Among the many things I write about and cover, one of my favorite parts of football to look at is the NFL draft. I always enjoy watching prospects and trying to gauge where they may go and why.
I also love looking at NFL teams and deciding which of the constantly shifting needs is the biggest and what can be ignored for some time.
One thing I have learned doing this is that the worst trap any writer or analyst can fall into is preconceived notions. Sometimes when you begin to look at a player or situation, you (unknowingly on occasion) have a hard time letting go of what you think in order to fully process the truth of what you see.
I bring this up because I decided to take a look at Pro Football Focus' offensive line rankings for the 2011 season (part 1, part 2), an excellent piece written in February by Khaled Elsayed. I bring this up because we often talk about how much each of the NFC North teams need to improve their line play.
I bring this up because we may be falling into this same trap.
A friend once told me that in order to really analyze something you need to clear your mind of opinion and preconceptions. Only then will you see truth.
Ultimately, if you go into a study looking for something, you'll see the things that support it more often than not.
So let's clear our minds of what we think we know and take a closer look at PFF's rankings and how they fit with, or contradict our current thoughts on the division's offensive lines.
Before we get into it, let's hear from Elsayed how PFF came to the rankings:
There are some limitations to these rankings, in that they don’t account for strength of opponents nor do they look at how injuries impacted individual players. Instead, we’ve looked at how each individual lineman graded out and compiled three different categories: pass blocking, run blocking (including screen blocking) and penalties. Then we added them and like magic, got ourselves a set of rankings with the number next to the team in parenthesis denoting their 2010 finish.
As they say, it's tough to gauge offensive line play. You don't know all the players' responsibilities so it can be hard to know who screwed up and how that impacts a player. Same holds for the whole group, but it's easier to judge them all because you know ultimately that play one is a run block and play two is a pass play.
With that out of the way, and acknowledging the difficulty in the process, let's start from the bottom, which admittedly holds little surprise.
32. Chicago Bears (31st)
Run Rank 31st, Pass Rank 31st, Penalties Rank 25th
Does this really surprise anyone? The Bears at least attempted to rectify their horrible offensive line by drafting Gabe Carimi, only for the tackle to manage 100 snaps before a dislocated knee ended his year. It left them with a group of individuals who struggle to get much push in the run game, and aren’t much better in pass protection. You’d struggle to find a line that performed as badly as the Bears over the years.
Best Player: By default, this was Edwin Williams (+0.5), though this is more of a reflection on the rest of the line which amassed a combined -116.1 grade.
Worst Player: Take your pick. J’Marcus Webb (-26.2) was a failure on the left side, but even he was outdone by Lance Louis (-35.6). Louis should never have moved out to tackle and it really showed down the stretch; in no game more so than when he gave up five sacks to a Chiefs defense that simply destroyed him.
We know the Bears struggled a lot last season so nothing much here is a shock. Injury clearly played a factor as did scheme. However, this has been a problem for a long time and at some point you have to look at the the whole thing.
Who is playing, where are they playing and who is drafting them and coaching them?
Are the right players being drafted? It doesn't seem so. Carimi aside (as I think he's going to be very good if his knees hold up), this line just doesn't get the job done, and while it's convenient and trendy to just bash Mike Martz (whose schemes are a nightmare for quarterbacks), the problem was there before he was.
I've said it before and will say it again: This team needs to do a better job drafting their offensive line. Something has to change and soon.
There actually isn't another low-ranked NFC North team. I know, crazy. What about the Lions and Vikings? Didn't the Packers look awful?
Let's see what PFF has to say.
11. Green Bay Packers (12th)
Run Rank 10th, Pass Rank 11th, Penalties Rank 26th
Outside of problems with injuries and some real issues at left tackle (whoever lined up there), the Packers line were one of the more reliable groups in the league. This was built on an interior that allowed very little push up the middle, and a fine second year from Bryan Bulaga (+14.6). This was a unit that may not have dominated the better defenses, but it allowed their skill players to flourish.
Best Player: A tough one with the entire right side of the line impressing. However, Scott Wells (+18.0) was the most complete player, and losing him could prove huge going forward.
Worst Player: In fairness to Marshall Newhouse (-40.6), he had some good moments, and the man he was forced to replace, Chad Clifton (-11.1) wasn’t much better in a fraction of the snaps. You won’t find as bad a display as Newhouse’s roasting at the hands of Jason Pierre-Paul in Week 13.
Here's a great example (the first of three perhaps) where reality and perception might not stack up.
If you had asked me before I looked at this how well the Packers' line fared, I might have said middle of the road at best. Borderline top 10? No chance.
However, while they were middle of the road in allowing sacks (11th with 41 allowed) they were actually better than average in keeping the quarterback clean, ranking 18th in quarterback hits by allowing just 73. For perspective, the Bears allowed 87 with 49 sacks.
Can this line be improved? Undoubtedly. However, according to PFF, they played much better than we thought, making this a line worth re-evaluating.
Losing Scott Wells is a rough loss though.
That's nothing compared to the next two.
10. Detroit Lions (23rd)
Run Rank 22nd, Pass Rank 5th, Penalties Rank 14th
They didn’t do a great job opening up holes in the run game, but the Lions’ offensive line did a good job of preventing the exposure of Matthew Stafford’s poor play under pressure. While the tackles picked up negatives for pass blocking (a combined -1.7 grade), only Jeff Backus picked up a positive grade in the run game. By opting to play so much in the shotgun, the Lions schematically helped out their pass protection. As expected, though, this hindered the run game as defenses had few problems keying in on what the Lions were doing.
Best Player: It’s probably Rob Sims (+6.2) although his performance doesn’t mean he outshined his colleagues by a great deal.
Worst Player: While Gosder Cherilus (-6.7) did a decent job in pass protection, he struggled to get much push in the run game.
It's funny because this is the first year I haven't mocked a lineman to the Lions early. Normally I'm begging them to draft more people to protect Stafford but I felt this year that, while they still need to improve, they were better. It's not a giant priority the way it was two years ago.
So just seeing the ranking makes me feel smart.
The Lions gave up just 36 sacks. They did, however, allow 78 quarterback hits which, with Stafford's injury history so far, makes me nervous.
I do think the line has to improve, but given the difference between QB hits and sacks, I'd be interested in going back through last year's games to see how long it's taking Stafford to get the ball out.
Are the receivers not getting clear? Are his progressions too slow? Were the hits results of good defensive efforts or weak line play?
All that aside, the ranking took me a little by surprise. While it validates my gut feeling that the line was better than many people (especially in the media) give it credit for, I need to go back and look again to see what I missed.
7. Minnesota Vikings (21st)
Run Rank 2nd, Pass Rank 16th, Penalties Rank 8th
For years the Vikings’ line has struggled to open up holes, so what happened this year? Well, chiefly, they got a little bit more mobile with the loss of Bryant McKinnie and got excellent play from their interior line. They could still stand to get better at certain spots and may have to deal with moving on from Steve Hutchinson. Overall, things are encouraging with some of the talent they do have.
Best Player: In a move that nobody saw coming, John Sullivan (+22.5) started playing like one of the best centers in the league.
Worst Player: In all honesty, we probably expected worse from Charlie Johnson (-12.4). He may prove a better fit at guard.
This was, flat out, the biggest shock of the list. For a moment I actually thought I read the list backwards.
Looking at pure stats, they allowed just 49 sacks but 76 QB hits. I'm not sure how many of either of those were McNabb and how many were Ponder, though.
Another interesting note—and something I haven't gone into in this piece—is that of the teams here, the Vikings had the most effective run game for most of the season. Until Adrian Peterson's leg went kablooey, that was something they could hang their hat on.
Green Bay never runs the ball much, Detroit had massive injury woes and so did Chicago.
So that accounts for some of the lift. However, this might be a great example of seeing what I expected to see when I watched the Vikings.
Again, I'm not saying this line doesn't need help—I believe it does. One thing Khaled's piece doesn't account for is the aging of this line. He wasn't looking at that aspect of it long term, just for the season.
So it's not like taking Matt Kalil is a waste of time.
In the end, while I don't agree with all of the rankings (I do think the Vikings and Packers are a tad high), it's worth noting the variance they represent and for us to take another, different look at how we perceive the truth.