Constructing the league’s best offensive lines

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

It’s the least glamorous collection of five large men you’ll find in America, but the nation’s most popular sport wouldn’t function without them. That’s right — we’re talking about the big uglies, hog mollies and (supremely athletic, yet) fat guys — the offensive linemen.

The game of football has come a long way from vaguely resembling rugby, instead deploying groups of receivers and tight ends wide and moving skill players all over the field in an effort to gain an advantage. We’ve seen aspects of the spread scheme infiltrate nearly every NFL offense, the short-lived but memorable run of the Wildcat, and even the now-common implementation of the pistol set. And yet, as all of the sexier positions get the attention centered on these innovations, without an effective offensive line, you simply don’t have much. When the men up front can consistently execute, though, almost anything is possible.

It’s a point that some general managers have taken to heart in building a roster — but great offensive lines aren’t assembled overnight. It took a second go at free agency for Alex Mack to land in Atlanta, where he solidified an offensive line that excelled enough at run and pass blocking to propel the high-scoring Falcons to Super Bowl LI. Panthers GM Dave Gettleman had to wait a season to solidify his interior line through the draft, selecting Trai Turner in the third round of the 2014 draft before adding Andrew Norwell as an undrafted free agent, and rolling with Mike Remmers and free-agent addition Michael Oher at right and left tackle. Carolina embodied inside-out on the offensive and defensive lines, but it was the risk of starting average tackles that bit the Panthers in the end, as Von Miller put a clown suit on Remmers in Super Bowl 50.

Then, there are the Dallas Cowboys, the model franchise in many areas. Nowhere was in more true in 2016 than on the offensive line, where the unit cleared truck-wide holes for rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott to burst through on his way to Rookie of the Year and first-team All Pro honors.

There’s something innately interesting in offensive line construction, because conventional wisdom is no longer uniform in pro football circles. How did Dallas create the next Great Wall that doesn’t border China, but open lanes for ground-game success? And what about the others? Let’s take a look at how some teams value each position.

Franchise tackle

Welcome to the old world of gritty gridders. Elmore James is spinning on the turntable, and a decanter filled with your favorite beverage awaits you atop the cherry credenza, as does flickering footage of pro football’s menacing maulers.

OK, maybe we aren’t going that far back in time. But the game saw its most dependable top tackle selections come and go well over a decade ago.

Take The MMQB piece written by Peter King just over a year ago, which pointed out how fickle a once-ironclad selection has become. We’ve gone from the can’t-miss prospects of Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Kyle Turley and Chris Samuels, to Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, the aforementioned Oher, Greg Robinson and Gabe Carimi (though his struggles were largely due to a serious knee injury). Simply put, it’s no sure thing.

And yet, with only one left-handed quarterback currently in the league, the left tackle remains the most-valuable offensive line position in the NFL. High picks are annually spent on the top prospects, even if they turn out to be reaches, in the hopes of finding the next Joe Thomas. Our newest high selections at the position are Baltimore’s Ronnie Stanley, Tennessee’s Jack Conklin, Miami’s Laremy Tunsil and Detroit’s Taylor Decker. Tunsil has already been promoted from plug-and-play lineman to franchise left tackle, and Conklin was part of a unit that Pro Football Focus ranked as its best in 2016.

Most end up being like Jake Matthews, an above-average player who is improving but is still far from being a perennial All-Pro. And in today’s league, sometimes, that’s just fine. Line construction begins with and is dependent upon solidifying the left tackle position, but that’s only the beginning for franchises who take this approach.

Cerebral center

While the popular, old-regime opinion is to start at tackle and move inward, the center position has gotten more love in recent years. Look no further than Alex Mack, who was lured away from Cleveland once in 2015 before signing a lucrative deal with an opt-out clause, which he exercised in 2016 to break out of town. He ended up in Atlanta, signing a lucrative, five-year deal at age 30, a clear indicator of how teams are starting to value the position much more.

And they’re wise for doing it. In today’s age of complex defensive looks that sometimes don’t even include a single down lineman, teams are relying on their centers now more than ever to identify fronts and make the proper calls. The center is both the position’s name and also the center of communication along the offensive line. Without an effective one, the rest of the unit suffers.

Mack was a first-round selection of the Browns in 2009 and was a top-10 center in the league almost immediately. While Cleveland floundered in other areas, they found a solid unit in Mack, Thomas, a carousel of serviceable guards (Eric Steinbach, John Greco, Joel Bitonio) and eventually, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. As that unit gradually went its separate ways, Mack proved his worth in a new city, earning many features from writers smitten with his play while the Falcons rolled to Super Bowl LI.

The catalyst

As many teams inch closer toward that season they all yearn for, the breakthrough campaign, they often are in search of that one final piece to their line that propels it into the league’s upper third. The aforementioned Mack served as this piece for Atlanta. Sometimes, it can be a new scheme. For Tennessee, it was both in 2016.

Mike Mularkey’s arrival (and the ensuing acquisition of DeMarco Murray) also brought the exotic smashmouth offense to Nashville. Tennessee immediately bolstered its offensive line in the draft months later, adding Conklin to a line that suddenly had bookend tackles in he and Taylor Lewan. The result was a unit that didn’t show any weaknesses for the entire campaign.

Keleche Osemele’s addition via free agency in Oakland (and the team’s immediate improvement) showed that this piece can be added in a variety of ways. Lined up next to the reliable Donald Penn, Osemele’s presence boosted Oakland’s line to among the league’s best and played a big part in the Raiders‘ resurgence. It was even more evident in Oakland’s AFC Wild Card loss, with Penn forced out due to injury and Menelik Watson struggling mightily in his place.

Versatile guard

The catalyst can also come in the form of a versatile guard who is able to effectively execute traditional blocks (trap, down/double, pull), pass block well and also get around the edge to clear the way on perimeter plays. Atlanta showed confidence in its guards’ (and Matthews’) ability to complete the latter, running two toss sweeps to open Super Bowl LI with big gains. It’s especially important as well with the proliferation of the zone running scheme. Tunsil’s versatility (to be able to play guard and/or tackle well) was a big part of Jay Ajayi’s breakout season, and Green Bay’s design creativity with guards T.J. Lang and Lane Taylor helped Ty Montgomery flourish.

Assembling the puzzle

Dallas essentially has all of the components listed above, but arrived at this place by simply selecting the best lineman, no matter the position. The result is a line that is the sum of its parts: top-level talent at every position that creates the league’s best unit.

Scan the Dallas line, and you’ll find very few weaknesses. Depth was even a strong point for the Cowboys, who lost La’el Collins to injury but had Ronald Leary available to step in and perform excellently in a contract year. It began and continued with the Cowboys‘ front office — notorious for making the sexy pick in the draft — ignoring the trendy selection and building the line, selecting Zack Martin in the first round in 2014 when Johnny Manziel was still on the board, Travis Frederick in the first round in 2013 (the same draft that saw Eric Fisher go first overall) and Tyron Smith with the ninth-overall pick in 2011. Those three, plus existing veteran Doug Free and the addition of top-10 prospect Collins — who is incredibly talented and was rated as such, but fell out of the draft entirely in one of the most unique draft-week scenarios we’ll ever see — formed the premier line in football.

Smith became the franchise left tackle; Frederick, the cerebral center; Martin, the versatile guard; and the combo of Leary and Collins, the catalyst. Anyone who was familiar with professional football in 2016 knows of the result.

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