It's easy for most people to evaluate quarterbacks, receivers, running backs and even many defensive positions for which ready stats are available every which way you look. Such evaluations may not be perfect, but there are hard numbers people can lean on to back them up.
The offensive line is different.
There are no stats readily available, and the most some people lean on is the number of sacks given up over the course of the season. There is certainly some merit to such numbers, and usually those giving up fewer sacks have had better overall seasons across the board.
But offensive linemen these days play well over 1,000 snaps in a season—you can't separate a bad one from a good one on the basis of five snaps: giving up no sacks in a season versus a year giving up five.
The truth of the matter is that in order to evaluate offensive linemen, you need to watch them play.
And only by comparing how they do can you hope to have a realistic idea of how they performed.
That, though, has a couple of problems.
Firstly, it's tough to watch linemen live. It sounds silly, but it's true. You naturally want to follow the ball and see what happens on the play, and it takes real work to keep watching the same battle in the trenches in a live game. Your best bet is to evaluate after the fact.
Secondly, people tend to work from a mental highlight reel when evaluating line play. You remember the splash plays—good and bad—or things pointed out to you by analysts during games, and you throw out the rest.
If those highlight plays were more good than bad, you conclude that a given player probably had a pretty good game.
But it's the 50 other snaps that usually determine more accurately how he actually performed.
Was he successfully turning his defender and sealing him away from the run? Did he get to the second level and obstruct linebackers, or was he constantly on his back foot, allowing the hole to be squeezed and the defense to have the upper hand?
Those are the plays that decide games over 60 minutes, but they may not be noticed unless you're watching and recording what you see on every snap.
I'm fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it) to get paid to do that for a living, and over the past few seasons I have watched more tape on offensive lineman than most people on the planet. While the mainstream media continues to wax lyrical about the same few overrated faces on the offensive line, I'm going to introduce to you the All-Underrated Offensive Line.
Some of these players you will know well, some you will see purely as journeymen, some as nothing better than average.
But all have been very good players, and all remain extremely underrated.
Andrew Whitworth actually began his NFL career as a guard. He was one of those players that draftniks talked about as being "strictly a right tackle," or as having "to move to guard at the next level."
Turns out they were all full of it.
Since moving out to start at left tackle for the Bengals, Whitworth has been steadily improving, to the point where he is one of the best left tackles in football.
Last season he struggled for a stretch with his run-blocking after picking up a knee injury mid-season, but he was still an excellent pass-protector and a vital part of the Bengals offense.
Maybe the most impressive part of Whitworth's play is that he does it in a division that sees him face James Harrison and Terrell Suggs twice a season each.
The same is true for Cleveland's Joe Thomas, but Thomas is widely recognized as being one of the top tackles in the game because of it and was a top-five pick in the draft.
Andrew Whitworth doesn't get nearly the same acclaim for the job he does and was the 55th-overall pick in his draft.
Whitworth has fantastic strength and has been improving his technique every season as a pro.
He is now one of the more polished offensive tackles you will find and really doesn't have a hole in his armor. He will occasionally find himself outmatched by some of the league's super athlete pass-rushers, but only rarely over the course of a game and never over the course of a season.
This is a player that deserves to be mentioned in the conversation with Jason Peters, Joe Thomas and Jake Long, because that's the kind of level at which he is playing.
If you're familiar with my work, you'll know that I'm a huge fan of Evan Mathis.
He was never really given a fair crack at the whip until he ended up in Philadelphia, but once he did, he earned himself a new long-term deal and became a vital part of the Eagles offense and their offseason spending strategy.
Mathis was bounced around for a few seasons, but he really began to come alive in Cincinnati under offensive line coach Paul Alexander. There are few better line coaches in the league, and once Mathis was under Alexander's tutelage and allowed to settle in one position, he began to look good—very good.
Despite consistently out-performing Nate Livings in a battle for the Bengals' left-guard spot, Mathis kept finding himself back on the bench, and he left in free agency looking simply for a shot to compete for a starting job somewhere.
He got a chance to sign in Philadelphia, and the left guard spot soon opened up when Todd Herremans was moved to right tackle.
Mathis actually started the season with a so-so performance against the Rams and then allowed some pressure in his Week 2 encounter with the Falcons, but from that point on, he was near flawless all season.
He didn't allow a sack all season, and if you believe him, he hasn't allowed one going back to 2006. Mathis was a powerful run-blocker, as well, for the Eagles and was technically better than any other guard I watched all season.
He was constantly turning defenders, sealing them away from plays, even on the backside of the run or away from the point of attack, blocks other linemen often don't bother with.
Part of this excellent play comes down to the kind of athlete Evan Mathis has managed to turn himself into.
He spent the 2010 offseason working out like an automaton while the rest of the league was living it up during the lockout. In that period he turned himself into a monstrous physical specimen, athletic and strong enough for any block he is asked to make.
Watching guard play may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but Mathis makes it a lot better.
He may be the league's best guard right now, but he can't sniff a Pro Bowl nomination.
The Texans run an old-fashioned zone-blocking scheme up front, because of which people have a tendency to treat their entire offensive line as a unit and hold back the praise for any one member of it.
To a degree, that makes sense; linemen in a zone scheme have to work together smoothly and efficiently, and there is no doubt that cohesion as a unit is vital to such a line's success.
Houston's front had been together for a few seasons before they said goodbye to the right side this offseason, and it showed, as they were probably the best in the league last season.
The best member of that line was Chris Myers, at center.
Myers is a perfect zone-blocking center. He is undersized, at around 285 pounds, but that gives him athleticism and speed that few can match.
That speed gives him the ability to get into position against much bigger and stronger defensive linemen; get between them and where they want to go; or get them on the ground, opening up huge holes for Texans running backs to exploit.
Myers will be the first to admit that his job gets a lot tougher in pass-protection, when he has to throw on the anchors against bigger defensive tackles, but he is more than up to the task and keeps Matt Schaub clean in the pocket as well as most.
He may not have the sheer strength of Nick Mangold, but he is a better fit for what the Texans do and better able to get to blocks that require some serious athleticism to make.
Myers actually ended up making the Pro Bowl at the end of the season, but only as a reserve injury replacement after Maurkice Pouncey pulled out.
He should have had that position by right and was vastly superior to Pouncey last season, in every facet of the game. Pouncey is by no means a poor player, but his hype machine has run out of control.
Myers, on the other hand, has been the better player, but few seem to recognize it.
It can be difficult to make the case for Josh Sitton's being seen as underrated because there are a lot of people that quite rightly rate him as one of the best guards in football.
Sitton has been an excellent player for the Packers since he earned the job and looks unlikely to be anything else any time soon.
That being said, he has still yet to make a Pro Bowl and is routinely overlooked in favor of Tampa Bay's Davin Joseph, which I will never understand.
Sitton is an incredibly strong guard with more than enough athleticism to make all the blocks, and you only have to look at how he has done against Ndamukong Suh since he has come into the league to give you an idea of the level at which he plays.
Last season he almost entirely blanked Suh in the two games they played. Suh hurried the quarterback just once over the two games through Sitton and ended the games with just two total tackles.
Suh's second season was a letdown compared to his rookie year, but 2010 was the same story when he ran up against Sitton. Though he was a bit more active in those games, just a single hurry of his pressure came against Sitton, with his sack in the first game coming against Daryn Colledge on the other side of the line.
That's not to say that Sitton plays well only against the Lions and their stud pass-rusher, but it's a pretty good practice to start out with good-on-good when analyzing players.
Sitton is rarely troubled by anybody he comes up against, and one of the reasons that Aaron Rodgers seems completely in control is the total lack of pressure he faces up the gut.
The Packers interior is rock solid, and Sitton has been the best member of that group.
For some reason Joseph is still seen as an elite right guard, and I have never seen any evidence to suggest that this reputation is deserved. While he gets the plaudits and the Pro Bowl votes, Sitton is somehow flying under the radar and in his shadow.
Sitton is the better player, and part of the All-Underrated Offensive Line.
Have you ever noticed how rarely Drew Brees hits the ground?
A lot of that is his quick release and ability to move in the pocket, but he also has some of the best linemen in football protecting him—and some guys who are far better than they're ever given credit for.
Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks got all the press inside, but Zach Strief stepped into the starting lineup last season and gave a very good account of himself.
Strief spent years as a backup for the Saints, a utility lineman which gave them cover in multiple spots in case of injury. He started a few games for them over the years, but the majority of his snaps came when they deployed him as an extra lineman or blocking tight end, where he looked like a capable player.
The Saints finally bid goodbye to long-time starter Jon Stinchcomb before the start of last season and turned the reins over to Strief.
After a rocky start, beginning the season with a battle against Clay Matthews, Strief settled into the position and was one of the better right tackles in the NFL last season.
Unlike the other four members of this All-Underrated Offensive Line, who have all been starting for some time and are all amongst the best players at their respective positions in the entire league, Strief doesn't quite have the tape to back up that kind of lofty claim.
He has been a solid player for them in his first season starting, and after his baptism by fire, he didn't look over-matched in any other game.
But he needs to take another step forward if he wants to join the rest of the line as elite.
He may never make it that far, but if he can repeat his 2011 season next year, he will remain an underrated part of the Saints offense, capable of doing his part to keep Drew Brees clean and the chains moving with run-blocking.