BEST OF THE BUNCH
Carolina’s offensive didn’t live up to expectations in 2005, but it’s ripe with promise in 2006. Former Titans C Justin Hartwig is an upgrade over four-year starter Jeff Mitchell in a move that should help to shore up the line’s uninspiring run blocking. Pro Bowl LG Mike Wahle hasn’t missed a game in seven years and keeps getting better. Tackle Jordan Gross – the team’s No. 1 pick three seasons ago – played well after moving back to the right side from the left side. 16-game starter Travelle Wharton returns at left tackle, and Evan Mathis is expected to win the right guard spot that opened when Tutan Reyes’ departed for Buffalo. Third-round pick T Rashad Butler (Miami) will help, but it will be a couple of years before he cracks the starting unit.
All five starters return along an line that was among the league’s best in 2005. The Bengals didn’t stand pat, however, and grabbed T Andrew Whitworth (LSU) with their second-round pick. Whitworth won’t unseat Pro Bowl RT Willie Anderson this year, but he’s the team’s future should the club opt to not re-sign Anderson after the season. The rest of the line includes up-and-coming tackle Levi Jones and guard Eric Steinbach, along with stalwarts G Bobbie Williams and 36-year-old C Rich Braham. Among the bunch, only Williams is looking over his shoulder as Scott Kooistra impressed coaches in limited duty last season.
Per the norm, the Broncos have few question marks along their line heading into the season. Denver returns all five starting linemen, including RT George Foster, RG Cooper Carlisle, C Tom Nalen, LG Ben Hamilton and LT Matt Lepsis – all of whom started in every game in 2005 and comprised one of the most successful units in the league. The Broncos did add rookie G Chris Kuper (North Dakota) and C Greg Eslinger (Minnesota) with their fifth- and sixth-round picks, respectively. On paper, both rookies fit the mold of a Denver offensive lineman, but neither is likely to see a great deal of action in 2006.
Thanks in part to the restructuring of the contracts of LT Tarik Glenn and Pro Bowl C Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis will return five offensive linemen who combined to start 78 of 80 games in 2005. Glenn’s re-signing came as a minor surprise as many people expected the Colts to shore up their run blocking via free agency, and Glenn was a primary culprit in the team’s struggles a year ago. They will be joined by RT Ryan Diem, RG Jake Scott and LG Ryan Lilja as starters for a new-look offense preparing to experience life without Edgerrin James.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs much-heralded OL is finally getting long in the tooth. Aging LT Willie Roaf is far from a lock to play in all 16 games anymore, so the team signed well-traveled G Ian Allen to boost its depth at guard and tackle. Allen’s signing may allow fourth-year T Jordan Black to switch to guard, a move that will minimize his greatest weakness (speed) while maximizing his skills as a pass protector. RG Will Shields enters his 14th season having started in every game 12 seasons in a row, and John Welbourn, who has averaged only 11 games played the past four seasons, returns at right tackle. Other returning starters include Casey Wiegmann at center and Brian Waters at left guard, both of whom started all 16 games in 2005. If this unit can stay young enough and healthy enough for one more year, it should once again be among the best in the NFL.
New England Patriots
The Patriots’ re-signed their best run blocker, G Stephen Neal, to lock up most of the offensive line long-term. Neal and Logan Mankins should be one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. Starting LT Matt Light (broken right leg) and C Dan Koppen (shoulder) are healthy again, and Nick Kaczur is favored to supplant Brandon Gorin at right guard. Kaczur’s performance as a rookie in 2005 eased the loss of former starter Tom Ashworth to Seattle. New England enhanced its depth by landing a tremendous value pick with G Ryan O’Callaghan (California) in the fifth round. You know Tom Brady will be steady, but an uncertain running game will be too much to overcome if the 2006 version of the line suffers a rash of injuries similar to a year ago.
New York Giants
The Giants’ impressive line returns intact with a good chance to be even better in 2006. The starting five of RT Kareem McKenzie, RG Chris Snee, C Shaun O’Hara, LG David Diehl and LT Luke Petitgout combined to start 77 of 80 games a year ago and comprised an upper-level unit in both the running and passing game. Promising G Rich Seubert returns from a potential career-ending leg injury in 2003 and could press either Snee or Diehl for a starting job at either guard position.
The Steelers’ quiet offseason may make for a boring story, but it’s the best-case scenario for the defending champs. The greatest unknown heading into the offseason was whether or not the team would be able to keep both All-Pro C Jeff Hartings and backup C Chukky Okobi. Thanks in part to Hartings’ willingness to have his contract restructured, both players return to the Steel City in 2006. The rest of the OL consists of RT Max Starks, RG Kendall Simmons, LG Alan Faneca and LT Marvel Smith. Fourth-round draft pick T Willie Colon will boost the depth of a unit that should continue to have few peers.
San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers is in as the new starting QB, and he’ll play behind an experienced OL that for all intents and purposes returns intact. In their biggest OL-related offseason move, the Chargers re-signed their prize young guard, Kris Dielman. Left tackle and 11-year veteran Roman Oben (foot) should be back to full-strength by the season opener, and until then second-round pick Marcus McNeil and Leander Jordan will compete for the starting job at what could be the line’s weakest area. Right tackle may be up for grabs, too, as Corey Lekkerkerker spent more time with the first team in the spring than did incumbent starter Shane Olivea. Olivea followed up a strong rookie season in 2004 by showing marginal improvement in 2005.
It’s hard to believe that the Seahawks lost one of the best guards in the league, yet they’re poised to not miss a beat in 2006. Steve Hutchinson bolted to the Vikings, but coaches are confident that Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack can step into Hutchinson’s role at guard and not miss a beat. If Womack falters, fourth-round pick Rob Sims (Ohio State) may be ready to challenge him for the starting spot. The Seahawks’ best move may have been to sign former Patriots guard Tom Ashworth, a sturdy blue collar-type who continues to improve and who could end up starting at guard or tackle if others don’t cut it. Not to be forgotten is steady veteran G Walter Jones, who has missed only three of the team’s games over the past eight years.
New offensive line coach Steve Loney will attempt to do what hasn’t been done in recent memory: build a respectable OL in Arizona. In 2005, the Cardinals held the dubious distinctions of gaining fewer yards per carry (3.01) than all of their peers and by surrendering more sacks (45) than all but eight teams in the NFL. Second-round draft picks G Taitusi Lutui (USC) and recently-signed Milford Brown (ex-Texans) should start at right and left guard, respectively. Brown was considered something of a bust with the Texans, but Cardinals coaches seem to believe they can fix his bad habits. Versatile Reggie Wells will move to center, and the rest of the line looks solid on paper with Leonard Davis and Oliver Ross handling tackle duties. Ross is healthy after missing much of last season.
Injuries hampered what was an otherwise respectable performance by the offensive line in 2005. All five starters return healthy in 2006, including RT Fred Miller, RG Terrence Metcalf, C Olin Kreutz, LG Ruben Brown and LT John Tait. G/C Roberto Garza, who earned the most injury-related playing time at the guard positions in 2005, will push Metcalf for the starting right guard spot. Tait and Miller are locked into the starting tackle positions, but depth will be an issue if either goes down for an extended period of time.
The Browns took two very needed steps in the right direction by signing former Saint and two-time Pro Bowl C LeCharles Bentley and former Falcon LT Kevin Shaffer. Bentley provides an upgrade over former center Jeff Faine, who departed for New Orleans. RT Ryan Tucker, RG Cosey Coleman and LG Joe Andruzzi all return to round out the starting five. The Browns could have helped themselves by finding a quality right tackle in the draft, but all-in-all this unit looks much better on paper than it did a year ago.
It’s a minor miracle that QB David Carr can take the field without the help of a walker given the beating he’s taken in his first four years in the league. The Texans upgraded immensely by selecting T/G Charles Spencer (Pittsburgh) and T Eric Winston (Miami) in the third round. Both Spencer and Winston could start immediately at left guard and right tackle, respectively. The Texans also signed former Packers Pro Bowl C Mike Flanagan, which will facilitate the move of former center Steve McKinney to guard. Meanwhile, fourth-year T Seth Wand, who was in the doghouse with the former coaching staff, has been given new life and is being projected as a starter on the left side.
The Vikings overhauled their offensive line with the key acquisition being former Seahawk all-world G Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s presence on the left side will be a boon to the development of LT Bryant McKinnie. On the right side, second-year tackle Marcus Johnson appears ready to build on a promising rookie campaign now that he will be locked into RT instead of moving around from RT to RG to RT like he did in his rookie season. Former Eagle Artis Hicks has an edge over incumbent Adam Goldberg for the starting spot at right guard. Very good line play is a must to prevent the Vikings from going from a fantasy goldmine to a fantasy wasteland in two short seasons.
New York Jets
Prior to the draft, the Jets’ offensive line looked suspect, at best. However, the Jets looked over more glamorous picks and selected T D’Brickashaw Ferguson (Virginia) with the No. 4 overall selection and C Nick Mangold (Ohio State) with the 29th overall pick. Ferguson should play immediately on the left side, while T Adrian Jones will move to the right side. Meanwhile, Mangold will compete with free agent signee Trey Teague for the starting center spot. C/G Pete Kendall will move to his more natural position of guard and Brandon Moore is currently slated to start at right guard. On paper, it’s a huge and much-needed upgrade for an offense with an aging feature back in Curtis Martin and oft-injured (Chad Pennington) and uninspiring (Patrick Ramsey) QBs.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have positioned themselves to field one of the league’s most improved lines thanks to the signing of 10-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen (cut by Dallas) and the anticipated returns of LT Jonas Jennings and two-time Pro Bowl C Jeremy Newberry. It would be hard for the team to not improve on a disastrous 2005 season in which they ranked at or near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories. Allen will help to keep second-year QB Alex Smith on his feet, and Jennings – the team’s big free agent acquisition in 2005 – joins Allen on the left side after missing 13 of 16 games last year with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, Newberry had knee surgery in the winter and is expected to be 100 percent when the regular season arrives. Depth remains a concern, but this line can be adequate or better if it can stay healthy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Carnell Williams owners must love the changes on the OL in 2006. The Buccaneers’ youth movement continued with the selections of G Davin Joseph (Oklahoma) in the first round and OT Jeremy Trueblood (Boston College) with a great value pick in the second round. Joseph was widely considered to be the best guard in the draft and is projected to start at right guard. Meanwhile, Sean Mahan may move to center, where he’ll compete with incumbent John Wade. The team also signed G Toniu Fonoti, a former second-round pick who weighed about 400 pounds last season while on the IR and who should compete for a starting role. T Anthony Davis, a bright spot on the line at left tackle last season, reported to camp 25 pounds lighter and may move to guard. LT Kenyatta Walker’s starting days may be over as the youngsters will be given every chance to win the starting job.
The Falcons filled a major need with their draft day trade for 35-year-old T Wayne Gandy (ex-New Orleans). C Todd McClure, who remains a steady presence in the middle, will be backed ably by Austin King. Starting RT Todd Weiner is healthy following a difficult 2005 season in which he dealt with numerous injuries. The jury is still out on backups T Frank Omiyale, G Ben Claxton and G Chris McGee, and they’ll need to step up their play to prevent depth from being a big issue in 2006.
Veteran T Orlando Brown was released, and a youth movement is underway led by second-round pick C/G Chris Chester (Oklahoma), who will provide an immediate boost at either guard or center. Promising T Tony Pashos is the projected starter on the right side, but he’ll be pushed by equally-promising Adam Terry. RG Keydrick Vincent returns healthy, and C Mike Flynn and LT Jonathan Ogden – both 16-game starters in 2005 – round out the starting five. Don’t expect drastic improvement, but this line has exciting potential.
Heralded offensive line coach Hudson Houck squeezed a lot out of an offensive line that had more questions that answers heading into the 2005 season. The Dolphins’ biggest addition on the line was the signing of free agent tackle L.J. Shelton (Cleveland), who revived his career with the Browns last year following a disappointing tenure with the Cardinals. Shelton and Damion McIntosh should compete for the left tackle position. Miami also resigned C Seth McKinney, which will prevent starting G Rex Hadnot from switching to center. Gs Vernon Carey and Jeno James should round out the starting five. A marginally better performance can be expected from an OL that was barely among the top half of the league in 2005.
This may be the year that the Raiders’ OL finally looks as good on the field as it does on paper. A domino effect is in place as the coaching staff has moved stud T Robert Gallery to the left side, which will allow T/G Barry Sims to line up at left guard. Meanwhile, former LG Brad Badger should inherit the right guard spot vacated upon the team’s release of Ron Stone, and a healthy Langston Walker will replace Gallery at right tackle. The only position that keeps its starter is center, where Jake Grove will remain the man in the middle.
The Eagles will return only two offensive linemen who started in more than eight games in 2005. As has become their custom, the team used the draft to make significant upgrades along their OL. The selection of T Winston Justice (USC) in the second round was considered something of a steal, and the team also chose G Max Jean-Gilles (Georgia) in the fourth round to bolster the interior. Though Justice could start immediately for many teams, he’ll provided much-needed depth for starting tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas.
Like the rest of the team, the Redskins’ OL was the picture of mediocrity for much of the 2005 season before gelling down the stretch. Four of five offensive linemen started in all 16 games last season, and four starters return following the retirement of 20-year veteran RG Ray Brown. Back in the fold are RT Jon Jansen, C Casey Rabach, LG Derrick Dockery and LT Chris Samuels, and it remains unclear who will replace Brown at right guard. Rabach was a disappointment in 2005, but he did play with a torn labrum.
Suffice it to say the Bills’ biggest acquisition on the line may not be their best. Buffalo signed 6’7”, 370-pound Aaron Gibson, who is hoping to revive his career minus about 30 pounds (he used to play at more than 400). The 1999 first-round draft pick has played in only four games the past two seasons, including zero in 2005. Gibson will back up the Bills’ best offensive lineman in RT Jason Peters. Left tackle appears to be set with Mike Gandy, and Buffalo’s other free agent acquisition was former Panther G Tutan Reyes. Reyes will compete with veteran Bennie Anderson and second-year player Duke Preston for the starting left guard spot. Surprisingly, the Bills did little to bolster their line via the draft while selecting three offensive linemen on the second day that are projects. At a glance, it appears that Buffalo’s RBs, QBs and WRs will have similarly trying seasons in 2006.
The Lions didn’t have injuries as an excuse in 2005 – they were simply ineffective. As a result, they were one of the most active teams in the free agent market. The team signed G Rex Tucker, G Barry Stokes, T Courtney VanBuren and T Ross Verba. Verba is slated to become the new left guard though he could challenge Kelly Butler for the right tackle spot. Meanwhile, Tucker, a former Bear who returned from two years of injuries to play eight games for the Rams in 2005, has an outside chance to supplant DeMulling at LG. Stokes and VanBuren should provide much-needed depth. The remainder of the OL includes the unit’s most consistent performers: RG Damien Woody, C Dominic Raiola and LT Jeff Backus.
The Titans signed Pro Bowl C Kevin Mawae, which should ease the team’s loss of departed C Justin Hartwig to the Panthers. What the rest of the line lacks in star power, it may make up for in consistency. RT Michael Roos, RG Benji Olson and LG Zach Piller each started 16 games last season, and with LT Brad Hopkins’ retirement looming Roos will move to the left side. Meanwhile, third-year G Jacob Bell has the advantage over second-year players David Stewart and Daniel Loper to take over Roos’ vacated spot at right tackle. The Titans appear to be heading in the right direction, but don’t expect great strides in bettering the unit’s lackluster performance from a year ago.
The Cowboys fielded one of the worst lines in the NFL last season, and the team took a number of steps to upgrade the unit that protects immobile QB Drew Bledsoe. Dallas signed former Jet T Jason Fabini and former Lion T Kyle Kosier to compete with Rob Petitti for the starting right tackle spot. Though Petitti shows promise, he allowed a league-high 13 sacks in 2005 and struggled after LT Flozell Adams got hurt. Fortunately, both Adams and aging RG Marco Rivera (neck) return to full health in 2006.
LONG YEAR AHEAD?
Green Bay Packers
One gets the feeling things could get worse for Brett Favre and the Packers before they get better. The offense couldn’t overcome the loss of starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera prior to the 2005 season, and now the team must deal with the defection of free agent C Mike Flanagan to the Texans. Help is on the way, but it may not arrive by the time Favre retires. Second-round pick T/G Daryn Colledge (Boise State), who will have every chance to win the job at left guard over fellow draft pick Jason Spitz (Louisville) and returning players Adrian Klemm and Will Whitticker. Meanwhile, second-year G Junius Coston turned heads at minicamps and may line up opposite Colledge at the other guard spot. Whitticker and Klemm, who struggled as starters last season, may end up with backup roles. G/C Scott Wells is the logical choice to fill the void left by Flanagan at center, but it remains to be seen if he can handle the job. Tackle Chad Clifton is slated to start at left tackle, but following knee and ankle surgery in the offseason his return to full health is still in question. The youngsters will have to learn fast to prevent a repeat of the unit’s disappointing performance in 2005.
How the Jaguars may improve a sub-par offensive line by doing virtually nothing via free agency or the draft is a true mystery. Perhaps the biggest addition to the OL is new assistant head coach Mike Tice, who coached five different offensive linemen to 10 Pro Bowl appearances during his tenure with the Vikings. Tice’s biggest project may be former No. 4 overall pick Mike Williams, who the Jaguars signed in March. Williams was plagued by injuries and his weight during his disappointing four-year tenure in Buffalo, and he’ll back up Maurice Williams and Khalif Barnes at the tackle positions. Promising G Vince Manuwai was re-signed to a one-year deal, and C Dennis Norman, RG Chris Naeole and LG Vince Manuwai should round out the first unit.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans took a bit hit with the departure of LeCharles Bentley in free agency to the Browns and with the team’s draft day trade of LT Wayne Gandy to the Falcons. The Saints tried to recover by drafting OT Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg, PA) in the fourth round and by making a draft day trade with Cleveland for C Jeff Faine. 2005 first-round pick Jammal Brown will spell Gandy on the left side, where coaches believe he’ll be at his best. Jon Stinchcomb is listed as the Saints’ No. 1 right tackle despite playing in only 10 games in his first three seasons and none in 2005 with a knee injury.
St. Louis Rams
It’s hard to field an offensive line with bookends the quality of Orlando Pace and Alex Barron and produce sub-par results, but the Rams did just that in 2005. Pace and Barron return in 2006, but the problem is, so does the rest of the 2005 version of the line that struggled to produce a running game and allowed 46 takedowns of various Rams QBs. LG Claude Terrell, who was a pleasant surprise in 2005, gained a lot of weight following offseason wrist surgery and may be pushed for the starting spot by 13-year veteran T Todd Steussie. Steussie, who represents the team’s most exciting acquisition, was originally signed to back up any of the four tackle or guard positions. Meanwhile, G Adam Timmerman (knee) and C Andy McCollum (shoulder, knee) are both expected back at full health once the season begins. New offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has his hands full with a near-copy of last year’s disappointing unit, and a banged-up one at that.