2013 Offensive Lines: Winners and Losers
Most astute fantasy football owners won't just look at which skill position players moved during the offseason, but also which teams upgraded or downgraded their offensive lines. As most know, the left tackle position can have just as much impact on the play of an offense as a receiver, tight end or quarterback will.
Here are some winners and losers based on the decisions that teams made this offseason regarding their offensive lines. Keep in mind that this isn't a ranking of the best or worst O-lines in football. The reason you won't find New England or San Francisco's outstanding lines listed among the "winners" is because they didn't need to make upgrades to their units. This is merely a discussion involving the teams that either improved or declined over the 2013 offseason.
Offensive line play was a major weakness for the Colts in 2012, so general manager Ryan Grigson made it a priority this offseason to upgrade the protection in front of franchise player Andrew Luck. Among Grigson's biggest decisions was to invest big money in right tackle Gosder Cherilus (Lions) and left guard Donald Thomas (Patriots), who present upgrades over Winston Justice, Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz. Grigson also found a potential gem in 2013 third-round pick Hugh Thornton, who should bring athleticism, strength, and a nasty demeanor to the right guard position. With Anthony Castonzo and Samson Satele set to return at their respective positions, this should be one of the most improved offensive lines in the NFL next season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Granted, Eric Fisher still has plenty to prove despite being the top overall pick in this year's draft, but it's hard not to love Kansas City's offensive tackle tandem of Fisher and Branden Albert. Couple that with the expected improvement from second-year pro Jeff Allen and third-year center Rodney Hudson and there's plenty of hope for the Chiefs this season. This unit still has a lot to prove but under Andy Reid's tutelage this could be one of the more underrated offensive lines in football heading into 2013.
The Titans arguably threw too much money at Andy Levitre, but cash aside, he dramatically upgrades the interior of their offensive line. The same can be said for rookie Chance Warmack, who is a road grader in the running game and a polished prospect having played under Nick Saban at Alabama. That said, David Stewart is still recovering from a fractured right leg and Warmack is a rookie. It remains to be seen if this unit is only better on paper, but it's hard to argue that Tennessee didn't upgrade its offensive line this offseason.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams fall into the "winners" category but not without a caveat. Newly signed Jake Long and former big-money free agent Harvey Dahl are both coming off triceps injuries. Rodger Saffold also missed 13 games over the last two years due to various injuries and center Scott Wells had surgery on his right knee back in January. The Rams also must decide on a starter at right guard, as Rok Watkins (one-game suspension), Chris Williams, Shelley Smith and rookie Barrett Jones are all competing at that spot.
But if this group can stay injury-free, there's no question that the Rams have upgraded the talent in front of Sam Bradford. Long must re-discover his 2008-2010 form and Saffold will need to learn the nuances of playing on the right side after serving as the team's left tackle since 2010. But Paul Boudreau is one of the finest offensive line coaches in the NFL and he's had success with much less physical talent over the years.
With Steven Jackson now in Atlanta, St. Louis' offense runs through Bradford and the passing game. We'll have to wait and see if the line can stay healthy but if it does, Bradford, Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Brian Quick will all benefit.
Replacing J'Marcus Webb at left tackle was a win by itself for the Chicago Bears, who signed Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson in free agency and drafted Kyle Long in the first round. But it remains to be seen whether or not Bushrod can play with more consistency and if Long reaches his full potential.
The Jaguars allowed the third-most sacks last year (50) and ranked among the league's worst rushing teams, so adding Luke Joeckel should help. Having a healthy Will Rackley and Uche Nwaneri return to the starting lineup will, too.
The Eagles added the athletic Lane Johnson to the starting five but health is key, as Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis are all returning from various alignments.
The Cardinals had the worst tackle combination in football last year but with the return of Levi Brown and an improved Bobby Massie, the entire unit should be better. Drafting Jonathan Cooper was also key to upgrading the interior of the O-line.
When the Falcons selected Southern Miss offensive tackle Lamar Holmes in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, many believed he would eventually replace former first-round bust Sam Baker on the left side. Instead, Atlanta surprised the masses by releasing Tyson Clabo this offseason despite the fact that he's been their best and most durable offensive lineman. Holmes, who played just seven snaps a year ago, is now viewed as the team's starter at right tackle unless former 2010 third-round pick Mike Johnson can beat him out in camp.
The Falcons also have question marks at center, where 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz is expected to start following the retirement of long-time veteran Todd McClure, and at right guard, where Garrett Reynolds is projected to start after manning the position for six games last year before suffering a season-ending injury.
While this will be the biggest and most physical offensive line the Falcons have had under head coach Mike Smith, it'll also be the most inexperienced group he's ever coached. Despite adding Steven Jackson to an offense that features Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta is taking a huge gamble up front. The good news for the Falcons is that listed among Matt Ryan's strengths is his ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly. That skill set will likely be on full display again in 2013.
The Lions lost former first-round pick Gosder Cherilus to the Colts in free agency and will now rely on either Jason Fox (who is inexperienced) or journeyman Corey Hilliard to start at right tackle. They also lost out on Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson in the draft, as all three came off the board before they picked at No. 5. The Lions did draft Riley Reiff in the first round last year, but they considered playing him at right guard due to his average athleticism and short arms. Now he's expected to protect Matthew Stafford's blindside. While 2013 third-round pick Larry Warford has solid upside, there's always a certain amount of risk that a team takes starting a rookie along the offensive line.
Stafford is on record saying he doesn't believe the Lions will suffer from the changes made up front, but the fact remains that this team will have three new starters along the offensive line, including two new tackles. There's bound to be some drop-off.
San Diego Chargers
It may not be relevant to list the Chargers among the "losers" because it's not as if their offensive line was good last season. But it's worth noting that despite adding three new pieces this offseason, the offensive line hasn't necessarily improved. After allowing the fourth most sacks in the NFL last season, the Chargers signed King Dunlap to play left tackle and reached for D.J. Fluker in the draft. Dunlap has great size at 6'9" and 330 pounds, but both he and Fluker will likely struggle against speed rushers. That's a troubling thought considering both Von Miller and Tamba Hali make their homes in the AFC West. The bottom line is that if you had your doubts about Philip Rivers back in February, nothing the Chargers did this offseason should change your mind.