In case you haven’t noticed, there is a huge offensive line shortage in the NFL right now. The chasm between the extreme talent of NFL defensive linemen over the big men on the other side of the ball might be the greatest right now in the history of this league.
But don’t fear fantasy owners, the front office folks and offensive minds in the NFL certainly recognize this. And therefore, offensive coaches are now asking their linemen to do less than ever, as the NFL slowly begins to mimic college football and to a degree, the NBA. This league is quickly becoming a five-on-five, basketball-on-grass league where deft quarterbacks identify mismatches before the ball is snapped and ask as little as possible from the blocking.
However, offensive lines still matter. And they still matter in fantasy football. While the draft didn’t demonstrate this because the incoming crop of rookies is so poor, free agency very much showed us that quality (or merely “Average on a good day”) offensive linemen are making a ton of money. Obviously, this is simple economics, as the supply of big men on offense simply does not match up to the huge demand across the league.
All that being said, which teams improved their offensive lines from last year? Several (in alphabetical order) are highlighted below. Please keep an eye out for the subsequent article on the horizon informing us of those teams that were weakened the most in the trenches.
This has rarely been said about this organization: The Browns win this contest hands down. The Browns already had the great Joe Thomas in place at left tackle and resisted the temptation during these grueling rebuilding years. Joel Bitonio is a very solid left guard whose best days should be ahead of him. Cleveland locked him up for the long-term this offseason. Right tackle remains a question mark with last year’s third-round pick Shon Coleman and 2015 first-round Cameron Erving battling it out for the starting gig in training camp. But the Browns should be far better at center and right guard with the signings of J.C. Tretter and especially Kevin Zeitler. Say what you want about this organization, but they very much have a plan in place. In an offensive line starved league, the Browns used their free agent capital (much as Oakland has done) to build what should be one of the NFL’s top units this year. If anyone is this year’s Dak Prescott, bet on it being DeShone Kizer.
The kicker here is that the Lions stink on defense and are lacking talent at every level on that side of the ball. Therefore, this team wisely plays very slow on offense to give the defense as much of a break as possible. What is remarkable about that tactic in the past is that Detroit’s running game has been abysmal. So what did the Lions do? Sure, they made some additions to the defense, but what they really invested in was their offensive line to best protect the franchise quarterback and possibly even generate a ground game. Tyler Decker’s injury is a kick in the pants and cuts down on the enthusiasm, but Detroit still spent huge money on Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang, while letting Larry Warford leave for New Orleans and Riley Reiff to Minnesota. But the Lions didn’t stop there. After the news on Decker broke, this franchise rolled the dice on a massively talented player in Greg Robinson, who they bought at a discount rate. Maybe Robinson can resurrect his career with Detroit.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
No quarterback has had to endure more injuries to his wide receivers and offensive line over the past few seasons than Philip Rivers. Well, the Chargers aren’t having it anymore. They shocked many by taking Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in the draft and fortuitously followed that up by selecting Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney in the next two rounds. Those offensive line picks could not have worked out better for Los Angeles, who also signed/overpaid Russell Okung (who is now one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL) in free agency to hopefully secure the left tackle position. Feeney is a pure guard and that is also where Lamp is starting his career. But with Matt Slauson as well as last year’s third round pick Max Tuerk also on the interior, don’t be surprised if Lamp kicks out to right tackle at some point to challenge Joe Barksdale. Either way, the Chargers now have veteran starters in Okung and Slauson, plenty of young talent as well as depth and versatility on their offensive line. It is about time. As much so as any quarterback in the NFL, Rivers’ numbers vary greatly when he has a clean pocket vs. when he is under duress at this advanced stage of his career. Don’t be surprised when the Chargers win the AFC West.
The Vikings offensive line looks poised to go from dreadful to serviceable. And wow, is that a big step forward from what we witnessed a year ago. The Vikings line wasn’t all that talented and it was riddled with injuries. Therefore, they had the worst running game in the entire league and their passing attack became painful to watch, as nearly every throw seemed to be going horizontal rather than vertical. Injuries were a big problem for the Vikings’ line in 2016, but so was a lack of talent. They have added Reiff and Mike Remmers to man the tackle positions and Pat Elflein was a gift falling to them in the third round. While this unit isn’t going to be reminiscent of the 1990’s Cowboys, all we are looking for is for it to go from dreadful to serviceable so the Vikings can actually execute on offense.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
As is the case in Detroit, the injury to the Saints left tackle, Terron Armstead, is a real buzz kill to an effort to make this a truly elite offensive line. During Drew Brees’ time in New Orleans, the Saints have dedicated as many resources to their offensive line, particularly the interior because of Brees’ lack of height, as any franchise in the NFL. Well, that kept up this offseason by signing Warford to big money and then using the last pick in the first round on Ryan Ramczyk. If everyone were healthy, Ramczyk could be brought along slowly as Zach Strief’s soon-to-be-replacement and act as a huge pile moving tight end in six offensive line sets to best keep elderly soon-to-be-Hall of Famers Brees and Adrian Peterson as comfortable as possible. But Ramczyk might now be thrust into the fire and the injury situation with Max Unger remains worrisome. Still, this was an excellent unit in 2016 and got an influx of talent through free agency and the draft.
Others That Improved (alphabetical): Buffalo, Carolina, Denver, Jacksonville, LA Rams, Philadelphia, Seattle