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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - NFC West
John Tuvey
June 29, 2008
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Arizona Cardinals

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 45 24 1138 71.1 32 3.2 32
2006 35 17 1338 83.6 30 3.2 32
2007 24 8 1344 84 29 3.7 30

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 L.Davis R.Wells S.Lynch O.Ross E.Brown      
2006 L.Davis R.Wells A.Stepanovich Mi.Brown C.Liwienski      
2007 M.Gandy R.Wells A.Johnson D.Lutui L.Brown      
2008 M.Gandy R.Wells A.Johnson D.Lutui L.Brown      

There was certainly reason for optimism regarding the Arizona offensive line last season. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt arrived and brought with him line coach Russ Grimm, while the draft yielded tackle Levi Brown with the fifth overall selection. Free agent Mike Gandy took over at the opposite tackle, Al Johnson arrived from Dallas to nail down the center position, and former second-round pick Deuce Lutui moved in at right guard. The only holdover was left guard Reggie Wells. And while the results weren’t overly dramatic, they were relatively immediate. Arizona’s sack total dropped by almost a third to 24, eighth-fewest in the league, while the average yards per carry of their running backs climbed by half a yard. Heading into the second year of the Whisenhunt/Grimm administration, expectations are being recalibrated—and in a good way. After all, this marks just the second time since the franchise moved to Arizona back in 1988 that the entire offensive line returns intact. And for the first time in his five-year Arizona career Wells, the longest-tenured Cardinal of this unit with five years of service, is playing for the same line coach for a second straight season. “The communication is already light years ahead of where we were last year,” Whisenhunt said in a published report during the team’s May minicamps. “That’s the benefit of having a line that’s been together for a year. I think it will help us in meshing together in the run game, such as the combination blocks, and it really helps us in pass protection in identifying blitzers and identifying fronts.”

The Cardinals also have some depth to their line as well. Undrafted college free agent Lyle Sendlein stepped in at center for two games while Johnson was hurt and played so well he could contend for the starting job as early as this year. Elton Brown is a better fit at guard but backs up both tackle spots; he’s in the final year of his contract and might get paid elsewhere if the Cards can’t clear a starting spot for him. The Cardinals landed Brandon Keith in the seventh round of April’s draft and hope to groom him as a possible replacement for when Gandy’s contract expires following the 2009 campaign. However, the real key to continued improvement is, as Whisenhunt said, getting the same unit to play together. Despite fielding at least four regulars in every game the Cardinals could get all five on the field together for just seven full games last year. Still, even that is a big step forward for this franchise—and it showed up in the measurables. Arizona ranked among the top 10 lines in the league in adjusted sack rate—a Football Outsiders stat that takes into account down and distance as well as quality of opponent—and fared just as well in the run metrics, ranking eighth in adjusted line yards (4.34 per carry) and 10th in percent of carries for zero or negative yardage. Perhaps more telling is the Cards’ dead-dog rank of 32nd with just eight percent of their yardage coming more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. In other words, Arizona’s line is opening holes; Edgerrin James is taking what the line gives him but not getting much more on his own.

The Arizona line is typical in that the right side features better run blockers and the left side is more adept at pass protection; however, that may be bass-ackwards for this team because Matt Leinart, their purported quarterback of the future, is a lefty. Also, if Brown and Lutui are such a force, it’s puzzling that Arizona ran primarily behind Gandy and Wells—a league-leading 25 percent of their running plays went off left tackle last year. Keep in mind that Kurt Warner was under center most of the season, so any left-handed tendencies were likely muted. It would make sense that with Leinart in the lineup for a full slate of games—hardly a certainty, but likely what the Cards are hoping for—this team will run more to the right side. That should mean improved numbers, and as the Football Outsiders metrics suggest the line is certainly doing their job. While James or rookie understudy Tim Hightower won’t be tearing off 40-yard chunks with the frequency of, say, Adrian Peterson there should be plenty of running room at the point of attack. And as this unit gets used to each other the pass protect should improve as well. It’s worth noting that the Cards allowed multiple sacks in just one of the five games Leinart played in, while Warner and his quicker reads actually absorbed two or more sacks in five of the 10 games in which he was the primary quarterback. Regardless of which quarterback is chucking, it’s clear that the big fellas in front of them won’t cause undo duress—great news if your fantasy squad is banking on Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin making plays downfield.

OVERALL GRADE: B, a grade that will improve as this unit jells

St. Louis Rams

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 46 27 1535 95.9 22 4 15
2006 49 27 1805 112.8 17 4.3 10
2007 48 27 1512 95 21 4.0 19

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 O.Pace T.Nutten A.McCollum A.Timmerman R.Tucker O. Pace    
2006 O.Pace R.Incognito A.McCollum A.Timmerman A.Barron      
2007 O.Pace M.Setterstrom B.Romberg M.Brown A.Barron      
2008 O.Pace J.Bell R.Incognito M.Setterstrom A.Barron      

You could say the Rams struggled with injuries along their offensive line last season; actually, you could say the entire unit was run through a meat grinder then shot out of a bazooka and it would still be an understatement. Last year six different regulars or key backups missed a combined 69 games and the team was without at least two starters in every week of the season. The good news is, all the key components are back at work with the exception of all-world left tackle Orlando Pace, who the team will keep under wraps until training camp. And with so many different players getting work last season, St. Louis actually has some depth from which to put together an intriguing unit. Obviously the lynchpin is Pace, who has missed 23 games over the past two seasons. All indications are he’ll be at 100 percent following shoulder surgery, and his presence will certainly be a welcome sight not only to the Rams and their fans but also to anyone with Marc Bulger or Steven Jackson on their fantasy squad. The Rams added free agent Jacob Bell next to Pace; his quickness will help Pace protect Bulger’s backside, and his aggressiveness will pay dividends in the ground game. Speaking of intense, late in minicamp the Rams moved guard Richie Incognito back to center, where he’ll compete with Brett Romberg. Mark Setterstrom, who started at left guard last season until he was injured, is also working at center, but he is expected to take Incognito’s place on the right side. “We’re going to have a really good battle between Romberg and Richie at the center spot,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said in a published report during minicamps. “Richie hinted a little bit that he felt really comfortable at center. He played well at guard, but let’s be honest: he played his best football for us at center in 2006.” A healthy Incognito would be a boon for the ground game and also give the interior of the Rams line a double dose of nasty. Romberg, while adequate last season, is a bit undersized for Al Saunders’ power running game. Right tackle Alex Barron has all the talent in the world but thus far has underachieved. The Rams drafted John Greco in the third round, and if Barron continues to disappoint he might not be back next season. For the time being, St. Louis likely hopes the intensity of Bell and Incognito rub off on Barron and he steps up his level of play.

Help will also come from Saunders’ practice of using tight ends as extra blockers, especially in the ground game. Anthony Becht was signed away from Tampa Bay to serve as the team’s blocking tight end, much like Jason Dunn did with Saunders’ offenses in Kansas City. Again, this is good news primarily for Jackson and the ground game. While the Rams’ overall numbers weren’t that bad last season (4.0 yards per carry for their running backs) given the circumstances, much of the credit goes to Jackson and his extra effort. According to the Football Outsiders, the Rams ranked 28th in the league at 3.75 adjusted line yards per carry; they also ranked 26th in short yardage and goal-to-go success and in percentage of carries that failed to make it past the line of scrimmage. The return of Pace and Incognito, the addition of Bell, and the use of Becht in Saunders’ scheme should all boost the Rams’ rushing numbers back into the upper half of the league and solidify Jackson’s status as an elite fantasy back.

Pass protection has never been a Rams’ strong suit, even when Pace was in the lineup on a regular basis; they’ve allowed at least 40 sacks in every season since the turn of the century. Much of that has to do with the Mike Martz offense that sent every available receiver into the pattern, but even with Martz out of the picture the Rams have given up 46, 49, and 48 sacks the past three seasons. Those numbers have certainly played a part in the fact that Bulger has missed 15 games in his five seasons since taking over as the starter—but the good news is they haven’t prevented him from getting the ball downfield to Torry Holt. Again, Saunders’ run-heavy philosophy and additional tight end should should combine with the now-healthy line to improve upon those numbers; a full season from Pace and Bell on the blind side might even bust up that string of 40-sack campaigns. Keeping Bulger upright should be a priority though, especially since Trent Green is the backup and no one wants to see him absorb yet another concussion.
OVERALL GRADE: C, though that could climb if Pace proves (and stays) healthy

San Francisco 49ers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 48 28 1689 105.6 17 3.9 17
2006 35 18 2172 135.8 6 4.9 4
2007 55 32 1361 85 28 4.3 9

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 J.Jennings J.Smiley J.Newberry E.Heitmann K.Harris      
2006 J.Jennings L.Allen E.Heitmann J.Smiley K.Harris L. Allen    
2007 J.Jennings L.Allen E.Heitmann J.Smiley J.Staley      
2008 J.Staley A.Snyder E.Heitmann D.Baas J.Jennings      

The 49ers were abysmal offensively last season, finishing last in the league in points and yardage; enter the mad genius Mike Martz, who hopes to kick-start this offense with his Greatest Show on Turf approach. However, here’s a gigantic red flag right off the bat: Martz offenses traditionally give up a bunch of sacks—his Lions allowed 54 last year—and the Niners are coming off a three-year stretch in which they surrendered 138 sacks, including a league-high 55 last year alone. So it may not matter which quarterback Martz tabs as his starter; with his signal-callers being tossed around like rag dolls, he’ll need all of them to play at some point during the season. Actually, while Martz’s pass-heavy offense might produce statistics to the contrary, the truth is that San Francisco’s line should be better at protecting the quarterback in 2008. The key will be at left tackle, where second-year man Joe Staley switches sides with last year’s LT, Jonas Jennings. Martz’s three- and four-receiver formations leave the tackle on an island, so Staley will need to live up to his reputation as an athletic, quick-footed pass protector to ensure that San Francisco doesn’t need to go searching for even more quarterbacks. Jennings is a better fit on the right side, where the tackle is traditionally a stronger run blocker. However, he’ll need to stay healthy for a change; he’s never played a full 16-game slate in his seven-year NFL career and has missed 27 games since joining the 49ers in 2005.

As insurance San Francisco signed Oakland castoff Barry Sims, a move that is important not only because Sims is a capable and experienced backup for a player who has a track record of missing time but also because it allows the 49ers to keep rookie Chilo Rachal at guard. During minicamp depth issues forced the Niners to work their second-round selection at tackle when he’d be better served getting guard reps in hopes of moving into the lineup at that position sooner rather than later. With veteran guard Larry Allen hanging up his cleats the plan is to use versatile Adam Snyder in his spot on the left side until Rachal is ready, and if he had to take extensive reps at tackle it might slow his NFL guard learning curve. While clearly on the downslope, Allen was still a force in the ground game; witness the team’s 5.3 yards per carry average in the 11 games Allen was in the lineup versus a 4.4 ypc mark in his absence. Allen’s departure further thins the Niners at guard; David Baas, expected to start on the right side in the spot vacated by Justin Smiley’s departure, tore a pectoral muscle in April and won’t be back on the field until training camp at the earliest. Tony Wragge worked with the starters in Baas’s absence, but the hope is that Baas—who started the second half of the season after Smiley was injured—will be back for the opener. A Baas-Rachal guard tandem would provide the Niners with a solid pair of run blockers, but that may not happen until later in the season. Center Eric Heitmann is also a good run blocker but not so strong in pass protect, so the Niners wouldn’t mind if fourth-round pick Cody Wallace pushes him for work; again, while the switch may happen this year it’s more likely to occur mid-season rather than in training camp.

So, what is to be expected from a unit in which the only holdover at the same position from a year ago is the weakest link on the line, a unit that surrendered a league-high sack total last year and brought in a coordinator with a reputation for big numbers in that category, a unit that loses a potential Hall of Famer and its top run-blocker? Yeah, it doesn’t look too promising. According to the Football Outsiders the Niners directed 59 percent of their running plays between a pair of guards who are no longer there, so it would be silly to expect a third straight season with San Francisco running backs ranking in the league’s top 10 in yards per carry; thus, dialing down those expectations for Frank Gore would be prudent. And while you might be viewing San Francisco wideouts like Bryant Johnson and Isaac Bruce as sleeper picks in the Martz system, this line and Martz’s scheme are a recipe for bruised and battered quarterbacks. Not that anyone is putting any fantasy hopes on the shoulders of Alex Smith (or Shaun Hill or J.T. O’Sullivan, for that matter), but a little continuity and a developing relationship with Niner receivers instead of the Candlestick turf would be a plus. Let’s end on a positive: at least you know Martz’s game plan won’t ask Vernon Davis to stay in and block.

RUN BLOCKING: C- (yes, Allen matters that much)
PASS BLOCKING: D+, as improvements will likely be masked by Martz’s sack-friendly system
OVERALL GRADE: D+, with thev potential for this unit to move above average in the next year or two

Seattle Seahawks

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 27 6 2457 153.6 3 4.7 3
2006 49 29 1923 120.2 14 4 16
2007 36 18 1509 94 22 3.9 24

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 W.Jones S.Hutchinson R.Tobeck C.Gray S.Locklear W. Jones S. Hutchinson R. Tobeck
2006 W.Jones F.Womack R.Tobeck C.Gray S.Locklear W. Jones    
2007 W.Jones R.Sims C.Spencer C.Gray S.Locklear W. Jones    
2008 W.Jones M.Wahle C.Spencer R.Sims S.Locklear      

How much do the Seahawks miss Steve Hutchinson? In the two years since his departure Seattle has allowed an average of one sack per game more than they did while he was next to Walter Jones; meanwhile, Seahawk backs are averaging almost a yard per carry less as the team’s rankings have plummeted from third in the league (153 rushing yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry) to the bottom third of the league (94 rypg and 3.9 ypc last year). Seattle will try its third left guard in as many years, hoping former Packer Pro Bowler Mike Wahle can turn back the clock—both for his career and for the Seattle ground game. The rest of the line hasn’t changed much; Chris Spencer, the team’s first-round pick in 2005, took over at center last year and Rob Sims is switching from left guard to right guard, but tackles Walter Jones and Sean Locklear still hold down the fort. While Jones is getting on in years he’s still one of the league’s elite, and while Locklear doesn’t get much of a push in the ground game he’s a more than capable pass blocker. There’s depth as well with Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack (seriously, how can you not love an offensive lineman nicknamed “Pork Chop”?) as insurance behind both tackles and Chris Gray backing up all three interior spots. Both are former starters so there wouldn’t be much of a drop-off should they be required to step in for a game or two.

However, the overall quality of the line play, particularly on the ground, has dropped dramatically the past two seasons—and it’s not entirely attributable to Shaun Alexander hitting the wall. The Football Outsiders rank Seattle 29th in adjusted line yards at 3.74 ALY per carry; worse, they converted just 52 percent of their short-yardage and goal-to-go situations (27th in the league) and were stopped behind the line of scrimmage more frequently than any other team. Thus, it should come as no surprise that new offensive line coach Mike Solari is putting more zone blocking into the team’s repertoire. “In the NFL, you’re going against the best of the best,” Sims said in a published report following the team’s minicamp. “When you’re man-on-man every single snap, you can get beat. It’s one of those things where, if you’ve got five guys going man-on-man, they’re more likely to get beat.” Additionally, the zone scheme will play more to the talents (read: athleticism over strength) of the existing personnel. “It’s a group that can move and can space and do some nice things,” Solari said in a published report. “So we are just trying to develop some technique, consistency and being able to perform as a unit.” One factor working against the Hawks as the implement the new system is the fact that Jones and Spencer were still recovering from offseason surgeries and didn’t work with the team during minicamp, though Rob Sims did return in June after missing May OTAs following arthroscopic knee surgery.

The pass protection scheme isn’t expected to change, so the Seahawks will hope that improvement comes from the unit jelling and from Spencer gaining experience and making the appropriate line calls. Having a veteran in Wahle next to him can’t hurt, but his missing spring minicamps isn’t a positive. The team also hopes Solari can coach up his charges and that improved technique will not only help with pass protection but also maybe reduce the wear and tear on the injured shoulders of Jones and Spencer. After a brutal 49 sacks allowed in 2006 the unit made strides last year but still allowed multiple sacks in 11 of 16 games. There’s plenty of room for improvement here.

RUN BLOCKING: C-, with potential to move up if the zone blocking scheme takes

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