By Nick Shook
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We brought you the bad news last week. You’re here if you came back around for the good news, and for that, I thank you.
This week is all about those lines who rose to the cream of the crop in 2017. We have two surprise groups, including one that is getting almost no love, despite the great numbers it has posted in run and pass blocking (not to mention the division title of which it was a part of winning). We also have a unit that you’ll probably recognize and chalk up to its running backs — but it’s so much more than just that.
There’s also a common theme: All three teams we’re going to mention made major offseason additions along their lines. Here are the league’s top three offensive lines from 2017:
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
One of the bigger eyebrow-raising, big-money signings of the offseason was Jaguars center Brandon Linder, who Jacksonville locked up on a five-year extension worth nearly $52 million. It was intriguing, because most people didn’t know who Linder was, unless they (nerds like me) paid close attention to offensive line play. But the signing was important for Jacksonville, which was following the new, hot trend of solidifying the center position and working outward.
From there, the Jaguars let Kelvin Beachum and Luke Joeckel walk in free agency and replaced them with rookie Cam Robinson, who has been excellent in his first season at left tackle. Combined with veteran Jermey Parnell at right tackle and guards Patrick Omameh and A.J. Cann, the Jaguars have built themselves a formidable line. We wrote about it after Week 1 (when it was admittedly far too early to make any massive declarations) after Jacksonville showed initial signs of this year being far better than the past. Luckily for this writer, those minor successes held firm for much of the season and contributed to the Jaguars rolling through the AFC South like gangbusters.
The stats only bolster Jacksonville’s case. The Jaguars don’t feature a top-five rusher in the league, yet they own the NFL’s best rushing offense at 145.3 yards per game, a full 9 yards better than the No. 2 Philadelphia Eagles. They also lead the league in yards gained before contact at 1,254 and have the league’s fifth-best scoring offense. They’re tied for the fourth-fewest sacks allowed this season with 22. The lone ding on their resume is the QB hits (73), which is still tied for 10th-best in the league and has a lot to do with Blake Bortles, a human rollercoaster with thrilling highs and frustrating lows.
Our video team (shout out to producer Sean Schoppe) nicknamed them the Jacksonville 5. J-A-X, possibly the AFC’s best? Sing it with the original song. I’ll show myself out now.
2. Los Angeles Rams
These Rams needed a whole lot of work after last season’s 4-12 finish. The line wasn’t good, Todd Gurley suffered and Jared Goff admirably stood in a collapsing pocket far too often. The future wasn’t exactly bright for L.A.’s new team.
I ran into Rodger Saffold in Venice Beach one night during the offseason, and he joined me in helping a friend find a lost dog. Much like how we eventually located the missing canine, Saffold was part of a line that helped Gurley rediscover his elite play in 2017. Behind a rebuilt unit that included Saffold, veteran signee Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein, Jamon Brown and the ever-reliable John Sullivan, Gurley has blown the lid off the NFL in 2017, leading the league in rushing yards (1,305) and rushing touchdowns (13). He’s also become almost equally as devastating in Sean McVay’s passing game, catching 64 passes for 788 yards and six more touchdowns, including Week 16’s 276-all-purpose-yard, two-touchdown performance in a division-clinching win over the Tennessee Titans.
Combined with Gurley’s explosiveness, this offensive line has paved the way for the NFL’s leading rusher and the league’s seventh-best offense (including the eighth-best passing offense). Whitworth, who was thought to be too old and well past his prime, has amounted to a massive upgrade at left tackle, and the ripple effect has been felt through the rest of the unit. The Rams are heading to the playoffs for the first time in a decade with much credit due to these five guys up front. Don’t hold the cheeseburgers.
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have captivated viewers nationwide with their two-headed backfield and bevy of weapons available to future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. For the first time in four years, the Saints won’t finish 7-9, not by a long shot. And while Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have plenty to do with that (Michael Thomas, too). But as always, it starts with the offensive line.
New Orleans waved goodbye to a veteran mainstay in guard Jahri Evans, replaced him with free-agent signing Larry Warford and drafted Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin with the last pick of the first round. Even more impressive, the Saints weathered multiple shufflings of its starting five, moving Ramczyk from left to right tackle after Zach Strief was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, and replacing Ramczyk with Terron Armstead. Senio Kelemete has also seen time in the lineup intermittently. All the while, the Saints haven’t missed a beat, bullying opponents in the rushing and passing game.
We took a week to break down what works for them in mid-November. Nothing has changed since. New Orleans’ offensive line is so effective, it even stands out to the average viewer, who is more focused on the location of the ball than large men moving other large men. It’s also contributed to the league’s fifth-ranked rushing and passing offenses, which, when combined, is the NFL’s second best total offense at 395.7 yards per game. When healthy, it’s a machine that starts up front and doesn’t relent until it’s found the end zone. Watch out.