Perhaps no team bolstered its offensive line more than the Raiders, and for good reason. The 2003 version of the Silver & Sack allowed 43 QB takedowns during the 2003-04 season – nearly two-thirds the combined number of sacks allowed by division rivals Kansas City (21 sacks allowed), Denver (25) and San Diego (29).
Al Davis has had a reputation for coveting great tackles ever since Art Shell donned a Raider uniform. Following the 2004 draft, he needed covet no more – at least for the next decade or so if all goes as planned. Not only did the Raiders land the consensus best player in the draft with the No. 2 overall pick by selecting LT Robert Gallery (Iowa), they also drafted the top center in the draft in Jake Grove (Virginia Tech) with their second-round selection.
The Raiders also signed three-time Pro Bowl offensive guard Ron Stone to help shore up the line. Though Stone’s best days may be behind him, he’ll provide much-needed depth. If only C Barett Robbins can return to his pre-Super Bowl form, this Raiders line could become special in a hurry.
What Denver’s offensive line loses in size, it more than makes up for in quickness and guile. In a day and age when the average NFL lineman outweighs the average black bear, the Broncos’ starting line – the smallest such line in the NFL – uses quickness and smarts to open holes for RBs and to provide a pocket for the QB.
This year's line – with C Tom Nalen, Gs Dan Neil and Ben Hamilton, and T Matt Lepsis – is being touted as potentially its best since Denver's Super Bowl teams in 1998 and 1999 – and that’s saying a lot. After all, last year’s team, which didn’t even make the playoffs, set a franchise record with 2,629 rushing yards, including 4.8 yards per carry (second-best in team history), and allowed only 25 sacks (fourth fewest in team history).
Denver’s only question mark on the offensive line is at right tackle, where 2003 first round pick George Foster – at 338 pounds the biggest Bronco – will be counted on to replace last season’s starting LT Ephraim Salaam, who was cut by the Broncos in a salary cap move. Foster missed training camp last year with a badly sprained ankle and earned only a brief appearance in the team’s regular season finale in Green Bay.
Kansas City Chiefs
The defection of OT John Tait in free agency marked the end of an era for a Chiefs’ offensive line that had fielded the same starting five for 33 straight games. Help is on the way in the persons of C Chris Bober (Giants) and G John Welbourn (Eagles), who’ll battle for Tait’s vacated tackle slot. Second-year OT Brett Williams, a former Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top lineman, could figure in that mix, as well. The rest of the line is ship-shape and should continue to give QB Trent Green and RB Priest Holmes some of the best protection in the league.
San Diego Chargers
To say the Chargers offensive line has a few question marks is an understatement. Eight of San Diego’s 11 offensive linemen from 2003 – including four of their five opening-game starters – are gone. Who will lend support to free agent-signee OG Mike Goff (Bengals), the team’s only lock as a starter? Will projected starters T Courtney Van Buren and G/T Phil Bogle rebound from their respective knee surgeries? Will C Jason Ball, currently a contract holdout, even be in a Chargers uniform? One thing seems certain: rookie QB Philip Rivers’ quick release won’t only be his best weapon this season, it may very well be his best defense.
It really comes as no surprise: as Pittsburgh’s offensive line goes, so do the Steelers. The OL was the anchor of a team that won consecutive division titles in 2001 and 2002, but it fell apart – along with the Steelers’ fortunes – in 2003. Starting RG Kendall Simmons (elbows, right shoulder, adult-onset diabetes), LT Marvel Smith (pinched nerve) and C Jeff Hartings (knees) highlighted Pittsburgh’s list of the walking wounded last season. The result was a passing game that struggled throughout the season and a running game that ranked 31st in the NFL.
But this is 2004, and all three of the aforementioned Steeler linemen feel great. Pro Bowl G Alan Faneca is slated to return to his natural position after covering for Smith at the tackle spot in 2003. If Oliver Ross can continue to improve at right tackle, there’s every reason to believe that the Steelers’ OL can return to its division-winning form. Ross will have to compete for the starting RT spot with Max Starks (Florida), drafted in the third round.
The offensive line that spearheaded RB Jamal Lewis’ phenomenal 2003 season returns intact with the re-signing of tackles Orlando Brown and Damion Cook. Granted, Ravens fans would like to see Baltimore QBs go down fewer than the 2.7 times per game as they did a year ago, but some of this total can be chalked up to growing pains for then-rookie QB Kyle Boller. Health will be especially key for the Ravens, as a lack depth along the interior line is the OL’s biggest concern.
The Bengals lost free agent RG Mike Goff (San Diego), but replaced him with the acquisition of up-and-coming RG Bobbie Williams (Philadelphia). Williams will line up next to Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson, which gives hard-charging RB Rudi Johnson nearly 700 pounds of man to run behind on the right side. Cincinnati also added much-needed depth at center and guard with the signing of six-year veteran C Larry Moore (Washington). The signings allowed the Bengals to select only one offensive lineman – T Stacy Andrews in the fourth round – with their 11 draft picks.
The offensive line was arguably Cleveland’s most glaring weakness in 2003, and the Browns seemingly did little to remedy the matter. Free agent OLs Shaun O’Hara and Barry Stokes both left town to sign with the Giants, moves that open the door for Paul Zukauskas to start at right guard. On a positive note, OG Ross Verba is back after missing 2003 with a torn biceps tendon, and he may be asked to line up at LT. The Browns did sign OG Kelvin Garmon (Chargers) to provide much-needed depth and to possibly fight for a starting spot. Garmon is known as a good drive blocker with a penchant for false starts and holding. Unless this unit plays over its head, it could be another long season for Cleveland QBs and RBs.
What do you do when your offensive line helps to set a franchise record for the fewest sacks allowed and blocks its way to a few yards shy of breaking the team record for rushing yards? If you’re head coach Jack Del Rio, you upgrade. The Jaguars offensive line – the team’s best unit in 2003 – should be even better in 2004. Jacksonville fortified its young, talented and underrated OL with the signings of free agent linemen Mike Compton (Patriots) and Ephraim Salaam (Denver). Salaam will compete for a starting tackle position with incumbents Mike Pearson and Maurice Williams. Compton will vie for a starting spot at one of the guard positions.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the O-line coincided with Fred Taylor’s first full season without an injury. With more of the same from the Jags O-line and Taylor in 2004, Jacksonville may be headed toward the playoffs.
The Colts’ offensive line, long one of the team’s most reliable units, shook off numerous injuries and other challenges in 2003 to produce as Colts fans have come to expect. Even the team’s most durable player, LT Tarik Glenn, missed time for the first time in his career when he lost six games due to a knee injury.
Indy’s big off-season loss was versatile RT Adam Meadows, a starter from 1998-2003 whose contract was terminated in a salary-cap move in the spring. Aside from Meadows, the O-line remains largely intact. Glenn should return to top form at left tackle, and he’ll be joined by Rick DeMulling at left guard, powerful Jeff Saturday at center and Ryan Diem at right tackle. Sophomore Steve Sciullo and four-year veteran Tupe Peko will battle it out for the starting right guard slot.
The Texans’ offensive line made great strides in 2003, reducing their sacks allowed from 76 to 36 and helping rookie RB Domanick Davis rush for more than 1,000 yards. This unit is on the threshold of becoming exceptionally strong in 2004.
Second-year LT Seth Wand continues making strides and will most likely start at left tackle, which would free Chester Pitts to line up at left guard. By pairing Pitts with Zach Wiegert at the guard positions, the Texans will have two guards with starting experience at tackle. Traditional LG Todd Washington will continue to line up at center for as long as Steve McKinney nurses a calf injury.
The newest member of the line, RT Todd Wade (Dolphins), was signed in the off-season and had a strong spring. Wade started 63 games over four seasons in Miami and is slated to replace departed OL Greg Randall (49ers).
Tennessee was expected to shore up it offensive line early in the draft, but with such a thin class of top OL prospects and with no chance of grabbing top-rated tackles Robert Gallery and Shawn Andrews, the Titans added four defensive linemen instead. The Titans did select versatile G/T Jacob Bell (Miami of Ohio) with the 138th overall selection in the fifth round and hope that he can fill in at all three positions in 2004. Key for Tennessee will be improvement from C Justin Hartwig, a natural guard who had an up-and-down first season as a starter in 2003.
New England Patriots
The Pats’ uncertainly on the line extends beyond the losses of G Damien Woody (Lions), who became expendable after the OL performed just fine without him in the Super Bowl, and G Mike Compton (Jaguars). New England hopes to spell Woody with the signing of G Bob Hallen (San Diego), who has made 44 starts in six pro seasons. However, ex-Charger linemen don’t inspire fear in many people these days. LT Matt Light, who has Pro Bowl talent, will be counted on to be even better, but even if he does improve, Pats fans can expect a slight drop in performance for the line this season.
The Bills’ O-line isn’t significantly different from 2003, which doesn’t bode well for QB Drew Bledsoe and company. Buffalo should get continued solid play from tackles Mike Williams and Jonas Jennings, and the signing of RG Chris Villarrial (Bears) will provide a boost, but the other guard spot and the center position are up in the air. C Trey Teague will need to improve, especially with the shotgun snap with which he struggled mightily last year.
The Dolphins will feature a new-look offensive line in 2004. Second-year pro LT Wade Smith is the only returning starter from the 2003 campaign, meaning the ‘Fins will open the season with four new starters – including at least a pair who weren’t even members of the 2003 squad. Smith will line up alongside free agent signee LT Jeno James, who showed great promise in the spring. G Taylor Whitley, considered something of a bust in his rookie year, and G Greg Jerman will compete for the right guard spot. No. 19 pick Vernon Carey may very well beat out journeyman John St. Clair (Rams) for the starting right tackle spot.
New York Jets
The Jets re-signed G Brent Smith and T Kareem McKenzie, but lost G Dave Szott to retirement. New York sought to fill out the interior of the OL with the selections of T Adrian Jones (Kansas) and T Marko Cavka (Cal State Sacramento) with its fourth and sixth picks in the draft, respectively. The selections should send a strong message to incumbent RG Kareem McKenzie, who may not be the long-term solution for which the team had hoped. It’s difficult to see much improvement on a line that had a so-so campaign in 2003, although another season intact, with the exception of Szott, should help.
New offensive line coach Pete Hoener will have plenty of tools at his disposal. Not only does Chicago have a plethora of offensive linemen, but the club also signed RT John Tait (Chiefs) and 8-time Pro Bowl RG Ruben Brown (Bills). The pair has missed a total of one game the past three years, so there should be some consistency there. Health will be especially key, as projected starting RG Mike Gandy was limited by an injury in the spring, and T Marc Colombo’s bum knee may force him into retirement. Gigantic T Aaron Gibson, once labeled a bust as a first-round draft pick of the Lions, had his best season last year and entered the spring as the Bears only proven reserve at the tackle position.
The Vikings O-line should be one of its strong suits once again. All five starters return from a unit that helped Minnesota rank first in the NFL in total offense in 2003 and first in the NFL in rushing in 2002. Nonetheless, the Vikings sought new blood at guard with the selection of OT Nat Dorsey (Georgia Tech) and the signing of undrafted rookie free agent OG Alan Reuber (Texas A&M).
New O-line coach Pat Morris reunites with Lions head coach Steve Mariucci, whom he worked under when both were in San Francisco. During Morris’ seven-year stint with San Francisco, the 49ers averaged 135.5 yards rushing per game, good for second-best in the NFL. Detroit did almost as much as anyone in the off-season to bolster their OL with the additions of Damien Woody (New England) and David Loverne (St. Louis). The selection of OT Kelly Butler (Purdue) in the seventh round will provide much-needed depth. The Lions should improve on their meager 266.4 yards of offense per game, including a paltry 83.6 yards rushing, from a year ago.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s offensive line was arguably the best in the league in 2003, and the re-signing of LT Chad Clifton ensures that the Packers will field the same starting five on the line for the fourth straight year. Clifton will line up with C Mike Flanagan, RT Mark Tauscher, and guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Packer fans should enjoy it while it lasts – both Rivera and Wahle will be due for re-signings after the season and the team is expected to be able to afford only one of the two.
The Falcons hired one of the NFL’s best offensive line coaches during the off-season with the inking of Alex Gibbs, who becomes the new assistant head coach/offensive line coach for the team. Gibbs made his mark in the league molding an undersized unit into a Super Bowl-caliber offensive line during his tenure in Denver, where he built one of the league’s best offensive lines. Unfortunately, Gibbs can’t play tackle, an area in which the Falcons are sorely in need. G Eric Beverly (Lions) was brought on board to compete with Roberto Garza for the starting left guard spot, and the team signed OG Steve Herndon (Broncos) to provide some depth.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ offensive line started to gel down the stretch in 2003, but inconsistency necessitated the need to perform a major overhaul. The Bucs were 10th overall in total offense in 2003, the highest ranking in franchise history (yikes), but they were 24th in rushing and provided little comfort to QB Brad Johnson. Tampa Bay signed four free agent linemen during the off-season, including T Todd Steussie, LT Derrick Deese, G Matt Stinchcomb and G Matt O’Dwyer. Either Steussie or Deese, traditionally left tackles, may end up on the right side. The incumbent OL highest on the endangered species list in Tampa Bay is RT Kenyatta Walker, who has been plagued with inconsistency during his first three seasons in the NFL.
The Panthers’ depth on the line will be tested early with projected starting right G Bruce Nelson shelved for at least a couple of months after undergoing surgery to correct a torn labrum. Nelson was expected to fill one of the starting guard spots following the retirement of Kevin Donnalley, who started every game at right guard for the Panthers in 2003, and the defection of Jeno James (Dolphins). Veteran G Doug Brzezinski, a powerful run blocker who can pass-protect, and newcomer and Travis Claridge (Falcons) are currently slated to man the guard positions. Newcomer OT Adam Meadows (Colts), a versatile G-T, should start somewhere on the line – presumably at a tackle position, and will most likely be challenged mid-season by third-round pick Travelle Wharton (South Carolina). Overall, there should be little, if any, drop-off in play for what remains a team strength.
The Saints solidified the middle of their offensive line by re-signing 16-year veteran C Jerry Fontenot to a one-year contract. In 2003, the Fontenot started 16 games for the Saints for the fifth consecutive season. Fontenot played a major role on an offensive line that helped New Orleans average 125 yards per game. New Orleans also added depth with the signing of Jamar Nesbit (Jaguars), who has started at both guard spots and at center over his five-year career.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are currently in what may be termed salary cap hell, meaning things could get tricky for statuesque QB Tim Rattay in his first full season as starter – assuming he makes it through the season in one piece. San Francisco released two starting offensive linemen, G Ron Stone and OT Derrick Deese. Only LG Eric Heitmann and RT Scott Gragg are expected to be in the same positions as when the 2003 season ended. Despite the salary cap challenges, the 49ers were able to add T Greg Randall (Texans) and G Scott Rehberg (Bengals), who will be asked to step in at guard and tackle, respectively.
The biggest addition to the Cards’ offensive line is new OL coach Bob Wylie. One of the knocks on Arizona’s line in 2003 was that it was too big, often allowing defenders to shoot the gaps and routinely getting beat on pass protection by quicker defensive linemen. Wylie disagrees, stressing improved techniques and a nasty attitude as being the keys to improvement in 2004 despite not bringing aboard any experienced lineman through free agency or trade. Seeking depth on its interior, Arizona drafted C-G Nick Leckey with its sixth-round pick. Leckey may push for a starting spot, but most likely he will be a key sub.
The Seahawks’ offensive line was and should remain one of the best in the league. All five starters return from a year ago, and the only issue could be guys like RG Chris Gray getting long in the tooth. Seattle took N.C. State guard Sean Locklear in the third round in order to counter the age factor. Though Locklear probably won’t start this season, his versatility is sure to be an asset as he played at every position on the defensive and offensive line except center for the Wolfpack. He could get time at either the guard or tackle positions.
St. Louis Rams
No problems here. The Rams outstanding O-line of a year ago returns intact with Pro-Bowlers Kyle Turley, Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman and standouts Dave Wohlabaugh and Andy McCollum. This unit started every game on the offensive line during the regular season and the playoffs. To get picky, the Rams lost a bit of depth with the defections of free agent OT John St. Clair (Dolphins) and OG David Loverne (Lions), and did little to replace them players through free agency or in the draft.
Head coach Andy Reid, a former offensive lineman himself, believes in building from the line of scrimmage on out. That said, it should be no surprise that the Eagles used the draft to upgrade themselves immensely in this area, taking four offensive linemen with their 1st, 4th, 8th and 10th picks, respectively.
In what was considered something of a surprise at the time, Philadelphia selected OT Shawn Andrews (Arkansas) with the draft’s 16th overall pick instead of selecting the best running back available as many expected they would do. Though Andrews, projected as the second-best lineman in the draft, is expected to contribute immediately at tackle or guard, the tackle position was not considered a need by many. That is, until disgruntled OL John Welbourn was traded on day two of the draft.
The Cowboys were desperate for help at the guard and tackle positions, and may have filled those needs in the draft. Head coach Bill Parcels sent a message to his underachieving OL by using the team’s second- and third-round draft picks on T Jacob Rogers (USC) and G Stephen Peterman (LSU), respectively. Both are very physical presences that fit the Parcells mold, and each should push incumbents for playing time as the season progresses.
New York Giants
If the Giants’ offensive line doesn’t improve immensely in 2004, it can’t be said they didn’t try. New York added free agent C-G Shaun O’Hara (Cleveland) to replace Chris Bober at center, and free agent signee Barry Stokes (Cleveland), who can play both tackle and guard, should land a starting spot, as well. OT Ed Ellis (San Diego), an 8-year veteran, should compete for one of the starting tackle positions and will provide valuable backup nonetheless. However, the most important addition – at least for the long haul – is the addition of tough offensive guard Chris Snee (Boston College), the No. 1-rated guard in the draft who was selected by the Giants with the 34th pick. Snee, who is expected to contribute immediately, can also play center. Despite the additions, one area of concern remains the tackle position.
The Redskins used the draft to bolster their offensive line, selecting OT projects Mark Wilson (California) and Jim Molinaro (Notre Dame) in rounds five and six, respectively. Key for Washington will be the make-or-break season of OT Chris Samuels, the third overall selection in the 2000 draft who has struggled the past two years. Overall, it’s difficult to envision much more than average results from a line that did little to either protect the QB or provide running room for ‘Skins backs in 2003.