The old adage says football games are won and lost in the trenches, and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid certainly seems to believe that. Reid has spent eight of his last 11 first-round picks on offensive or defensive linemen, including each of his last three selections.
It’s always difficult to know exactly how well an offensive lineman is playing, so my rankings are based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes, what I’ve read and the raw statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
It’s absolutely astounding that the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last season, despite a horrific offensive line. The talk around the league has always been about Eli Manning, the wide receivers and the unstoppable defensive line.
What always surprised me in the playoffs was that not many people seemed to focus on the Giants’ subpar line. This line wasn’t just bad; it was downright awful—Pro Football Focus rated the Giants as the 32nd ranked pass-blocking offensive line in the game, nearly twice as bad as the Chicago Bears, the NFL’s next-worst team.
David Diehl, last year’s left tackle, was moved to right tackle for 2012, which is a good step, considering Diehl rated as the single worst offensive lineman in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Actually, Diehl’s season was the worst season by any position player in the league since the site was founded in 2008. He surrendered nine sacks in the regular season and then four more in the postseason, allowing 61 quarterback pressures on the season.
Moving him to right tackle should buy Eli Manning more time from his blind side, but that means the inexperienced Will Beatty will man the left tackle spot. Beatty has started just 16 games at left tackle in his career, although that will be an upgrade over Diehl. At left guard, the team will go with Kevin Boothe, a player that has played sparingly since he joined the NFL in 2006.
David Baas is an average NFL center who won’t make or break the season, but what the team really needs is for former All-Pro guard Chris Snee to rebound from a down year in 2011. Snee is a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the league’s best guards when healthy and on his game, but he struggled last year. At right tackle, Kareem McKenzie was awful last year, but Diehl likely won’t be much better in ’12, and that’s a problem for the Giants, especially since they barely made the playoffs last year.
Trent Williams is the lone bright spot on a subpar Washington Redskins offensive line, and he needs to show he can rebound strong after missing the final four games of the 2011 season to a suspension for failing a drug test.
Williams has all the tools to be an elite NFL tackle, and new quarterback Robert Griffin III is fortunate to have a player of his caliber on the blind side. Other than Williams though, the line just isn’t very good.
Right tackle Jamaal Brown is entering the twilight stage of his career, as he allowed nine sacks and 29 quarterback pressures in 13 starts in 2011. Kory Lichtensteiger is an average guard but Chris Chester is a below-average right guard, and Will Montgomery is just a mediocre center. Someone on the line needs to surprise and have a breakout season for the Redskins to have a chance in the NFC East.
The Dallas Cowboys overhauled their offensive line this offseason, bringing in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau to man the left and right guard positions. The problem is that neither Livings nor Bernadeau is very good. Phil Costa was awful at center last year, rating as the 30th center out of 35 qualifiers in the league.
The Cowboys are much better at the tackle positions, starting with future all-world tackle Tyron Smith, last year’s top draft pick. Smith played very well as a rookie, starting all 16 games and showing glimpses that he can be the future of the franchise at left tackle for the next decade or more. He was the fourth-rated tackle in the game, according to Pro Football Focus, and he should only get better, especially now that he is moving to the blind side to block for Tony Romo.
That allows last year’s left tackle, Doug Free, to move to right tackle, where he won’t have quite as much pressure or responsibility. That will be good for Free, as he struggled at times in 2011, although he does have the potential to be a very good tackle.
Even without Jason Peters around for the 2012 season, this unit is by far the best in a weak NFC East and probably a top seven or eight talent in the league.
Evan Mathis is a fantastic left guard, and he was rated by Pro Football Focus as the single best offensive lineman in the game last season. He still hasn’t allowed a sack in 1,746 snaps since PFF was founded in 2008, and he’s a phenomenal run-blocker for LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick.
Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins each experienced growing pains as rookie starters in 2011, but each should be primed for a bigger season. Kelce has been given a much more significant role on the offense and Watkins was a first-round pick for a reason.
Right tackle Todd Herremans is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, and he can fill in admirably at any position on the line except for center. He showed that last season when he moved to left tackle in the lone start that Peters missed and turned in his best game ranking of 2011, per Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles gave up just 32 sacks last season, tied for the ninth-best total in the game. The unit paved the way for 6,386 yards, more than any team in the league except for the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers.
Much of their success depends on the development of Kelce and Watkins, along with whether Mathis can duplicate the year he had in 2011, and whether new left tackle Demetress Bell can stay healthy at left tackle.
Ultimately, that could easily make the difference between a deep playoff run or another 8-8 finish from the Eagles, but even with those question marks, the Eagles still have easily the division’s best offensive line.