NFL: Draft, Free Agency Bring Change for Best, Worst Pass-Blocking Teams in 2011

Jack HarverCorrespondent IIAugust 8, 2011

NFL: Draft, Free Agency Bring Change for Best, Worst Pass-Blocking Teams in 2011

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    According to the numbers, pass protection was an art mastered and butchered by a select few NFL teams in 2010.

    Which numbers? Definitely not just the rudimentary offensive line stats available on the league's website, although they're a start.

    It's one thing to keep tabs on how many sacks and quarterback hits each team gave up last season. Sometimes, the sheer volume (110 hits on Jacksonville's passers) or paucity (Indianapolis' mere 16 sacks allowed) of either measure is a good indication of how secure a team's pocket was or wasn't.

    But neither number shows how likely any passer was to get popped on any given drop back, which is a truer gauge of how well their blocking scheme was working.

    That'd be passing attempts per sack or hit—"PASH" for short—and the more, the better.

    Google "passing attempts per sack" and you'll find plenty of postings calculating how often NFL quarterbacks were dropped with ball in hand. Good on them; it's a neat second-level insight with a fair bit of number-crunching involved.

    But ask Jacksonville's David Garrard if he appreciated any of the 110 knocks those guys didn't count.

    Further, the market for quarterbacks now is such that the Arizona Cardinals' offer of $9 million per game of starting experience to Kevin Kolb was deemed "necessary." So, it's a fair bet that NFL owners and general managers will want their linemen to give up as few hits as possible—or else.

    To that end, there's been plenty of moving and shaking along the league's best and worst offensive lines of late, both in the 2011 NFL draft and during the post-lockout free-agency spree. In an increasingly pass-happy game, everyone's looking to keep the passer upright.

    Here's the dirt on who the five best and worst were in 2010—and how they look in 2011.

1. Indianapolis Colts: Anthony Castonzo Drafted To Give Peyton Manning More Time

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    As if the Colts' stingy 16 sacks allowed weren't impressive enough, their 10.78 PASH put the rest of the NFL to shame last year.

    No other team managed to go more than eight attempts without a knock to the passer.

    Indianapolis lost starting left tackle Charlie Johnson in free agency but don't expect this offensive line to skip a beat.

    The Colts reloaded by drafting Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana with their first two picks in April, both of whom have more upside than Johnson.

    So long as Peyton Manning—arguably the league's quickest-thinking quarterback—is behind them, this group will look great again in 2011. And if Castonzo can step in and hold his own against NFL defensive ends, Manning might have a bit more time to think.

    Defenses, you've been warned.

2. New York Giants: William Beatty in Big Apple Spotlight on Stellar O-Line

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    The Giants' 7.93 PASH in 2010 put them a fair bit behind Indianapolis, but it was still nearly an attempt better than the league's next-best.

    After missing the playoffs, New York entered this year's draft and free agency hungry to improve across the board. As a result, last season's clear second-best line is looking even better.

    Having jettisoned injury-plagued former starters Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert, the Giants will plug athletic third-year tackle William Beatty into a starting role on Eli Manning's blind side as David Diehl slides inside to guard.

    New York also nabbed David Baas in free agency, snatching the San Francisco 49ers' full-time starter at center over the past two seasons.

    Healthy, wealthy with depth along the offensive line, and sporting the same quick-strike passing attack as last season, the Giants' pocket looks even more secure for 2011.

3. New Orleans Saints: Veteran Olin Kreutz Plugs Hole Between NFL's Best Guards

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    It makes sense that the Saints were among the NFL's best at pass protection in 2010 with 7.03 PASH.

    In dropping back for a whopping 661 attempts, they got plenty of practice.

    The only real downside to losing Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin in free agency was that Drew Brees may have gotten used to taking snaps from him after three years.

    New Orleans did a great job of reloading at the position, swiping decorated veteran Olin Kreutz from Chicago as the miserly Bears were grudgingly negotiating his new contract.

    He'll settle in between Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, the Saints' versatile All-Pro guards. On the outside, left tackle Jermon Bushrod received a vote of confidence in the form of a new two-year deal this summer.

    Unlike Indianapolis' line in front of Peyton Manning, this bunch would be impressive even if they were protecting a lesser passer than Brees.

4. Detroit Lions: Will Injuries to Jeff Backus, Gosder Cherilus Set O-Line Back?

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    Two years ago, there weren't two bookends more hapless than Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus.

    But despite black marks from franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford's two-for-two record of season-ending injuries, the Lions' 6.88 PASH backs up their front office's high opinion of the pair.

    After spending a first-round pick on Cherilus in 2008, Detroit looked past top offensive line prospects in each of the next three drafts. Instead, the Lions have stockpiled talent elsewhere—Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

    Now, Backus has been sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle, and Cherilus is still nursing last year's season-ending knee injury.

    Without any notable pickups this offseason, lengthy backup tackle Tony Ugoh—an Indianapolis castoff—is Detroit's only hope against a big PASH regression in 2011.

5. New England Patriots: Nate Solder Tabbed for Tom Brady's Leaner Front Five

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    Under head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick, the Patriots have always been ahead of the NFL's curve.

    Back in 2003-04, his Super Bowl winning defenses helped popularize the 3-4 scheme and its pass-rushing specialists. Now, New England's 6.58 PASH in 2010 confirms that his pass-protection schemes are equipped to handle such threats.

    The answer? Aside from future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady, who does as much as Peyton Manning or Drew Brees to make his linemen look good, it's in the Patriots' youth movement at left and right tackle.

    Between their 6'4" veterans, Nick Kaczur has been given the boot, and Matt Light may have signed his last contract with the team. In their places, 6'8" towers Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are the future.

    Expect the Patriots' pair of long-limbed athletes to keep them clear of edge rushers.

6-27. League Average: What Does 4.87 PASH Say About Pass Protection in the NFL?

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    NFL teams attempted 17,269 passes in the 2010 NFL season—just over 67 per game on average.

    In simplest terms, the league's 4.87 PASH (calculated from 1,130 sacks and 2,413 quarterback hits) means that pro passers got thumped almost 14 times in an average game.

    From a marketing standpoint, that's 14 chances for Arthur Moats to drop Brett Favre, leaving Joe Webb as the main attraction on Monday Night Football. It's 14 chances for Aaron Rodgers to get knocked out of Green Bay's prime-time showdown with New England.

    In short, it's 14 chances too many. Hence the bevy of rule changes and harsh restrictions on how and when the quarterback, in the words of Oakland's Al Davis, "must go down."

    For today's hulking defenders, of course, 14 chances are good odds to make one count.

28. Philadelphia Eagles: Can Franchise Quarterback Michael Vick Protect Himself?

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    As pictured, Michael Vick's scrambling back-footed passing technique is less than picture perfect.

    Whether it (and Philadelphia's awful 3.74 PASH in 2010) is a function of his hot-footed running instincts or shaky protection is a question the Eagles want to put to bed in 2011.

    Only hot-and-cold left tackle Jason Peters and all-purpose starter Todd Herremans are good bets to keep their jobs out of last year's front five. Jamaal Jackson, Philadelphia's starting center from 2006-09, is slated to return after missing almost all of the 2010 season.

    More promising still are the Eagles' athletic offseason additions. First-rounder Danny Watkins and free-agent Ryan Harris both have versatility and experience at tackle.

    Behind a revamped line, Vick might have more incentive to stay in the pocket this year.

29. San Francisco 49ers: Road-Graders Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati Must Adapt

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    It's hard to blame new head coach Jim Harbaugh if he sticks to feeding Frank Gore and San Francisco's running game in 2011.

    Judging by the 49ers' paltry 3.60 PASH, they aren't cut out to keep a passer upright very often.

    The switch from defensive-minded Mike Singletary to Harbaugh won't make improving easier for 2010 first-rounders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, either.

    "Different schemes. Everything's different," was Davis' gruff summation of Harbaugh's training camp recently. San Francisco will be counting on free agent center Jonathan Goodwin to gel between Iupati and fourth-year guard Chilo Rachal.

    But unless Davis and Iupati can blossom in this shifting situation, this line won't improve.

30. Carolina Panthers: Jeff Otah's Return Boosts Line Beset by Rookie Passers

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    The Panthers' plan to stash second-rounder Jimmy Clausen behind Matt Moore and their punishing ground game stalled out early in 2010.

    When Moore flopped and Carolina turned the rookie quarterback loose, not even Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross could compensate for his poor pocket presence, reflected in the Panthers' 3.38 PASH.

    Aside from Gross and stalwart center Ryan Kalil, Carolina will welcome mammoth 6'6" right tackle Jeff Otah and standout guard Travelle Wharton back from the injured reserve list in 2011.

    For most teams, that'd be a top-rated offensive line.

    Unfortunately, the Panthers will be saddled with one of Clausen, greenhorn rookie Cam Newton or Arizona castoff Derek Anderson at quarterback. They'll blow open holes for a resurgent ground game, but it's hard to forecast much improvement in their PASH.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Battle at Left Guard Fix Lackluster O-Line?

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    The Jaguars' fingers are crossed that better guard play will patch the holes torn in their pass protection by 110 hits last year.

    If not, the root of Jacksonville's poor 3.17 PASH will be somewhere much more expensive to fix.

    Left tackle Eugene Monroe's growing pains aside, Jacksonville sent a motley crew of inexperienced and overmatched guards and right tackles onto the field after Eben Britton went down in Week 7.

    In 2011, the Jaguars expect Britton's return, right guard Uche Nwaneri's continued development, and 11-year veteran Brad Meester's steady hand at center to right the ship.

    Because if their problems in pass protection run deeper than installing either free-agent Jason Spitz or rookie Will Rackley at left guard, help is not on the way.

32. Chicago Bears: Gabe Carimi Adds to Jumbled Protection for Jay Cutler

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    The 2010 Chicago Bears and their NFL-worst 3.15 PASH were one of the ugliest chicken-or-the-egg arguments football has ever seen.

    Jay Cutler was the chicken, making one head-scratching decision after another in the pocket and sitting out the second half of the NFC championship game with a hotly-debated knee injury.

    But his "egg" was a stocky, overmatched front five that featured revolving doors at both tackle spots. The phantom pressure Cutler felt and the throws he forced seem symptomatic of Chicago's line, especially for a passer who'd only thrown 37 interceptions through three years in Denver.

    J'Marcus Webb, Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams and Roberto Garza are all back—and, as a 6'7" right tackle, highly-touted rookie Gabe Carimi is unfortunately just more of the same.