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 offensive lines went backwards from last year? Several (in alphabetical order) are highlighted below. Please go back and check out the lines that went the opposite direction. As is the case with all teams this time of year, NFL rosters look much better now on paper than they will be as the season goes along. As a result, because of the time of year it is, there are fewer offensive lines that went backwards in the offseason instead of improving.
Not much changed here, but can the Falcons line maintain their level of play from a year ago? The biggest change was the retirement of Chris Chester, Atlanta’s worst starter from their epic run in 2016. But the Falcons did very little to replace Chester, let alone upgrade at his guard spot. That could end up being a huge mistake. Just as worrisome, injury regression very well could hit Atlanta’s offensive line going forward. This unit was incredibly fortunate with staying healthy last year, an underrated aspect of why they were so good on offense. During the regular season, Atlanta played 1,039 offensive snaps. Chester played every single one of those snaps. Ryan Schraeder only missed one. Andy Levitre and Alex Mack each played 1,018, while Jake Mathews was in for 978 snaps. For a set of front five starters to miss a grand total of 43 snaps during a 16 game season is just insane…and it won’t repeat. Matt Ryan had an amazing season, but his best work was done deep downfield and when he had a clean pocket to operate last year.
The Bengals take the cake here. Okay, okay, we all know this story by now. A very good offensive line two years ago regressed in 2016 and then the frugal Bengals allowed their best two players from that unit to proceed to walk out the door. But hey, Cincinnati planned for this day right by drafting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first and second round respectively of the 2015 draft. Sure, that is a great story to tell the Bengals fans, but Fisher and especially Ogbuehi have played at a well below average level when given the chance to see the field. And here is the kicker: Over the past two draft classes since taking Ogbuehi and Fisher, Cincinnati has used only 161st overall pick in the 2016 draft and the 176th overall pick in this latest class on offensive line help. Making matters even worse, the center position has been a big problem for this team for some time, but nothing has been done about it. Now, with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler gone, center might actually be one of the strongest positions on what is now possibly the worst line in all of football.
You can understand why the Ravens couldn’t match the huge money that Detroit gave Ricky Wagner in free agency. But Baltimore also traded last year’s starting center, Jeremy Zuttah, to the 49ers. Only Joe Flacco played more offensive snaps for the Ravens than Wagner and Zuttah in 2016. Not to mention, the Ravens lost one of the NFL’s best and most imposing guards, Kelechi Osemele, to Oakland in free agency a year ago. In the draft, Baltimore did go back-to-back guards, but that wasn’t until the fourth and fifth rounds after addressing defense with their first four selections. Marshall Yanda remains one of the best offensive linemen in all of football and Ronnie Stanley very much looks like a keeper at left tackle, but there are questions all over the rest of this offensive line. And based off last year, this doesn’t look like the type of offense that can overcome such questions with supreme level of play and talent from their skill position players.
The bar has been set extremely high here. Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and Travis Frederick very well could be the best tackle, guard and center respectively in the NFL. But there will be new starters at the other two spots with Ron Leary now in Denver and Doug Free retiring. Free was the weakest link of the line in 2016 and it should be remembered that Smith missed ample time as well. But there are certainly questions here. La’el Collins is a terrific talent, but he is still unproven and it isn’t certain if he is better suited for right tackle or at guard. The other remaining options for the last starting spot are not all that appealing and the Cowboys offensive line depth is now troublesome as well. You would think that Dallas will very much remain a run-heavy attack and Dak Prescott was superb off play action in his rookie season. But without question, for Dallas to truly be one of the best teams in football (as many project), even more will be needed from Prescott this season. His blocking might not be quite what we have come to expect.
Green Bay Packers
While the Packers are as well off at the starting tackle spots as any team in the NFL, the interior of their line has been riddled with defections over the past two offseasons. The Bears got an inter-divisional gift with Green Bay’s release of Josh Sitton. That was a big loss, but one that the Packers could overcome. But now, a stiffer challenge awaits as J.C. Tretter and T.J. Lang both left via free agency. Jason Spriggs was drafted to most likely eventually start at tackle, but he is going to have to convert to guard to best help the team. Corey Linsley is very capable at the pivot, but the guard spots and the overall depth are worrisome. There isn’t a quarterback in the league that is better under pressure than Aaron Rodgers. He of course makes up for a ton of problems with Green Bay’s offense, but he also holds the ball a very long time and withstood a lot of pressure last year. This year may present a much stiffer test and there are already quite a few questions surrounding the Packers running game.