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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - AFC North
John Tuvey
June 18, 2008
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Baltimore Ravens

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 42 22 1605 100.3 21 3.6 26
2006 17 2 1637 102.3 25 3.4 31
2007 39 21 1623 101 16 4.0 17

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 J.Ogden E.Mulitalo M.Flynn K.Vincent O.Brown J. Ogden    
2006 J.Ogden E.Mulitalo M.Flynn K.Vincent T.Pashos J. Ogden    
2007 J.Ogden J.Brown M.Flynn C.Chester A.Terry J. Ogden    
2008 J.Gaither B.Grubbs J.Brown M.Yanda A.Terry      

The Ravens’ offensive line will look markedly different in 2008, and not just because future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden opted to call it a career. Only one starter from 2007 will return at the same position, and only two players who started last year’s opener are expected to get the same call in 2008. The key will obviously be replacing Ogden, which the Ravens hope to do with Jared Gaither, a fifth-round supplemental pick in 2007. Two classmates will join Gaither in the starting lineup, with first-rounder Ben Grubbs at left guard and third-rounder Marshall Yanda on the right side. Yanda played some tackle last year but is best suited to play guard, and as soon as Adam Terry is all the way back from ankle surgery he’ll take over at right tackle. That means the five projected starters on Baltimore’s line have a combined nine years of NFL experience and 66 career starts; by comparison, the departing Ogden started 176 of 177 games during his 12 pro seasons.

The Ravens’ depth is just as young as its starting lineup. With Terry still slowed during minicamp, Mike Kracalik—a veteran of three NFL games in his two pro seasons—filled in at right tackle. Chris Chester, last year’s starting center, has just two years under his belt and two 2008 draft picks, Oneil Cousins and David Hale, are expected to be the team’s primary backups. In other words, youth is being served in Baltimore.

Enough with the background; what does it all mean for the Ravens’ fantasy prospects? For starters, the insertion of Gaither at left tackle likely means you won’t see Joe Flacco this season unless both Kyle Boller and Troy Smith go down with injuries. The Ravens gave up more than double the 17 sacks they surrendered in 2006, and that was with Ogden in the lineup, albeit hobbled, for 11 games; why subject your future franchise to a potential decapitation thanks to an inexperienced LT? Give Gaither time to get comfortable and then bring Flacco into the mix to avoid another David Carr/Tim Couch debacle. Cam Cameron has experience with this situation, having presided over a Chargers offense that employed a young and still developing offensive line during LaDainian Tomlinson’s first few seasons. The solution? More throws to the backs, which increases the value of Willis McGahee, especially in a PPR league.

On the ground the Ravens have been solid and improving the past few seasons, and last year they bumped their running backs’ per-carry average into the 4.0 range for the first time in three seasons. Baltimore’s linemen are all young and athletic, and the edict from Cameron and new Ravens coach John Harbaugh is that this team will be physical; with an average size of 6-5, 325, that shouldn’t be a problem. This unit has the potential to be dominant, but that’s more likely to happen a couple years down the road; there will be some growing pains this season as they gain valuable experience and learn to work together. However, Cameron has been down this road before and had success, so there’s no need to downgrade McGahee based on the youth and/or turnover along his offensive line.

RUN BLOCKING: B-
PASS BLOCKING: C+
OVERALL GRADE: C+, with serious upside


Cincinnati Bengals

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 21 2 1910 119.4 11 4.2 10
2006 36 19 1629 101.8 26 3.7 26
2007 17 2 1468 92 25 3.9 26

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 L.Jones E.Steinbach R.Braham Bo.Williams W.Anderson W. Anderson    
2006 L.Jones E.Steinbach R.Braham B.Williams W.Anderson W. Anderson    
2007 A.Whitworth S.Andrews E.Ghiaciuc B.Williams W.Anderson      
2008 L.Jones A.Whitworth E.Ghiaciuc B.Williams W.Anderson      

The Bengals have ranked second in the league in sacks allowed twice in the past three seasons, lowering the franchise record to 21 in 2005 and to 17 last season. They’ll have their entire offensive line back, but it may not be intact. With left tackle Levi Jones battling injury at the start of last year the Bengals moved Andrew Whitworth outside and plugged Stacy Andrews in at left guard. Then, when right tackle Willie Anderson went down a month into the season Andrews slid across to the right side and played well enough that the Bengals made him their franchise player this offseason. So, with six players for five spots—and that doesn’t include Anthony Collins, whom the Bengals absolutely stole in the fourth round of the draft—Cincinnati has an abundance of riches. About the only position the Bengals aren’t deep at is center, but offensive line coach Paul Alexander has indicated he wants at least three players capable of handling the position on his roster. That bodes well for Dan Santucci, a seventh-round pick last year who will at least apply some pressure to starter Eric Ghiaciuc. There is also some talke the Bengals are interested in former Brown LeCharles Bentley, who can play center or guard. With Whitworth, a capable left tackle playing inside at guard, and Bobbie Williams the Bengals are set at guard, which Bentley has indicated he would prefer to play.

Even if the injury bug hits again, the Bengals seem well-suited to adapt. Collins has taken all the first-team reps at left tackle during voluntary offseason work, but Jones—who requested a trade in the offseason—was back in his familiar spot once mandatory sessions started. Anderson and Andrews split time with the starters, and Andrews could play guard if the Bengals feel the need to get both talented players onto the field. Scott Kooistra is a versatile backup who could also step in and play without this unit losing much, making the Bengals relatively injury-proof up front.

And considering how well that front has performed in protecting Carson Palmer over the past few seasons—averaging a shade over 1.5 sacks per game allowed the past three years and just one sack per game in 2008—that’s good news for the Bengals passing game. Whether Cincy has Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to throw to or is breaking in some of its younger receivers, Palmer should have more than adequate time to look downfield; no need to downgrade any member of the Bengals passing game based on protection concerns.

The ground game, on the other hand, has been trending in the opposite direction. While Bengal running backs saw their yards-per-carry average trend up slightly last year their rushing yards per game dropped dramatically for the second straight season. Rudi Johnson’s injury and a defense that forced the Bengals to throw can only explain so much; while Cincy’s line adapted well to the revolving door of personnel when it came to pass protection, they struggled to open holes on the ground. Stability would go a long way towards ensuring Rudi (or Kenny Watson, or Chris Perry) bumped that per-carry average back above 4.0, and assuming the Bengals settle on where to play Andrews early on in training camp this group should provide such consistency—unlike a year ago, when 60 percent of the Opening Day line was different than in 2006.

RUN BLOCKING: C+
PASS BLOCKING: B+
OVERALL GRADE: B


Cleveland Browns

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 45 26 1503 93.9 25 3.8 22
2006 54 30 1335 83.4 31 3.6 29
2007 19 3 1766 110 8 4.5 8

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 L.Shelton J.Andruzzi J.Faine C.Coleman R.Tucker      
2006 K.Shaffer J.Andruzzi H.Fraley C.Coleman R.Tucker      
2007 J.Thomas E.Steinbach H.Fraley S.McKinney K.Shaffer J. Thomas    
2008 J.Thomas E.Steinbach H.Fraley R.Hadnot K.Shaffer      

Exhibit 1A why fantasy folks need to pay attention to offensive lines. The front wall had been a weak spot in Cleveland since the team returned to the league in 1999, but last year Phil Savage got serious. The team signed Eric Steinbach in free agency, then used the third overall pick to select Joe Thomas; there’s your left side. Hank Fraley, signed out of desperation when LeCharles Bentley suffered a serious knee injury one practice into his Browns’ career, has solidified the center position—to the point that Bentley, now healthy, asked the Browns to release him so he could seek a starting job elsewhere. The right side is a bit more in flux. Seth McKinney started at right guard last year until a shoulder injury ended his season; Ryan Tucker, fresh off a four-game suspension, filled in admirably but is a more natural tackle—plus, he’s still working his way back from a non-displaced hip fracture. Free agent acquisition Rex Hadnot is in line to start at the moment, but he was signed primarily for his ability to play both center and guard. Kevin Shaffer came over from Atlanta and has been adequate at right tackle, but a healthy Tucker might push him for that gig if Hadnot or McKinney work out at guard.

After that seven-player rotation—which due to injuries isn’t much of a rotation at the moment—the Browns don’t have much depth. Lennie Friedman and Isaac Sowells could be short-term fixes at guard, and Sowells could also slide outside to tackle in a pinch. However, the need for either to see extended action this season would return the Browns to the not-so-glorious days of watching Tim Couch tossed around like octopi at a Red Wings playoff game.

So let’s assume that McKinney is all the way back and Tucker gets there by training camp. Then you’re working with a solid starting five and two versatile and capable reserves. And then the Browns can think about matching last season’s minimalist 19 sacks allowed—one fifth of what they surrendered in the two previous campaigns, and the third fewest in the NFL. Look no further than Thomas & Co. for the reason Derek Anderson emerged as a fantasy force in 2007—dragging Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards with him. That the unit returns essentially intact bodes extremely well for Anderson to live up to the expectations set last year, and for Winslow and Edwards to retain their respective spots amongst the elite fantasy prospects at their positions.

And don’t overlook the line’s impact on the resurgence of Jamal Lewis as well. Lewis posted 4.4 yards per carry, his best effort since his insane 2,066-yard campaign in 2003, and it’s not because he got younger or faster. According to the number-obsessive folks at Football Outsiders, the Browns’ adjusted line yards per carry of 4.62 ranked third in the NFL, and who am I to quibble with one of the few entities as interested in line play as me? While your league may not use ALY as a fantasy category, know that it speaks volumes about the running room the Browns are providing for Lewis. The old-fashions stats concur; Cleveland’s running back per-carry average climbed almost one full yard, and their backs rushed for 27 more yards per game than they did in 2006. With no backup or heir in sight, it will be Lewis once again reaping the benefits of the havoc the Browns’ line wreaks up front. And once again Jamal will be a value-priced fantasy helper because of it.

RUN BLOCKING: B+
PASS BLOCKING: A-
OVERALL GRADE: A-


Pittsburgh Steelers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 32 17 2223 138.9 5 4 12
2006 49 28 1992 124.5 10 4.2 12
2007 47 26 1906 119 5 4.2 13

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 M.Smith A.Faneca J.Hartings K.Simmons M.Starks A. Faneca J. Hartings  
2006 M.Smith A.Faneca J.Hartings K.Simmons M.Starks A. Faneca    
2007 M.Smith A.Faneca S.Mahan K.Simmons W.Colon A. Faneca    
2008 M.Smith C.Kemoeatu J.Hartwig K.Simmons W.Colon      

You don’t lose an All-Pro guard and bounce right back; ask the Seahawks and Bengals how they’ve fared sans Steve Hutchinson and Eric Steinbach, respectively. The Steelers will get to experience the loss first-hand this season after watching Alan Faneca follow the money to New York, where he signed with the Jets. What’s worse is that even with Faneca last season the Steelers’ line underachieved dramatically. How Chris Kemoeatu steps into the void left by Faneca’s departure will certainly impact the Steelers’ fortune, but almost as important is the acquisition of center Justin Hartwig. Sean Mahan failed miserably in his attempt to following the footsteps of great Steeler centers like Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Jeff Hartings, and Pittsburgh hopes Hartwig can turn that around.

The rest of the line returns intact: Marvel Smith at left tackle, Kendall Simmons at right guard, and Willie Colon at right tackle. Max Starks, who started 30 games in 2005-2006, filled in for Smith over the last month of 2007 when Marvel was sidelined with a back injury, but the fact that this group has surrendered 96 sacks over the past two seasons and their sacks-per-pass attempt ranked 31st in the league suggests that the status quo isn’t necessarily a good thing. Worse, Smith enters 2008 in essentially the same position as Faneca in 2007: in the final year of a contract, waiting for the Steelers to make a fair-market offer that doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. As an added kick in the teeth, Smith’s backup, Starks, is making about $2.5 million more than Marvel this year as the team’s transition player. Faneca’s situation didn’t help last year, and Smith’s contract issues could prove equally unsettling this time around. Fourth-round pick Tony Hills could be groomed to take over one of the tackle spots, but he’s a developmental project and not viewed as an immediate helper. Starks, Mahan, and Trai Essex provide experienced depth.

Kemoeatu, while certainly not in the same class as Faneca, should ensure there is little dropoff in ground game production. A 6-3, 344-pound mauler, Kemoeatu’s strength is the power running game—long a Steeler staple. He certainly doesn’t move as well as Faneca, but you would have to believe the Steelers’ staff recognizes that as well and will tailor their play-calling to their personnel’s strength rather than force square pegs into round holes. Despite being viewed as underachieving last season, Pittsburgh’s run blocking was actually quite solid a year ago; their running backs’ per-carry average held at 4.2 yards, and Steeler running backs ranked fifth in rushing yards per game despite their total dropping six yards per tilt from the previous season. Much is made of their lack of rushing touchdowns—a paltry nine, two of them by Ben Roethlisberger—but consider that 11 of Roethlisberger’s 32 touchdown passes came in goal-to-go situations, and that Willie Parker received just 16 carries in goal-to-go situations while Big Ben attempted 24 passes in those circumstances. With Rashard Mendenhall around to spell Parker the Steelers can worry less about the pounding their backs take at the stripe and bring their red-zone offense more in balance.

Such balance certainly plays to the strength of their line, as pass blocking is not their forte. When the Steelers opted not to select an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the 2008 draft, the company line was that providing more weapons for Big Ben would be just as effective as surrounding him with more protection. Interesting supposition, and if the Steelers opt to use Mendenhall as a receiver out of the backfield there’s some credence to the theory. However, for Santonio Holmes to be as effective as many project him to be this season Roethlisberger will need time to throw; 47 sacks last year and 49 the previous season—along with leading receiver Hines Ward’s career low 10.3 yards per reception—suggest he hasn’t been afforded as much. If the Steelers sans Faneca don’t do a better job of protecting Big Ben, home runs to Holmes will be few and far between and he’ll fail to fulfill those lofty fantasy expectations.
           
RUN BLOCKING: B
PASS BLOCKING: C
OVERALL GRADE: C+

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