offense should once again be a top 5-10 unit in football at the end of the 2017 regular season, with the OL quietly serving as the catalyst for the offense’s success.

4. Tennessee Titans

LT Taylor Lewan

LG Quinton Spain

C Ben Jones

RG Josh Kline

RT Jack Conklin

Key backup: RT Dennis Kelly
Average age/rank: 26 (2nd youngest among the top 5 units)

The Titans OL was incredibly fun to study in 2016, largely due to their diverse running schemes and concepts, focusing on power football with a variety of zone principles and wrinkles added in on a weekly basis, such as flexing their LT and overloading one side of the formation:

Power:

‘Tackle over’ is another wrinkle Tennessee used often, moving either the LT or RT to the opposite side to provide a numbers advantage for the offense:

Utilizing a fullback out of variations of the i-formation is another staple of a power run game that Tennessee has the luxury of implementing with success, thanks to their outstanding third-year FB Jalston Fowler:

Additionally, their strategy in pass protection of providing consistent help to their rookie RT with six- and seven-man protections, slides, and chips was smart coaching that insulated the pocket, allowing their young star QB Marcus Mariota to continue his development and grow more effectively:

Tennessee’s OL was productive in 2016; tied at seventh in sacks given up with the Cowboys and Bears (28), 2nd in QB hits (51), tied at fourth in YPC (4.6), and third in total rushing yards (2,187).

The best player on the unit is Lewan, a 4-year starter at Michigan who rapidly developed in 2016 after an up and down year in 2015. Lewan is a throwback OL who gets after people through the echo of whistle, possessing very good physical traits and measurables (6-7, 309, 33 ⅞ arms) that he uses to control and sustain at a high level, particularly in the run game.
Lewan and linemate Spain form one of the more underrated duos at LT/LG in the NFL, with overwhelming power and tenacity on deuce blocks; both at the POA to secure the 1st level, and to finish at the 2nd level with authority:

The wrinkles Tennessee added in on a weekly basis to their running game using misdirection and deception was a joy to watch last season, and, with every starter returning in 2017, the experience will only aid their development:

The Titans OL is an ideal match of skill set and scheme, a collection of players who are put in positions to accentuate their strengths, with one very good player in Lewan and everyone else qualifying as “good” players who work extremely well off one another. Entering their second year together as a unit in 2017 with young skilled positions surrounding them, the OL should continue getting better and ascending higher on this list come 2018.

5. Green Bay Packers

LT David Bakhtiari

LG Lane Taylor

C Corey Linsley

RG Jahri Evans

RT Bryan Bulaga

Key backup: OL Don Barclay

Average age/rank: 28 (3rd oldest)

The Packers boast the best pass-protecting bookends in the NFL. Providing a QB like Aaron Rodgers, who has a strong propensity to scramble and evacuate the pocket, with a clean pocket can be challenging because of his tendency to move behind the line of scrimmage. The uncertainty surrounding the pocket can be frustrating for an OL, particularly OTs who are charged with creating the depth of the pocket. Having a QB who is unpredictable increases the challenge of sustaining a well-formed pocket, but Bakhtiari and Bulaga did an absolutely brilliant job achieving this feat in 2016:

Bakhtiari is a remarkably unique LT; undersized (6’4”, 310) but with good length (34” arms), with exceptional hand usage to create leverage in pass-protection either with his initial punch, or after repositioning to regain control and sustain blocks. The natural leverage from his 6’4” frame allows him to easily get underneath pass-rushers and anchor, creating a reliable cushion on Rodger’s blindside. He is feisty and incredibly agitating as a pass-protector, both excellent traits to possess:

Lane Taylor was tasked with filling big shoes after the departure of All-Pro LG Josh Sitton, but did so admirably in his fourth career season and first as a starter, and should continue to improve with experience:

Corey Linsley is an ultra-athletic C who excels at blocking in space and in the zone-run game. Linsley enters 2017 as the clear-cut starter after battling a hamstring injury in 2016 that kept him out of seven games:

The biggest question mark on the OL is at RG; 34-year-old Jahri Evans was brought in as a stop-gap replacement after losing an excellent starter in T.J. Lang to the division-rival Detroit Lions in free agency. Evans is limited athletically at this point in his career, although he still gets it done in tight quarters with quick decision-making, good play strength, and an array of hand techniques to win leverage, seal, and control defenders in the run and pass game. There will be a drop-off here, but I still expect this unit to be elite in the hardest area of OL play: pass-protection.
Bulaga had the best year of his career in 2016, and frankly was robbed of being a first-team All-Pro. Equally effective in the run and pass game, Bulaga carries the Iowa tradition of demonstrating excellent overall technique beginning with how efficient he his out of his stance to create space at the snap and win the half-man relationship in pass pro. Coupled with achieving proper depth and beating the defender to the spot is his outstanding use of leverage both with pad level and hands to create torque, sustain, and anchor. Bulaga’s efficiency translates to him rarely ever being out of control no matter the competition:

In the run game Bulaga is capable of mauling defensive ends and LBs at the 2nd level, playing a disciplined game predicated on gaining leverage with his hands to steer, control, and finish:

Bulaga and Lang worked very well together over the last couple of seasons, but expect fellow veteran Evans to mesh well as the season goes on and communication is sharpened between them.

Just missed the cut: Philadelphia Eagles (6th) and Washington (7th) round out tier 2. and Buffalo Bills (8th) are at the top of tier three. Each of these units is deserving of being mentioned, each with the potential to be a premier unit in 2017.

The Eagles OL will have their LT Jason Peters turning 36-years-old in January, and although he was a top 5 LT in 2016, his body has dealt with extensive injuries and is likely on the cusp of wearing down sooner rather than later. RT Lane Johnson is the most physically talented in the league at his position, C Jason Kelce is an excellent space blocker with average strength at the point of attack, and both Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo are solid OGs with the size and power to help assist Kelce against premier interior DL. The depth in Philadelphia is better than what Green Bay has, but I still give the edge to the Packers because of their pass-protecting prowess on the edges.

Washington is led by an elite coach in Bill Callahan, an elite player in LT Trent Williams, and a rising star in RG Brandon Scherff. The next best player is RT Morgan Moses who is solid to good in every area, but excels using his size, strength, and power. LG Shawn Lauvao is one of my personal favorite OL in the league due to his technical proficiency, toughness, and smarts, but injuries have robbed him of some athleticism, quickness, and ability to anchor down to halt power-rushes. The C position is manned by Spencer Long, a player many think will develop into a reliable starter, but I’ve yet to be convinced of that happening. Williams is better than anyone Green Bay has, but across the board I am more comfortable with Green Bay’s starting five.

Buffalo has been the most productive run-blocking unit the last two years, finishing as the league’s top rushing offense in both 2015 and 2016. The change in coaching from Greg Roman’s power-oriented scheme to Rick Dennison’s zone-oriented scheme is slightly concerning, with players such as LT Cordy Glenn, LG Richie Incognito, and RG John Miller being better fits firing off the ball and creating vertical displacement as opposed to lateral displacement. Not that Glenn or Incognito can’t adjust or that Dennison won’t incorporate power and gap concepts into the offense to ease the transition, but operating out of a foundationally different set of blocking schemes in 2017 that doesn’t fit the skill-sets of the players as ideally is the reason for the drop. Additionally, C Eric Wood is coming off another season-ending injury on his 31-year old body (2nd broken leg), causing concern for his ability to bounce back yet again and play at a high level.

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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