Explanation of Offensive Line Rankings
By Matt Bitonti
July 24th, 2012

"There are three kinds of pipe. There's what you have, which is garbage - and you can see where that's gotten you. There's bronze, which is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there's copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money."

-Vincent Gardenia, Moonstruck, 1987

In football, the offensive line is the infrastructure of the team. The O-line is like plumbing in a house. People only tend to notice it when there's a problem.

But how can we grade the quality of the infrastructure? That's the purpose of this article, to explain the methodology behind the grading and give a brief summary of findings.

Methodology

Individual Grades

The first step in team scores is identifying and grading each starter on all 32 teams. The grading system relies heavily on resume.

  • If a player is a current AP All-Pro, he gets an A+. Pro Bowl starters or former members of All-Pro team, get As.
  • If a player was an alternate or injury replacement to the Pro Bowl, the grade is B+.
  • A consistently good player (but not recognized as elite) gets a B.
  • Mixed-bag starters (sometimes good, sometimes not) would get a C+ grade.
  • Liability starters (for example good at run blocking but bad at pass blocking) get Cs.
  • Terrible starters get Ds. The good news is that there are no terrible starters right now on paper (but an injury could easily put a terrible starter in the lineup).
  • We will talk about the flawed nature of these post-season honors, but overall it's a good measurement of quality along the offensive line. Are there are former All Pro's living off of reputation? Are there good players who should have made the Pro Bowl? Certainly, and the plan for dealing with these shortcomings is to watch the games, week by week, and adjust the grades accordingly. A player with a B grade could have a Pro Bowl caliber campaign and get bumped up a half grade (for example I will be watching Mike Iupati and Andrew Whitworth closely for a bump). A player could be living off of reputation and get a half grade penalty (Jeff Saturday and David Stewart, looking in your direction).

    Fake Pro Bowl Grades

    Remember how post-season honors are flawed? There are a handful of players that I have taken the liberty of grading as B+ (Pro Bowl backup) even though they never received that honor. I will point this out in the team-by-team write-ups when this occurs. In many ways the Pro Bowl or All Pro is a popularity contest or a reward for teams that win a lot of games. A handful of players get overlooked every year, and I reserve the right to hand out my own Pro Bowl honors.

    It should be noted that the difference between a player getting a B and B+ isn't going to drastically change the overall team score (but more on that when we get to the Formula section).

    Rookies

    Offensive line is a man's game; it's no place for boys. It's fun to imagine a draft pick showing up and playing like an All Pro right away, but that never happens. Even the current AP All Pros took years to get to that level, and their rookie campaigns were often uneven affairs. There are no Randy Moss-type rookies. It takes years for a college player to grow into his frame, to learn the nuances of professional football blocking schemes and to improve their technique and/or overall strength. As such the rookies will be graded with a cap. First-round rookies are Bs. Second- and third-round rookies are C+. All other Rookies are Cs - this is probably generous, as a good portion of these rookies will wash out.

    Swing Tackle

    We have the five starters graded, what's next? The swing tackle. In other words, the first tackle off the bench in case of injury. This player will be used as a sixth offensive lineman or extra tight end in a jumbo set. This player could be groomed for a starting job in the future. These players often block for extra points and field goals. While it is possible to find decent guards and centers in the middle of an NFL campaign, it's rare to find anything more than D+ tackles on the street. These swing tackles are the backup plan in case the starting left tackle or right tackle goes down, and having a quality option available makes a difference. I am valuing this player as half a starter. As with the rookies there are no A+ All-Pro swing tackles. That's not a limitation of the grading scheme, it could happen, it just doesn't.

    Cohesion

    An offensive line is not five individuals operating on their own; they are a single unit moving in unison. Players rely upon the blocker next to them, and there has to be a level of trust there. The Pro Bowl team are five As on paper but might not be as effective under real game situations as a bunch of Bs who have played together for years.

    For the purposes of this exercise, looking at last year's unit and comparing it to this year's unit determine the cohesion grades. For example, if a team returns all five starters at all five positions, that qualifies as an A+. But if a team returns four of the five starters, that's a B+, etc. Swapping positions gets a half point down grade (for example, Dallas Cowboys' Tyron Smith swapping from right to left tackle). If a team was missing a starter for more than half a season, that also gets a half point down grade in cohesion.

    Offensive Line Coach

    The final factor in the grades is the offensive line coach. The national media underrates this position. The line coach is a key ingredient of any line's success. Few are going to claim that Adrian Peterson is great because of his running back coach, but the offensive line is a different anima. Here, the group is often more than the sum of its parts.

    Offensive line coaches often determine the starting lineup. If there are injuries, a head coach or offensive coordinator will often defer to an offensive line coach in naming a replacement. Any shuffling that happens, moving a guard to tackle for example, that's the offensive line coach. Some of the higher profile line coaches (the As and A+s in the rankings) actually get deference in the war room if they pound the table hard enough on draft day. Most importantly the technique and communication that is important to a line's success comes from the offensive line coach. Training the line well enough to recognize blitzes and change blocking schemes on the fly, it's easier said than done. The level of intensity an offensive line requires is also the domain of the offensive line coach.

    Because of the cohesion factors that contribute to a successful offensive line, it's not outrageous to say that the offensive line coach is the most important positional coach on any football team. In fact, several current head coaches and offensive coordinators are former offensive line coaches (those are interesting cases but did not factor into the team scores).

    Formula

    The formula to combine the grades is as follows:

    Score = (LT * 2) + LG + (C * 1.5) + RG + RT + (Swing OT * 0.5) + Cohesion + OL Coach

    I weighted the left tackle as two starters and the center as a starter and half. Here's why:

    Left Tackle

    As Sandra Bullock explained to America, the left tackle protects the blind side of the right-handed quarterback. That is a huge factor, as unseen pressure can ruin a quarterback's career.

    But what about left-handed quarterbacks, you ask? Even though the blind side might change, the importance of the position does not. More than two thirds of the league has studs at right defensive end, and teams don't constantly swap these guys around based on the throwing arm of next week's quarterback. Besides that, the left tackle is expected to be more athletic than the right tackle.

    Look at the Philadelphia Eagles for example. Michael Vick is left handed, but last year's best offensive lineman was arguably All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. Peters was expected to match up against the other team's best pass rusher as well as pull, screen block, reach, and do all sorts of hard jobs, without much help from tight ends or running backs.

    Another example is the Minnesota Vikings during this spring, which told anyone who would listen how left tackle really wasn't that important and maybe they'd take a cornerback (and blah, blah, blah). What did they do on draft day? Take the only elite left tackle with their top-five pick. It is important, and teams usually can't find these guys outside of Round 1.

    Center

    The center calls the blocking schemes out on the fly, and is the lynchpin that holds together the line. The center also handles the football every play, and while we aren't grading these guys on quarterback-center exchange ability, there is a certain level of comfort that builds between a center and the quarterback, not unlike a starting pitcher and catcher battery in baseball. The center isn't as rare or important as a left tackle, but he's more important than the other three starters. If a quarterback doesn't have faith in the guy he's getting the ball from, all hell breaks loose. The line relies upon the center to lead them during games.

    Run Blocking and Pass Blocking Rank

    These ranks do not factor into the overall score and are only for entertainment purposes. I do not grade players as run blockers or pass blockers akin to John Madden video football. In real football, the run opens up the pass and vice versa. A pass blocking team can run draws and screens, and a run blocking team can play action pass. For these rankings, I tried to keep in mind the system features of the coaches who wanted these players on their teams. Unfortunately, a team's run blocking rank can be helped by a system committed to the run, and their pass blocking rank can be helped by a heavy passing system. Even if we try to be objective about the entire situation, these biases cannot be avoided.

    The Rankings

    Below is a quick table of the rankings for each team's offensive line. For an in-depth look at each unit, check this article.

    OL Rankings Sorted by Rank
    OL Rankings Sorted by Rank
    Rank
    Team
    Score
    Rank
    Team
    Score
    1
    Tennessee
    33.3
    27
    Arizona
    25.5
    2 (tie)
    Cleveland
    30.8
    19 (tie)
    Atlanta
    27.0
    2 (tie)
    New England
    30.8
    7 (tie)
    Baltimore
    30.0
    2 (tie)
    NY Jets
    30.8
    28 (tie)
    Buffalo
    25.3
    5 (tie)
    San Francisco
    30.3
    7 (tie)
    Carolina
    30.0
    5 (tie)
    Tampa Bay
    30.3
    28 (tie)
    Chicago
    25.3
    7 (tie)
    Baltimore
    30.0
    12
    Cincinnati
    28.8
    7 (tie)
    Carolina
    30.0
    2 (tie)
    Cleveland
    30.8
    7 (tie)
    New Orleans
    30.0
    32
    Dallas
    24.3
    10
    Green Bay
    29.5
    11
    Denver
    29.3
    11
    Denver
    29.3
    19 (tie)
    Detroit
    27.0
    12
    Cincinnati
    28.8
    10
    Green Bay
    29.5
    13
    Philadelphia
    28.5
    16
    Houston
    28.0
    14 (tie)
    Miami
    28.3
    31
    Indianapolis
    25.0
    14 (tie)
    Seattle
    28.3
    17
    Jacksonville
    27.8
    16
    Houston
    28.0
    22 (tie)
    Kansas City
    26.3
    17
    Jacksonville
    27.8
    14 (tie)
    Miami
    28.3
    18
    NY Giants
    27.5
    22 (tie)
    Minnesota
    26.3
    19 (tie)
    Atlanta
    27.0
    2 (tie)
    New England
    30.8
    19 (tie)
    Detroit
    27.0
    7 (tie)
    New Orleans
    30.0
    19 (tie)
    Pittsburgh
    27.0
    18
    NY Giants
    27.5
    22 (tie)
    Kansas City
    26.3
    2 (tie)
    NY Jets
    30.8
    22 (tie)
    Minnesota
    26.3
    22 (tie)
    Oakland
    26.3
    22 (tie)
    Oakland
    26.3
    13
    Philadelphia
    28.5
    22 (tie)
    Washington
    26.3
    19 (tie)
    Pittsburgh
    27.0
    26
    San Diego
    26.0
    26
    San Diego
    26.0
    27
    Arizona
    25.5
    5 (tie)
    San Francisco
    30.3
    28 (tie)
    Buffalo
    25.3
    14 (tie)
    Seattle
    28.3
    28 (tie)
    Chicago
    25.3
    28 (tie)
    St. Louis
    25.3
    28 (tie)
    St. Louis
    25.3
    5 (tie)
    Tampa Bay
    30.3
    31
    Indianapolis
    25.0
    1
    Tennessee
    33.3
    32
    Dallas
    24.3
    22 (tie)
    Washington
    26.3

    About Me

    I can hear you asking, who the hell made this jerk an offensive line expert? Well, I played all the positions in high school and guard in college. I was not a great athlete but relied upon leverage and technique to play the position. Since then, I have been evaluating draft prospects for about a decade. When most people watch the game of football, the ball is the focal point. When I watch the game, my eyes usually stay on the center and the battle that is happening in the trenches.

    Conclusion

    As we are in the offseason, these grades are far from set in stone. Starting jobs can and will change. Players will improve (or not). The units as a whole (cohesion) will get better or worse. I plan on updating the rankings during the season. There's no substitute for real football in making judgments. In related news, please check the offensive line depth charts, which will be updated by yours truly on a weekly basis during the regular season. I have a great amount of respect for the Footballguys.com organization and am extremely proud to be joining the talented staff. As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to bitonti@footballguys.com or find me in the Shark Pool message board.

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